Staying safe is a full-time job for women in Africa’s gig economy

As more women join the gig economy, especially during the pandemic, they are finding that they have to shoulder the burden of ensuring their own safety. …

This story is part of a series with Quartz Africa and Caribou Digital that focuses on women in the gig economy in Africa.

Now more than ever, women in Africa are using online platforms as a critical source of income.  Africa’s e-commerce giant Jumia recently announced that 51% of the vendors on its platform are women and represented 33% of the total value of merchandise sold between 2019 and 2020. Africa’s ecommerce sector was valued (pdf) at $20 billion in 2020 and is estimated to grow up to $84 billion by 2030.

A study in Nigeria, Kenya, and Cote d’Ivoire found that there are more women-owned businesses on social media (61%) than men’s (51%) and this is attributed to low entry barriers. Women have also joined ride-hailing platforms as drivers, breaking structural barriers in a sector dominated by men. And many young women on the continent are providing professional services on freelancing platforms and on-demand labor platforms. Globally, four out of ten workers on online and web-based platforms worldwide are women according to the ILO.

However, this move to platform work for women presents its own set of challenges with a key one being safety. Safety concerns for women in the online world unfortunately mirror those that women face everyday in the real world.

Olivia, a Nairobi based delivery person who also worked as a ride-hailing driver for two years—both on bikes and carssays, “Some customers pretend that they are afraid of the motorbike and they hold you and in the process, they start caressing you. They take advantage and sexually assault you.”

On top of that, Olivia says she stops riding at 7pm for fear of being physically assaulted while on the job.

Safety concerns for women online mirror safety concerns in real life

Bama Athreya, an expert on platform labor and gender equity writes in Bias In, Bias Out, “The platform economy fundamentally benefits from the same patriarchy that has benefited prior sectors. It should be no surprise to us that those things are replicated when new technologies emerge.”

Women on these platforms have to contend with a myriad of other problems like sexual and verbal harassment, insecurity, and gender inequality as they try to connect, conduct business, find work or provide professional services on these platforms.

All this in addition to the challenges of online work—from a lack of social protections that formal employment provides, to racial discrimination to poor pay and poor working conditionsthat affect all gig workers regardless of gender.

I deal in men’s shoes. You will find that a man maybe has some other agenda…you just have to ignore them because that happens a lot.

Female workers across Accra to Lagos to Nairobi all share their individual horror stories saying that in order to survive in the gig economy, they have had to develop thick skin. Fear of safety is something they all share and all try to work around as they try to make a living.

A study (pdf) of women ride-hailing drivers in South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Indonesia, and the UK found that the majority (57%) prefer not to drive outside of daylight hours because of security concerns. In South Africa, 51% of female drivers said security is the top reason for not driving more hours.

Olivia has been a ride-hailing driver for the last two years in Nairobi. She started off as a driver for Bolt and other online cabs but felt compelled to switch, first to carrying passengers on Safeboda and then later doing deliveries with Glovo.

“I prefer doing deliveries more than carrying people around. When you carry items, you don’t have people judging you and asking you a lot of questions like why you’re doing this? This is not for girls. They tell you that it’s not good, making you feel uncomfortable about the kind of work that you’re doing,” she says.

While she was glad that she no longer had to sit inside a car and face consistent judgment, she had to also worry about another challenge as a motorbike rider- unwanted touching by customers. That was before SafeBoda ceased its operations in Kenya in 2020.

In Nigeria, Jennifer, an Uber driver complains of unwanted sexual advances from men.

“Because I’m a lady, you know men will always want to say, can I get to know you after this ride.”

Safety is an issue for women across all types of platforms

The story is similar for female online freelancers, women running small businesses on social media and those making money from renting out properties on platforms like Airbnb.

Ruth rents out space in her apartment via Airbnb in Nairobi and has found herself in threatening situations.

“You find someone asleep while drunk, they want to touch you.” Ruth says.

Sandra, a 35-year-old agripreneur in Ghana runs her own ecommerce platform through which she sells farm produce and also uses Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to market the products and communicate with customers. She however has to deal with more than just customer-related inquiries.

“Someone came into my inbox ‘Hello’ and I thought the conversation was going to lead to business. And the next moment, this guy sent me pictures of his penis. I just blocked him,” she said.  Because she shares her number for business, she also has to put up with unwanted calls late in the night.

