Women’s dreams come true

By Elizabeth Stevens

“I used to be so shy,” says Altoma Abdelrahim. “Now I am courageous.”

Abdelrahim is a Sudanese street vendor. She sits with visitors in Souk El Sha’abe, a market in Khartoum, draped in a traditional thawb, a cloth that covers her loosely from head to toe, and tells the story of her life. Her speaking voice is so deep and mellifluous it could be mistaken for singing, and with it she conveys an unmistakable confidence and pride.

From dependency to financial success

Abdelrahim’s childhood was brief—cut short by early marriage. With no job skills and barely any education, she was completely dependent on her husband for years until she joined a union of women market vendors, an organization for tea and food sellers supported by Oxfam partner SDA (Sudan Development Association) that serves many of those who have fled Darfur and other troubled areas of Sudan.

She took classes and workshops offered by the union and SDA, first learning practical skills like bookkeeping, business management, how to keep foods clean and healthy, and how to expand her cooking repertory beyond a few traditional dishes. With that knowledge, she was able to take out a loan from SDA for 500 Sudanese pounds (around $200), which she spent on equipment and stocks of food, tea, and fuel. The tea and food business she launched has been a success: she has been able to pay her children’s way through school and now has three in college.

But there’s more to this story.

We do not beg for good treatment

Among the many trainings offered by SDA and the union were workshops in reading, writing, and the rights of women—market vendors, in particular. Not long ago, women were forbidden to be street vendors, and they still face harsh treatment from officials who sometimes confiscate their goods and equipment and demand fees they are unable to pay. The women’s union has fought hard—and succeeded—in reversing the worst of the laws, but some vendors are still vulnerable.

Abdelrahim set out to learn about the laws that pertain to women street sellers, and now she is a trainer of trainers on legal issues, leading sessions around the country not only for the vendors but for the government authorities who interact with them.

“I believe in establishing a healthy relationship between the women sellers and government officials,” she says. “We do not beg for good treatment. We take a rights perspective.”

Her message is this: “We know you have a job to do. But there are laws governing this relationship.”

Do the officials listen to what she has to say? Without a doubt. Some of those she’s trained have even joined the union. “They advise us on how to deal with government papers and fees.”

“What women were not able to do before, we have now tangibly achieved,” says Abdelrahim, and smiles. “We are able to make women’s dreams come true.”