The Pulse | Economy | Society | South Asia

The Hope and Struggles of Bhutan’s Women Vegetable Vendors

In recent years, self-reported profits were already on a downward trend at the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu. Then came COVID-19.

By Roderick Wijunamai and Kinley Yangchen for
The Hope and Struggles of Bhutan’s Women Vegetable Vendors
Credit: Facebook/ Centenary Farmers Market

Located just below the main town in Thimphu, on the bank of Wang Chhu, Centenary Farmers’ Market bills itself as the biggest vegetable market in Bhutan. Outside the market, especially on weekends, taxis and private cars congest the roads, struggling to find a parking space. The two-story market is divided into two sections: the ground floor sells vegetables imported from India, while the first floor displays local organic produce. The market is just 12 years old. It was inaugurated in 2008 – by Princess Ashi Dechen Yangzom Wangchuck – to celebrate the monarch’s centenary reign. The market site, within its small life time, has witnessed a gradual change from the previous several seasons, and so also for the vendors there. In this short essay, we offer a peek into the lives of women vendors at the Centenary Farmers’ Market.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), at least 2 billion people, constituting about 61.2 percent of the world’s working population, are absorbed in informal sector employment today. These workers, who enter the informal economy owing to the lack of economic opportunities and other means of livelihood in the formal economy, mostly reside in developing countries. While there are competing claims with regard to the role of informal sector employment in helping to reduce poverty and inequality in the global economy, it cannot be denied that the sector continues to be a refuge for many.

The informal sector covers a wide array of unorganized economic activities —  in commerce, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, transportation, and services. In Bhutan, according to the Labor Force Survey Report 2018, 73.6 percent of the labor force is currently engaged in the informal sector, mainly comprising individuals with low education, rural area migrants, and poor households. Further, within the sector, almost three-quarters are involved in agriculture-related employment.

While on one hand, the informal sector provides jobs and reduces unemployment, in many cases the jobs are low-paid and guarantee little or no security.

In Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, farmers from different parts of the country come to Centenary Farmers’ Market to sell their produce. The market houses about 400 stalls, providing self-employment to both the farmers and vendors alike. Numbers indicate that these sellers are largely women. But why have so many women conglomerated in the market?

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There are two recurring reasons to account for this, which these women themselves cite. First, women are traditionally expected to perform care-work, provide food to the family, do household work, and other “feminine” tasks. And this spills over to the kind of work they do. “I think Bhutanese always have had this culture of females doing these kinds of work,” Tshering said. Regular office works entail fixed (and often long) work hours, and other rigid obligations, and the women who enter the market overcome a lot of barriers and have many obligations. The informal sector gives them a flexible work schedule: both a time to perform their traditional gendered activities, and also a time to earn some money in the hours they can afford to spare.

Second, barriers in education also lead women to this option. While their male friends and siblings go to school, girls were expected to remain home and take care of younger siblings or the elderly. This inequality in access to education continues to date. In 2018, the adult (15 years and older) literacy rate in Bhutan for men was 75 percent, while for women it was 57 percent. This leads to more women being disqualified from formal sector employment, both in the public and private sectors.

Entry into the market has, however, empowered many women, at least to a certain extent. These women have made the best use of the opportunities the Centenary Farmers’ Market has in store for them.

A study conducted by the National Centre for Women and Children showed that violence against women is not uncommon in Bhutan. The report shows that one in every three ever-partnered women experienced an incidence of violence at least once in their lifetime, and more than 50 percent of those women (meaning one in every two) experienced violence twice or more. One of the three main causes of this intimate partner violence was financial stress in the family. To address the issue, the report recommends financial independence for women.

While a lot of research advocates for full financial independence for women to be empowered, these women have a different insight to offer. “My husband consults me about our children’s education; he has to… I also contribute,” Pema said. “We also discuss our saving strategies, and our monthly spending,” she added. Merely being a part of the financial decision-making process of and in the family had empowered women, and lowered the chances of being victims of violence.

Many of the women in the market are prime breadwinners in their families, and some supplement their male counterparts’ incomes. Irrespective of their contributions, these women report displaying a great deal of autonomy in their marriage after becoming vendors and starting to earn money. They also started to schedule their own work time, and could decide what to do on their days off.

