In India, there are an estimated 11.9 million street vendors of which 1.2 million are women. They are informal workers with low, irregular sources of income (daily wages), are often migrants who reside in informal urban settlements, have limited access to social security benefits, and often face harassment from municipal bodies and the police. Women also experience lower levels of education, limited access to sanitation facilities at work, heightened vulnerability to gender-based violence, and a greater burden of unpaid care work at home.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, India suffered the second highest number of cases in the world and implemented stringent lockdown measures. Many women street vendors lost their primary source of income with little notice, and those who were the sole or chief wage earners in their families were severely impacted. Although the pandemic is no longer classified as a global health emergency, its lingering effects continue to negatively impact their lives and livelihoods.
ICRW found that street vendors experienced a drastic loss in income and employment during the pandemic. This led to depleted savings, reduced food consumption, and heavy borrowing, often at high interest rates, to make ends meet. Many continue to face severe debt. Their economic precarity was further exacerbated by their informal status. For example, limited possession of official documents, such as ration cards, meant that they could not access government subsidised food grains. Women faced additional challenges, such as difficulty accessing sexual and reproductive health services, as health services had been rerouted to deal with the pandemic. They also faced increased violence during their commute and at work, including verbal abuse and physical assault by police, which can be partly attributed to the mobility and transport restrictions imposed during lockdowns.
ICRW’s research has helped grassroots organisations, who work directly with street vendors, become more sensitive and responsive towards the specific needs of women.
In July 2022, ICRW convened six organisations and shared emerging findings about the specific challenges faced by women street vendors and how these negatively impact their livelihood opportunities compared to male street vendors. These challenges include fear of sexual harassment, lack of access to toilets and water at work, the burden of domestic care work, and intimate partner violence.
The event was attended by representatives from the National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI) and highlighted the vital importance of having and collecting gender segregated data as part of NASVI’s work. NASVI’s Head of the Street Food Program, Sangeeta Singh, commented: ‘ICRW’s research has given us a new perspective on how gender is central to the issue of street vendors and has encouraged us to work in that direction’.
NASVI, which represents 528,645 members from 888 organisations across 25 Indian states, subsequently invited ICRW to conduct a workshop with approximately 50-60 of their programme staff to help them integrate a gender perspective in their work. By presenting findings from the research and undertaking a participatory experience-sharing exercise with the group, ICRW highlighted the criticality of bringing a gender and social inclusion lens to NASVI’s frontline work.
It also emphasised the need for women street vendors to be able to articulate and assert themselves in front of male street vendors and government officials. To this end, ICRW recently conducted capacity building sessions for over 100 women street vendors who are members of the Town Vending Committees (TVC) in different states. The sessions built their confidence to attend TVC meetings more regularly and express their needs and concerns effectively, in the presence of male members of the committee.
Banerjee, P.; Sharma, S.; Suri, M.; Howlader, A. and Nanda, S. (2022) Informality and the Pandemic: Lives of Domestic Workers and Street Vendors in Delhi During Covid-19: A Rebuild Formative Research Report, New Delhi: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
- Nanda, S.; Sengupta, N.; Anand, S.; Sharma, S. and Seth, K. (2021) Covid-19 Policies and Women in Informal Work in India — A REBUILD Scoping Report, New Delhi: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
- Pillai, S. et al. (2022) India’s Policy Response to Covid-19 and the Gendered Impact on Urban Informal Workers in Delhi NCR : A Policy Landscaping by The Quantum Hub and ICRW (Asia), New Delhi: The Quantum Hub – International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)