Surviving in the market space

Date: Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Author: Ariela Zibiah

Sunila Wati, 56, from Qalau settlement on the periphery of Rakiraki Town has been a market vendor since 2004 and was one of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association members yesterday who celebrated the officially opening of the market. The first floor houses the women’s 30-bed accommodation centre. Photos: UN Women/Ariela Zibiah

How has COVID 19 impacted Pacific women and girls? As some Pacific island nations reverse COVID 19-related restrictions, states are beginning to shift their focus on rejuvenating their economies. This focus will need to recognize the disproportionate way women and girls are experiencing this global crisis, including impacts such as the increased rates of domestic violence and job losses. 

While Fiji has effectively managed the COVID 19 pandemic with only 18 cases and zero deaths thus far, like other Pacific states with no known COVID cases, the focus is now on mitigation. Expert projections warn of a 4.9 per cent decline of the Fijian economy this year, with projections assuming effective containment of the pandemic and the resumption of tourist arrivals relatively soon. The impact is affecting the supply and transport of goods and services, government revenue and expenditures, businesses and eroding consumer confidence, with people saving more and buying less. 

A COVID 19 Response Gender Working group formed by Fiji’s Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation recently undertook a rapid gender analysis with multiple development stakeholders that included the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office (MCO). The analysis found that 40 per cent of rural women in Fiji work as farmers or as farm labourers. The Working Group’s report, Gendered Impacts of COVID 19 on Women in Fiji noted that most rural women farmers are between 40 and 65 years, and that women however earn 25 per cent less than their male counterparts. The report noted that for 77 per cent of those in retail, vending in markets was their sole source of income. 

Without workplace protections, market vendors are considered vulnerable workers – they work long hours and their income fluctuates on a daily basis. If they are ill, they lose income. Most market vendors do not have enough savings to provide for them during the prolonged crisis that COVID 19 has become. Some 85 per cent of market vendors in Fiji are women, 61 per cent of whom are between 46 and 75 years of age. About 50 per cent of Fiji’s market vendors are selling what they produce (vendor farmers). The report said that 21 per cent of women market vendors remain unbanked; some who resort to moneylenders pay as much as 28 per cent interest for their loan. Market vendors have indicated that they are suffering from reduced trade due to COVID 19. 

COVID 19 is intensifying underlying inequalities in our economy, with women being hit hardest through the economic and health crises. Both vendors and farmers have experienced significant income reduction and loss of livelihoods due to a range of factors including reduced market hours, reduction in customer demand and increased transportation/logistics costs. 

Women vendors or farmers are having to deal with increased economic vulnerability due to limited savings, pension contributions and access to financial resources. COVID-19 has brought to the fore food security and nutrition issues. Women vendors also face a greater risk of gender-based violence. 

The Gender Working Group report recommended interventions, underlining the importance of ensuring sex, disability and age disaggregated data. It is important that long-term economic recovery plans include actions which address gender inequalities. Such plans should have hard targets for women’s participation and incentives to stimulate their interest in potential growth areas. 

The report recommends the maintenance of helplines for women and children who may be experiencing domestic violence. Women must be included in discussions and decision-making about response and recovery. The report recommends that social measures being introduced as part of our response are informed by realities on the ground and that the care economy (childcare, disability care, elder care, etc) needs to be recognised.

For women in the informal sector, the report recommended a one-off unconditional cash transfer to support basic needs, income support for women for at least three months; pandemic (carers) leave of up to 21 days to care for their sick family members; a month’s supply of food and hygiene supplies or vouchers; access to finance via government-backed guarantees; and for those who may have loans from micro-finance institutions, a deferment of repayments by at least six months may be best. 

Keeping food on the table

Varanisese Maisamoa, the President of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association, suggests the prioritisation of cash or grant support and psychological support for women vendors as two forms of immediate relief. Ms Maisamoa said the cash grants would keep their businesses afloat.  Psychosocial support would address the stress that women are experiencing as they worry about feeding their families while trying to survive as businesswomen, Ms Maisamoa said. 

Rakiraki is on the north-western coastline of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu.  With hotels around Rakiraki shutting down, there is now no market for selling her handicrafts. This has forced her and other vendors to travel to larger markets, just to make ends meet. 

“I’m now back to selling vegetables. I travel to Suva on Thursdays to sell them. I stay there until I’ve sold everything. I let my relatives know the days I will be at the market, so they come and buy. If we sit in Rakiraki, most of these vegetables will go into the bin. But in going to other markets, we are spending more and a cash grant would help our business keep afloat,” Ms Maisamoa said.

Apart from supporting transport costs to other markets in the hope of making some money, a cash transfer would also support additional expenses. In addition to rent and bills, Ms Maisamoa for example has had to buy an internet dongle so two of her children who are attending university, can follow their online modules, research and submit assignments. Ms Maisamoa spends an additional FJ$50 for weekly data replenishment.