This said, not much has changed, however, in terms of sharing their household work. While a few of them report greater gender equality at home, many talk about the pile up of household chores on their day off. “I have to wake up very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 3:00 AM when I have a lot of vegetables to carry to the market,” Lhamo said. “…and every day, before I leave for work, I have to prepare breakfast and pack lunch for my kids and husband.” Even so, these women articulate a greater feeling of satisfaction and confidence, stemming from the contribution they make to their family’s finances.

The testimonies of the women are now laced with strain. While selling vegetables does give them some financial income, for many women, it is not very substantial. Our survey revealed that the average income for each vendor is just about 44,000 Bhutanese ngultrum ($590) a year. This translates into a low lower-middle class income (Bhutan’s median income, according to the National Statistics Bureau, is about Nu. 200,000 a year).

For the past few years, their average income has been dwindling, as our survey also revealed. The women vendors reported a drop in their real income. They fear it might drop even further with the regular pay hikes in the government sector, and the increase in competition in their market. But on any given day, they have very few options to choose from. Many of them feel selling vegetables was the only job they could do. “There are too many vegetable vendors in the market, and that makes profit making difficult. But as an uneducated person what other option do I have? We have to rely on this type of work to earn our living,” Pema sighed.

A common grievance among women vendors was the increase in the number of vegetable vendors in the market and adjacent areas, and consequently the reduction in profits over the last few years. More than any other policy suggestion – even more than improved sanitation, accessibility, and storage – they want the government’s intervention in keeping the number of vendors as it is, or even reducing it. Many of them feel licensing vegetable vending would help solve their problem.

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Interestingly however, some of the women reasoned that there were problems with that approach as well: “Even if vegetable vendors needed to get a license to sell at the Farmers’ Market, many who cannot obtain a license would simply skirt the issue by selling their vegetables somewhere else. The state then, in an effort to help the vendors in the Farmers’ Market, will also have to inconvenience sellers of the secondary informal sector.”

The city of Thimphu had already witnessed a similar attempt at this. When the Thimphu Thromde (a second-level administrative division in Bhutan) banned vegetable vending in Norzin Lam (one of the streets in Thimphu), rather than complying with the direction, these secondary informal sector vendors and their supporters retaliated, calling the Thromde “anti–GNH” (Gross National Happiness). This outcry was apparently quite loud on social media. These vendors comprised of individuals who could not get a permanent selling location in the Centenary Farmers’ Market, and as a result resorted to selling their produce in the streets.

Increasing the stakes is the steady increase in competition coming from department stores, shopping marts, and/or e-commerce, with doorstep delivery now in fashion. “On every intersection and streets in the city, big shops are now selling vegetables; and customers who otherwise come to us find it more convenient to buy their vegetables from there,” Tenzin said. “These shops have made life very convenient for customers who need to do grocery shopping quickly and in lesser amounts,” she added. Many of these shops have staff on payroll, pay regular taxes, and keep established lines of supply and distribution. The costs of having these components is offset by the volume of trade and profit margins from other products the shops carry. They very easily outperform the informal sector in pricing their products.

Now with the COVID-19 crisis, and the accompanying changes in market scenes, what changed for these women?

Bhutan is among the few countries that has handled the COVID-19 situation with sufficient care. To date, there have been only 77 cases (mostly from students and returnees), of which 62 have recovered, and zero deaths. Yet, businesses did not go unaffected, and especially informal businesses.

“Corona has affected all of us, and to me as a vegetable vendor,” Sonam said. “Bhutan cannot produce vegetables on large scale, and we import a lot of vegetables from India via Phuntsholing. But the government has imposed restrictions on importing certain vegetables; with the limited local [Bhutanese] suppliers, it has become increasingly challenging for us to maintain stock.”

Already under strain, faced with competition coming from both within and outside the sector, the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated these women’s situation. Many of their earnings are halved, and their work time has been reduced (although this was set to change starting July 1). The public panic and “stay at home” campaign has decreased the number of customers they get on a normal day.

Despite their plight, for these women, their hopes are relentless. “Even if I earn less,” Tshering maintained, “I will continue doing this.”

Roderick Wijunamai teaches in the Department of Social Sciences, at Royal Thimphu College. Kinley Yangchen is a student of Political Science and Sociology at Royal Thimphu College.