Maternal and Child Health

What Motherhood Means To Female Street Vendors

Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states;

“Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children…shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Other supporting International conventions include;

  • Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Article 11 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

However these conventions are standard, assuming some sort of equality. Labor laws in Kenya adequately protect the family setting as well, but mostly in the context of formal employment. Family welfare of casual workers is largely ignored.  As some women enjoy spending time with their newborns on paid maternity leave,[1] others have no option but to bring their three month old babies to the streets. While babies are learning to walk in the comfort of their homes during the day, others are slowly learning how to tactfully run from city askaris. These are just a few observations from the analysis of a particular group of mothers in Nairobi.

Lack of a better alternative

A conspicuous occurrence in the city of Nairobi is that most female street vendors go to work with their babies. They are less than three years old. You will see them playing along dusty streets during the day or asleep on their mothers’ backs. Trade continues until night hours.

At around 5 p.m one afternoon, I stride along Tom Mboya Street, one of the city streets notorious for hawking. After purchasing a pack of twenty oranges at KES 200 (2USD), the vendor agrees to answer my queries. Her name is Betty, twenty five years old.  The baby on her lap is eight months old while the one playing with the oranges next to her is three years old. She tells me that she is a single mother living in a slum in Kariobangi, one of the informal settlement areas of Nairobi. She brings her two children to work in the streets because she does not have anywhere or anyone else to leave them. They are not old enough to go to school and yet are too young to be left alone. She carries them to the market at 7 a.m. in the morning and stays with them in the streets until she heads back home at 10 p.m. in the night.

No sooner am I finished with Betty than I abruptly see the women pack their products in a hurry. Somebody has yelled ‘Kanjo! Kanjo!,’ the local lingo for the city county askaris, who are mandated to arrest traders hawking illegally. Hawking is illegal in some streets according to the Nairobi city county by-laws. Suddenly the trading vicinity is replaced by a chaotic scene. Oranges, onions and tomatoes are flying everywhere. Babies are screaming from the backs of their mothers who are running for safety in all directions. Some women are trying to use their babies to shield themselves from the askaris. Two of the women are not lucky enough. I watch sadly as they are forcefully lugged into the kanjo vehicle without any regard for the toddlers they are holding. I do not even want to imagine how they will spend the rest of the night in a brutal cell.

After engaging with the women for several days, I gather;

  • Most are single mothers.
  • They feel bad exposing their children in the streets.
  • They wish they had a better alternative.

Minimum welfare conditions

Unlike these female hawkers in the streets, a majority of women in formal employment can afford to hire nannies to take care of their babies when they go to work.

It is certainly impossible for women to achieve equal economic status and treat motherhood equally. However it is possible to ensure some minimum welfare conditions that should at least ease motherhood for all mothers and provide a safe environment for their babies to grow. Services such as health care and basic education are provided by the government free of charge or at subsidized costs in informal settlements. Likewise, it would be noble to have free day care services in the same settlements, where casual workers can safely leave their children when they go to work. A trade union specialized for the welfare of such working mothers could also help to articulate their grievances and enforce their rights in a more pugnacious manner.

In order to uphold the universal right to family and best interests of the child, there is certainly need to safeguard the rights and interests of all mothers without discrimination.


Askaris: The Swahili word commonly used to refer to policemen in Kenya

[1] Section 29 of the Kenya Employment Act 2007 states; “A female employee shall be entitled to 3 months maternity leave with full pay.”

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Category: Maternal and Child Health    Rights
Tagged with: Child health    Motherhood