Emily in Nairobi, who uses social media to find customers for the curtains she makes has been harassed when she delivers them to clients.

“If it’s curtains for a man, I have to deliver and fix, when you reach there, he starts harassing you sexually. It has happened to me but I’ve never reported,” she says.

She also has her number online and will have men calling her pretending to be interested in buying curtains, only for the conversation to quickly change to them propositioning her.

Another woman spoke of how a friend who sold shoes online was raped by a client when she went to get her payment.

“She went for payment and found no money. Instead, the man took advantage of her because he saw she was helpless. He threw her inside his car and raped her. After the act, he dumped her somewhere,” she says.

Online abuse against women takes many different forms

Many others who sell online also share how they are trolled by both men and women, leaving them deflated.

Josephine in Kenya sells food items online and sometimes posts photos of herself with the food. “Sometimes you post something and people start body shaming you.”

Josephine knows online trolling is a hard one to solve but wishes that fellow women didn’t participate but instead support each other online.

“We should probably have each other’s back online and offline and not take part in bashing your fellow woman because today it could be her and tomorrow you,” she says.

How women cope 

Women on these platforms devote time and effort to protect their space online by deleting comments, blocking followers, limiting sharing personal information, and sometimes just ignoring it. This takes time away from doing work that brings in money and also affects their mental wellbeing.

“I deal in men’s shoes. You will find that a man maybe has some other agenda…you just have to ignore them because that happens a lot,” one woman says.

In July this year, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and TikTok made a pledge to tackle the abuse of women online and promised to offer more granular settings that allow women to choose who can see, share, comment, or reply to their posts, all of which requires time to implement.

The platforms also promised to provide easy access to safety tools and reduce the burden on women by proactively reducing the amount of abuse they see. They also promised to establish additional ways for women to access help and support during the reporting process. The World Wide Web Foundation which championed the cause to get platforms to protect women online says they will review the platform promises annually.

In the meantime, women continue to devise their own ways of dealing with these problems.  They have created forums online through which they share stories as a way to help each other.  The Uber drivers, for example,  alert each other of trouble spots that women should avoid and social media sellers flag customers on the public forums.

Others have resorted to using digital payments more to avoid contact with clients while others hire male motorcycle drivers to deliver products.

What women want

The female drivers mentioned that while ride-hailing platforms provide SOS buttons, it is not enough. “When we have an issue or we suspect that the rider is acting funny we have SOS buttons on the app where we can press emergency buttons we can press but what if the customer takes our phone before we noticed,” says Olivia who once got her phone stolen by a customer.

She, like a few others, says platforms should collect identification details about those who download the app so they are easily tracked down. Jennifer wonders why ride-hailing companies don’t profile the riders, the way they profile the drivers.

Tina, a Bolt driver in Kenya, says the platform should establish an office in Nakuru where she works, listen more to women and also consider providing self-defense classes.

The women also believe that they would be safer on these platforms, if the platforms worked closely with the police to handle cases.

“They can also liaise with maybe the police stations close to me so that whenever we have issues you can easily stop by and say I’m a female driver. I need help because this customer tried to harass me.  It will go a long, long way for us as female drivers,” Olivia says.

Women are tired of the platforms leaving the burden of safety on them. Platforms should not only adopt sexual harassment policies that are clear on what comprises harassment, the redress mechanisms available but also consider provisions on pay for those who lose earnings due to online gender-based violence.

The Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work (pdf), an initiative founded in 2020 by global platforms including Uber is cognizant of these challenges and states that “Platforms should not tolerate conduct that is incompatible with their terms of use and service, including verbal and physical abuse, gender-based violence and sexual harassment.”

While this is a step in the right direction, the recommendations made by women are a clear sign that platforms are currently not doing enough on their part to protect women. All the women are unanimous in their askthat platform work be made safer for them and that women’s concerns should be listened to.

Stories under this series are based on extensive research carried out by Caribou Digital over the past few years on the impact platform work has on the livelihoods of young men and women in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana. This research work is conducted in partnership with Qhala in Kenya, the University of Ghana, and Lagos Business School in Nigeria, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation. This editorial partnership aims to share the experiences of the women whose livelihoods are directly impacted by digital transformation.

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