Evictions & sexual harassment and livelihood loss affect women street vendors: Survey Covid19 Lockdown

Thrice oppressed, women street vendors have turned to exhausting personal savings for survival besides bearing the overarching burden of household chores reveals this survey by ISST-Janpahal in Delhi

street vendor

Gender disparities sharpen during calamities and conflicts making the burden worse. So it has been for the impact of the Covid19 pandemic lockdown. While migrant labourers and workers from the unorganised sector in general have been utterly ignored by the policy making of this government, women from this sector have it worse. Many have been evicted from their homes, have lost their jobs and face an uncertain impact on their livelihoods. 

Women working in the unorganised sector, street vendors and daily wagers including domestic workers, have had to face sharper repercussions after completely losing their livelihoods in the wake of the pandemic. Apart from losing incomes and being evicted from homes, they face the additional threat of sexual harassment.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017-2018), 54.8 percent female workers were involved in the non-agriculture, 72.3 percent of them had no written job contract, 50.4 percent of the salaried workers were not eligible for paid leave and 51.8 percent were not eligible for any social security benefit. A study by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WEIGO) quoted the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) 2019 figures which revealed that of the approximately 300,000 street vendors in Delhi, around 30 percent are women.

The impact of the pandemic and its aftermath on women street vendors has been foregrounded through a recent study conducted by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) and Janpahal. The study aims to understand the impact of the lockdown on paid and unpaid care activities of women workers and also the impact on access to essential resources and services.

Overview on street vendors

The study highlights findings that the street vending economy approximately has a parallel turnover of Rs. 80 crore a day and as self-employed entrepreneurs, street vendors are part of a “low-circuit” economy. According to the estimates by the National Hawkers Federation, 50 percent of the vendors sell food and at least 35 percent of all the fruits and vegetables sold in urban and remote areas are sold by these vendors.

There are roughly 2 crore (recent numbers estimate closer to 4 crore) hawkers in India. 1/3rd of this population consists of women street vendors who mostly sell their wares in weekly haats/ streets/ roadside stalls or by helping their families / husbands in the back-end work.

The street as a workspace for women is doubly insecure, with them being more vulnerable to the constant threat of sexual harassment. In a telephonic interview while the story was being conducted, a woman vendor responded, saying, “Do you think as a woman I can go around selling vegetables on the cart? Mobility is not possible for a woman.”

Findings of the study

The study was formulated after a telephonic survey with around 35 women workers in the sector. As many as 71.1 percent of the respondents were married and 22.9 percent were widowed. Most of the street vendors in the sample study belonged to the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal and were dependent on the daily wages that they earned from street-vending.


Street vending is generally possible in urban India in crowded markets; no wonder that the impact of the lockdown has worst hit this sector. According to the study, 97.14 percent have had a severe impact on their incomes with those running tea stalls, or putting up their wares at weekly markets (haats) having to completely shut down during the pandemic. Only those selling fruits and vegetables, essential items during the lockdown, have continued to sustain as 98 percent of all fruits and vegetables in urban areas are sold through a network of street vendors.

Fear of contracting the disease was the biggest reason for women, at least 88 percent of the respondents, not being able to continue work.

The other problems faced by women vendors were that wholesale markets had been difficult to access during this time and those 20 percent previously engaged in selling miscellaneous items had also shifted to selling fruits and vegetables to earn a living, leading to a chaos in wholesale markets.

Furthermore, as a woman vendor told ISST-Janpahal, vendors were allowed to sell items only during designated times of the day, one hour in her area – from 4 PM to 5 PM. This caused issues as many not many customers showed up during that time to purchase vegetables, due to which their incomes dipped to around Rs. 50 to Rs. 100 per day. Those without vending carts were especially at a disadvantage as they had restricted access to customers. These women street vendors also faced harassment by the police and 6 percent of the respondents attributed the loss in income due to mobility restraints or police patrolling during the lockdown.  About 3 percent of the respondents attributed the loss of work due to their wages being denied or withheld by employers.

Immediate impact

Impact on paid work

Most of the street-vendors have been evicted from their rented homes by landlords as they are unable to pay rent due to the dip in incomes.  As many as 54 percent of women workers interviewed for the study had taken loans to sustain themselves during the lockdown and out of those, 37.1 percent have been unable to repay the loans. The cash transfers through Jan Dhan or pensions have not been enough for them to suffice. Also with most of their bank accounts and other government IDs like Aadhaar cards being linked to the village, most of them lose out on their benefits. A member of Janpahal informed that many street vendors did not have ration cards or any other government documents to avail the subsidised/free food services and information regarding e-coupon for non-ration cardholders was limited.

Thus, a majority of the women vendors are using up their personal or household savings to sustain themselves and their families. One respondent shared her experience of her family using up the savings kept aside for her daughter’s wedding to help them sustain the loss of income.

Impact on unpaid work

For women who were engaged in unpaid work, the travails were especially severe with 21 respondents not getting any support from family members in sharing household chores and the care burden. A respondent said, “There is no lockdown for a woman. Earlier if we used to make tea 2 times, now it is 4 times a day.” Some of the respondents that said they did receive help (10 respondents) said other female members of the family provided it. Only 7 respondents stated that a male family member / husband contributed to the chores.

Accessing cooked food from relief camps too was an additional responsibility the women had to shoulder. A Janpahal member explained, “For instance – as the food gets distributed at 12p.m, they have to reach the camp/school by 10 a.m. to stand in the queue. If they have young children at home, they are compelled to leave them behind which becomes difficult.”

Impact on access to essential resources and services

It was found that a majority of women respondents procured food from the Public Distribution System Shops (PDS) and the government canteens providing free ration, apart from availing the extra 2 kg of ration provided by the government. About 2.85 per cent respondents said that they accessed cooked food distributed by the government and there was a long queue while availing the same. They also said the quality of food was quite minimal.  Women with young children faced more difficulties as the ration from the PDS shops contained only rice, wheat and dal, but not food for infants.

Furthermore, another challenge the women faced in accessing food was standing in queues with other men / elders which was viewed as culturally inappropriate.


Based on their findings, the ISST and Janpahal have made recommendations, which include the urgent need to generate work for this sector, to stop retrenchment, to ensure wage security, to support MSMEs and to provide access to regulatory tools so that workers can recover themselves from the impact. The report also recommends that the street vendors be given health insurance to preserve their rights of a dignified livelihood.

The most significant recommendation includes the proper implementation of the Street Vendors Act (2014). The Act promotes the regulation of street vending as a livelihood opportunity for vendors by designating vending areas and by statutorily providing for registration of vendors for access to protection and social security benefits. Also, the licensing of street vendors is imperative to ensure that the livelihoods of street vendors are secured.  The entire study by ISST-Janpahal may be read below.


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