As the President of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association, Ms Maisamoa hosted an informal gathering of all women vendors in June, utilising the resource and training centre within the new market complex. The women shared what they were going through, both as businesswomen and as mothers, for whom ensuring there was food on the table was becoming more difficult. For Ms Maisamoa, hearing the shared experiences in a safe space affirmed the need to address mental health.

“As women, we have the burden of ensuring our children have something to eat, apart from other commitments and these weigh on us heavily. I just wanted us to meet. I just wanted us to encourage each other but as I listened, I knew we needed a professional to come and speak to the women,” Ms Maisamoa said. 

“We have become creative in ensuring we remain afloat. The Markets for Change [Project] financial literacy training taught us how to save and how to manage whatever we have. The confidence it instilled in us, where we now see ourselves as businesswomen, makes us determined to survive, we must, but for now, we need help. 

“Women in Rakiraki are resilient, we bounced back after (tropical cyclone) Winston and we will survive this too. However, after Winston, there was demand so we could stay and survive. This time, we have our produce out, but no one is buying. Business has never been so slow. Income has been interrupted and food security has become a real issue.”

Ms Maisamoa said the official opening of the new Rakiraki Market has been positive for residents, particularly women vendors. The market is spacious and clean. She says it gives them a sense of security, of safety. “There is hope in having this new building. It reminds us that one day all this will end and Rakiraki will become a bustling market again, with our residents, tourists and hotel operators returning for their vegetables, handicraft, fish, rootcrops, etc,” Ms Maisamoa said. 

Building better from within markets 

The new market is significantly larger with 307 stalls (180 more stalls than the previous market). The Australian Government, through the UN Women’s Markets for Change Project, invested FJ$3.2 million into this development complementing the Government of Fiji’s investment of FJ$3.1 million. The completion of the new market is a critical step towards stimulating increased economic opportunities in Rakiraki, benefitting all vendors, their families and contributing to rural livelihoods. 

With women comprising 75 to 90 per cent of market vendors in the Pacific, their voices are critical in infrastructure development. Members of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association were consulted throughout the design phase of the market. As a result, the market has enhanced amenities, including a market management office, improved water and sanitation, ventilation better lighting and more importantly, is disaster-resilient – it can withstand flooding and is Category – 5 cyclone resistant. The new market building also has space for the municipal council to develop commercial offices as a source of revenue.

For UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office, Markets for Change is a project that addresses the key challenges that COVID 19 is presenting for women working in the informal sector.  The project supports women market vendor associations advocate for improved working conditions, it provides training support and linkages to financial literacy, business skills and financial services. The Project works with market management, government and development partners to ensure that markets are safe and disaster-prepared, resilient places to work. The project immediately provided support in response to COVID 19 through the provision of guidelines for managing markets safely as well as supporting markets and market vendors to implement safety and health measures that enabled markets to stay operating during the COVID 19 period.  This measure ensured that markets could stay open and women’s livelihoods could continue to be supported, providing much needed income to vendors and their families.

“Like a marketplace which is really an intersection for a community, this project intersects key priority areas for gender equality  including supporting strong women leaders through the building of strong market vendor associations that advocate for improved working conditions for market vendors; economic empowerment through financial literacy and small business skills and services; working with market management to improve markets; ensuring marketplaces and market vendors are prepared for disasters, safety and security, and in infrastructure, building markets like this one here in Rakiraki,” Sandra Bernklau, the UN Women Representative in the Pacific said after the official opening of the Rakiraki Market on June 2 (2020). 

“The Markets for Change project is also important because it reaches women that more traditional projects do not reach – women from rural areas and those working in the informal sector. Market are where the Pacific buys its food. Markets are sources of food security, economic activity and livelihoods that are critical to small island economies. When markets prosper, so do communities.”

Women vendors and farmers are key to food security and markets contribute significantly to families, communities and to state revenue through market fees. Markets also act as social “safety nets” as they create a space that allows people to earn a living, if they have lost other income opportunities.  As a common space where we converge as Pacific communities, marketplaces can be effective platforms for building back our livelihoods. 

Keeping Pacific marketplaces open will be critical for women market vendors like Vara, and critical for addressing the long-term economic impacts of COVID 19 on Pacific families. We have evidence of the disproportionate way women and girls are experiencing this global crisis, intensifying underlying inequalities in our economy. We also have expert advisories on how best we can approach the multifaceted impact of COVID19, considerate of the realities on the ground. 

While the nature of COVID-19 precautionary measures we are taking nationally, regionally and globally add to increasing socio-economic uncertainties, the resilience of the women vendors we work with have been remarkable. Lessons from past training sessions provided before COVID19 has seen increasing diversification of their part and some like Vara, have relocated. 

Keeping our marketplaces open has never been so important. It remains a space of economic activity and a central platform from which COVID19 recovery and response can continue to be effectively provided.

Markets for Change is principally funded by the Government of Australia’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development (Pacific Women) program, and since 2018 the project partnership has expanded to include funding support from the Government of Canada. UNDP is an implementing partner.

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This article was first published in The Fiji Times on 14th July, 2020