Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Commodities and Competition: The Economic Marginalization of Female Food Vendors in Northern Mozambique

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Commodities and Competition: The Economic Marginalization of Female Food Vendors in Northern Mozambique

Article excerpt

Street vending and petty trading activities form the essential core of informal economic sectors in developing nations. These activities allow individuals to generate income with minimal investments of financial capital and without requiring large quantities of human capital, such as education. Because of the relatively low status of this work and its perception as an extension of gendered caregiving roles, it is often considered "women's work." However, as I note, "Disasters create new sets of opportunities and challenges by altering social dynamics in the markets through increases in competition and shortages of certain goods and services" (Companion 2010,204).

In areas of Mozambique, poverty has deepened as a result of displacement from the civil war, a stagnant internal labor market, the loss of staple crops resulting from the proliferation of cassava brown streak disease and drought, and a reduction in wage labor opportunities across the border in South Africa. This is channeling men into petty trading activities in larger numbers. Agadjanian argues that this is forcing a de-gendering and re-gendering of the workplace (2002b, 329). As a result, some coping mechanisms and income-generating strategies of female street vendors have been constrained while other opportunities have increased.

In peri-urban and urban areas in northern Mozambique, this pattern has been particularly prevalent. Employing a common coping mechanism, large numbers of people have emigrated from rural to urban centers to escape the widespread food insecurity. However, the limited number of wage labor positions has left men and women vying for niches in the informal economic sector. Income-generating strategies are essential because, as Levin et al (1999) point out, urban livelihood struggles are characterized by a greater dependence on cash incomes. The most significant expenditure in all the areas studied is for food or resources related to food processing, such as cooking fuel Thus, rapid population growth coupled with poverty creates opportunities for urban street vending to increase in visibility and prevalence (Companion 2007; Fonchigong 2005).

People engaged in wage labor increasingly need to purchase precooked foods because of time constraints on their own food preparation activities (Fonchigong 2005, 244). Levin et al. (1999, 1978) find that women involved in wage labor sectors devote greater amounts of their food budgets to purchasing processed and convenience foods and snacks and meals available from street food vendors. This expands some opportunities for female vendors.

However, over the course of this complex crisis, a split has emerged in the labor patterns of men and women in this informal sector. Men have become increasingly involved in petty trading activities; women have been pushed even further into the economic and social margins of Mozambican commerce. Not only have men taken over a traditionally "female" occupation, but also, their participation patterns have resulted in the increasing marginalization of women. Interviews in northern Mozambique indicate that women have been relegated to the lowest status forms of commerce - selling precooked foods, such as pounded cassava or nshima^ and sauces made with cassava leaves, beans, fish, or vegetables. Echoing Agadjanians findings of asymmetrical opportunities for men moving into traditionally female-dominated occupations, the men in this study have taken over the informal trade in higher-status and higher-profit items such as sorghum, maize, sugarcane, pepper, sesame, and cashews (2002a, 330).

This study presents certain challenges that female street vendors face in the changing labor landscape of northern Mozambique. Forty-two female food vendors were interviewed in urban and peri-urban areas in northern Mozambique in 2004. To balance their perspectives, twentythree male food vendors and fifteen bottle shop owners were also interviewed. The data indicate the importance of gossip and innuendo as forms of social capital for female street food vendors, who employ them as a tool to reduce competition in contested vending areas. …

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