Women tea sellers struggle against odds

On a quiet street in Emina el Bahri, a small town just 10 km from the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Sada Adam sits on the porch of a small shop and sells cups of tea to the locals.

After a long working day, she will have made only US $4 with which she will attempt to feed her four children. "This life is very difficult. But what can I do? There is no other way for me to make money," said Adam.

The sole supporter of her children since her husband left for Darfur two years ago, Adam works from early morning to late in the evening, seven days a week.

"They [local police] come and take all of my tools. They take my pot, stools and spoons and destroy them," she said.

The streets of Khartoum and surrounding areas are full of women who sell tea in the doorways of local shops, behind buildings and under trees. Most of them are internally displaced people, uprooted from their home areas by Sudan's civil wars.

Some are refugees from neighbouring war-torn countries, while others have been divorced or widowed and, due to lack of education, have no other means of fending for their children.

According to Samia El Hashmi, co-founder of Mutawinat, an organisation established to provide legal aid to poor women, the tea sellers are frequently harassed by local police for not having licences.

"The main problem is they don't have licences, but they don't realise they should have a licence. Also, they have to pay money for licensing and medical inspection, but these women are starting from scratch, they don't have money to offer for all these things," Hashmi told IRIN.

In order for the women to get established they have to buy the ingredients to make the tea, as well as pay a licence fee of 5,000 dinars (US $20). They are also required to undergo medical tests to prove they are free of contagious diseases. The medical certificate costs another 5,500 dinars ($22).

The tea vendors must also be able to provide proof of residency and pay a garbage collection fee of an additional 5,000 dinars a month. The cost of all those requirements is immense for someone who can only, at the best of times, make $120 a month.

"These women are not educated so they can't take other jobs. They live in the shantytowns or camps. They can only support their families by selling tea," said Hashimi.

The punishment of selling tea without a permit is a 5,000-dinar fine or 15-30 days in jail. For many women the only option is to run from the law.

In the busy streets of Khartoum, the public order agencies in coordination with the social welfare department in the Ministry of Social Planning have taken to what is known as kasha, or campaigns that involve gathering tea sellers in groups once a month and taking them to prison.

Roselidah Ondeko, team leader for gender-based violence of UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA), explained that this was because of the negative reputation that tea sellers have throughout Africa for being associated with commercial sex workers.

A situation analysis and behavioural survey assessed by Sudan National Aids Control Programme (SNAP) in 2004, indicated that only one percent of the 512 tea sellers who participated in the survey were working as prostitutes. Thirteen of the 512 tea sellers tested for HIV/AIDS were positive.

The survey further indicated that 61 percent of the women selling tea could not read or write, with 32.5 percent having only received basic schooling and 11.8 percent having received intermediate or secondary education.

VULNERABILITY

Musa Bungudu, country coordinator for UNAIDS, said the tea sellers were part of the "vulnerable populations in Sudan" because of their lack of education and low income. He stressed, however, that it was best not to assume they were commercial sex workers.

"In many places in Khartoum, there will be one tea seller every 100 meters and 90 percent of their customers are men. But their exposure does not make them [commercial sex workers]," he said.

Bungudu pointed out that - as most places of business required interaction between both males and females on a continual basis in public areas - it provided a good opportunity to educate people about the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"Where do you see a women selling tea? Usually they are in an open space with many people passing by. This is why we thought it a good idea to put posters where they are working with information about HIV/AIDS and also to educate tea sellers so they could educate their customers," he added.

The survey had also indicated that only 48 percent of the women were aware that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted through sexual intercourse and that only 8.9 percent had ever even seen a male condom.

For the most part, the Sudanese people are supportive and sympathetic to the women who have had to take to selling tea on the streets.

In a local newspaper, Al Ray Al Aam, a Sudanese columnist, Samia Ali, recently criticised the "harsh campaign carried out against the women selling tea", saying it was "unfair" and "unsuccessful".

"These women support families and face difficult conditions after losing the head of their family for various reasons," Ali wrote.

Hashimi said that local organisations had arranged workshops for the women to educate them on ways to sell in open markets legally.

A local Sudanese man said: "Most of us don't mind them being here. We appreciate the service that they provide, but when the women get involved in the ugly side of the business ... that is when they have no support from us or security."

Angela (who preferred to remain anonymous), a mother of two, who began selling tea on the streets of Khartoum after being displaced by the civil war in the south, said: "I have two small children and no one to help me. If I don't do this, then we don't eat."