Making markets accessible to women

How we can transform male-dominated market places to welcome women

Many women cannot access markets. This multifaceted issue helps to perpetuate women’s traditional role as unpaid care workers. It may be seen as socially unacceptable for a woman to physically leave her house. And when she is able to venture out, she may be confronted with a number of threats or even violence getting to the market, and challenges buying or selling food there.

In this module we’ll look at the problems in more depth, and how we can make markets more accessible to improve women’s economic opportunities.

Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of:

  • What makes markets inaccessible to women and why it’s a problem
  • How markets can be made safe and welcoming to women, with the right changes
  • The benefits of access to markets for women living in poverty, and their families and communities
A woman sits in front of produce at a market

In too many places, women are excluded from markets. When women gain access to markets, they can improve many aspects of their lives. Photo: Evgeny Nelmin

Inaccessible markets

When women manage to successfully divide unpaid care work more equally within their families, they may have more time to earn valuable income by putting their sustainable agriculture skills to use and selling the crops they have grown.

But there’s an essential step in this equation that can stop them in their tracks.

Many women can’t access markets. The reasons are varied, and can include:

  • Women not being allowed to leave home
  • Men-only or male-dominated market places where it’s socially unacceptable for women to visit
  • No safe public toilets for women to use
  • Nowhere for nursing mothers to breastfeed
  • Male vendors hostile to women, threatening or perpetrating verbal, physical or sexual violence against them
  • The risk of violence at the market place itself, or when travelling to and from the market
  • Anti-social market opening times which require women to stay out after dark when it is unsafe
  • Male customers who will not buy from women
  • Male customers who lie about or refuse to offer fair prices to women vendors

Saleha’s story

Saleha, 40, is a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh. She wanted to go to market to sell her crops, but faced a number of barriers, including the fear of violence. She had to hear people saying things like:

“You are a woman; women cannot go out of the home.” “You must do the work for the family.” “A woman working in the field, in the open, in front of everybody is dishonourable.”

People refused to buy her products at the market.

“I had to hear sneering words” she said. “Some people say they will not buy things from a woman. They smirk at me.”

Saleha persevered. “My situation is changing, but it is not like all the problems have gone away. At first, only women customers came to buy from me. It made me feel uneasy to go to market. But I never lost my courage.

“I continue my work. Now others come to buy from me as they know I have chemical-fertiliser and pesticide-free vegetables.”

By putting her sustainable agriculture training into practice, Saleha has produced crops that others want to buy. By entering the market, she is claiming her right to access markets.

Creating accessible markets

Women’s exclusion from formal and informal marketplaces is a complex issue, connected with multiple social norms. To address it, we need a variety of structural changes. These could include:

  • Support for women to develop their confidence as part of a group
  • Training so that women can identify and demand fair prices for their goods
  • Education so women can grow more products for sale at market, for a better profit
  • Interventions to make male-dominated spaces less threatening, for example, women’s toilets, private space for breastfeeding, and supportive groups of women so they are not the only woman present
  • Safe transport to and from markets
  • Adjustments to, or support working during, typical working hours which may begin very early in the morning and extend late into the night.

Mavis Gofa, a small holder farmer from agro-based Kawere Ward 4 community in Zimbabwe, with her produce. Photo: ActionAid

The benefits of accessing markets

For too many women, spare time is an unattainable luxury. Their days are filled with cooking, cleaning and caring for others. Without a moment to rest, socialise, take part in the life of their communities, produce extra food for sale or run a business, a woman’s life is often confined to her home.

That’s why access to markets is so life-changing.

Women who have the time to engage in productive or paid work – like growing extra bananas, rice or plantain for sale, like taking in extra sewing work, running errands for neighbours, tailoring or catering – can earn money of their own.

Women might invest in assets such as:

  • Education for their children
  • Health insurance or healthcare for them and their family
  • Energy-efficient stoves, which free up precious time and fuel
  • Water tanks, which save hours each week and allow women to meet not only household needs for washing and cooking, but also to redirect water to irrigate their farms
  • Improvements to their home, including electric light so that children can do homework, they can work on bookkeeping, sewing or other tasks after sunset
  • Tools such as a fodder-cutter, which can cut many hours from their daily workload.

Who can help

The wider community, governments, male relatives, policymakers and local officials all have a part to play in helping women access markets.

Dig deeper

ActionAid’s Gender sensitive access to markets training handbook uses a range of participatory tools to explore how women and local communities can identify the challenges to and potential of market access.

Learning action

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Making markets accessible to women

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