The war in Sudan has hit street vendors in general, and women street vendors in particular, in a harsh and distinct way.

Awadiya Mahmoud hands out free tea to protesters on May 3, 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan. Awadiya started selling tea in 1983 and by 2013 she had organized numerous community groups for tea sellers and a union to organize them. David Degner/Getty Images.

For the women who sell beverages like tea and coffee, handicrafts and beauty products in different parts of greater Khartoum, their livelihoods depend on being on the street on a daily basis. When the war first broke out in the city, they were forced to continue their work in areas that had become battlefields. Many lacked savings and other resources that would have let them leave the capital. While some managed to join their extended families or to find make-shift IDP camps in Gezira, White Nile and Northern states, many were stranded in the outskirts of Khartoum. They were exposed to violence and exploitation at the hands of both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Sudan’s armed forces (the SAF). The RSF reportedly abducted women street vendors and forced them to cook, wash clothes and serve them in other ways.

The story of Asil (not her real name) is one of many examples of the violence that women street vendors and their families face. The daughter of a street vendor, Asil went missing shortly after the start of the war. Her family, and leaders of women cooperatives, launched a search for her but were unable to find her. Finally, a leader of a cooperative located her when she resurfaced in October 2023. Asil told her community that RSF soldiers forced her to live and work with a woman who made alcohol in greater Khartoum and that she was only allowed to leave after she fell ill. Many of the abducted women faced sexual violence and exploitation. Street vendors who are forced to serve RSF soldiers are often accused by the army, and at times by the general population, of collaborating with the RSF, exposing them to retaliation and further violence at the hands of the Sudanese army.

Yet despite the hardships they face, women organized into street vendor cooperatives, some of which were established as early as the 1980s, have responded to the war by continuing to engage in a community-wide politics of care that has been crucial for the survival of individuals and communities affected by war. With their intimate knowledge of and connections to their membership and communities, leaders and members of women’s cooperative have been able to identify and address some of the Sudanese people’s most pressing and urgent needs.


Street Vendors and the Outbreak of War


Many of the leaders and members of women’s cooperatives left Khartoum during the early days of the war.

A number of them had been displaced to Khartoum with their families to escape earlier wars in the 1980s, 1990s and in the early 2000s. They knew very well that the sooner they left the city the better. Shortly after fleeing, they started seeking ways to support their communities who remained in greater Khartoum as well as the members of their cooperatives and other displaced persons in the areas they moved to. Given the absence of a rapid humanitarian response, these women sought in-kind and financial support, which they used to evacuate women in their communities and to provide urgently needed food, clothes, hygiene and medicine.

Given the absence of a rapid humanitarian response, these women sought in-kind and financial support, which they used to evacuate women in their communities and to provide urgently needed food, clothes, hygiene and medicine.

The stories and experiences of the leaders and members of women’s cooperatives are varied. Awadiya Mahmoud Koko and Rahma Mahmoud (not her real name) are two leaders who played key roles in the survival of their communities before the war and continue to do so until today.

Koko is a well-known figure within and outside of Sudan. She started selling food and tea on the road in Khartoum in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1989, she founded the Tea and Food Sellers’ Cooperative Union (a multi-purpose cooperative, known as Kul al-Mihen). Through the cooperative, she organized other street vendors around their needs and interests. For example, the cooperative provided support to women who had failed to pay back money they borrowed. Without this support, the indebted women (the majority of whom headed low-income households) would have faced imprisonment. She herself spent four years in prison for a debt she accrued in her efforts to support the cooperative.

During the 2018–2019 popular uprising, Koko played an important role. Among other actions, she coordinated food preparations to sustain the protestors taking part in a sit-in at the Sudanese Army headquarters, which lasted until June of 2019.

When the war erupted on April 15, I sent messages to Koko and several other leaders of cooperatives, whom I had interviewed and visited in 2021 and 2022. I wanted to know how they and their communities were doing, and whether I or others could be of any help. Because the war started during Ramadan, Koko and her daughter—also a leader of a cooperative—were in Khartoum North, preparing iftar meals for people in need. It was an annual 30-day program that the organization Kullana Qiyam (“we are about values”) ran in greater Khartoum. Before the war, the organization and its volunteers served about one thousand meals each day to mitigate food insecurity in the city. It relied mainly on donations from the Sudanese diaspora, especially in the United States and Europe, as well as from immigrants in Gulf countries.

It was not safe for Koko to return to her home in Mayo, a residential area in the south of Khartoum. The following day, she sent a message telling me she was on her way to Gezira state. I started receiving messages from other women in the cooperatives telling me they were safe, sharing their plans for evacuations or explaining their decisions to stay in Khartoum.

From April to December of 2023, Koko coordinated food preparations for an IDP camp in Hantoub, Gezira state, that Kullana Qiyam ran. At the time, a relative hosted her along with many of her extended family members. In the early weeks of the war, she identified the needs of displaced persons in her relative’s household and beyond, using funds donated through a GoFundMe campaign to meet their needs. In November of 2023, she attended a meeting for civil society organizations, where she shared information about the impact of war on women in Sudan. A few days after returning to Gezira in December 2023, violence broke out there, and she was forced to flee to Port Sudan in the east of the country. She continues to organize women food and tea sellers in the area.


Care in the Absence of Humanitarian Aid


Another leader who continues to play a key role in supporting women and families displaced by war is Rahma Mahmoud (not her real name).

Mahmoud founded a cooperative in her neighborhood in Khartoum and organized women in the informal economy: those who, like her, made and sold handicrafts. She had previously held a position in the office of Kul al-Mihen but is not as well known a figure as Awadiya. I first met her in Khartoum in the Summer of 2021 at a lecture I gave in one of the women’s centers in Khartoum. Over three years, along with Koko and other women who are active in the cooperative movement, Mahmoud and I grew to be friends.

Her story is another example of how heads of cooperatives have supported their communities since the start of the war. Mahmoud’s extended family lives in White Nile state, but when I met her, she lived in the south of Khartoum. Shortly after the war broke out, she was displaced to a town in White Nile state, where she resided with her family. She continued, however, to maintain immediate contact with most cooperative leaders and members, enabling her to respond to the most urgent needs of women in her community at a time when humanitarian assistance was non-existent. She helped support South Sudanese families on their way back to South Sudan. Braving the violence, she traveled to Khartoum several times. She would deliver in-kind or cash support to cooperative leaders and members who were not able to leave the city.

Mahmoud helped evacuate over forty families from Khartoum to Gezira state when she and other residents of the area witnessed warning signs of impending violence. As they expected, the army bombed the area within 48 hours of the group’s departure. A few days after they arrived in a town near Wad Medani, she obtained permission from the state-level authorities to use an abandoned school, working with other leaders of cooperatives to turn it into a makeshift IDP camp. The group used donations to purchase food, medicine, blankets, clothes and hygiene necessities. They even obtained mattresses for the pregnant women in the group.

It was not until the second week of August 2023, almost four months after the start of the war, that women and families in this IDP camp began receiving humanitarian assistance in the form of cooking oil, lentils, peas and salt.
Within days, and with support from other women representing different cooperatives, Mahmoud had established a system and meticulously prepared a list of residents, disaggregated by gender and age. She mapped the needs of different groups within the camp and worked on mobilizing and distributing resources.

It was not until the second week of August 2023, almost four months after the start of the war, that women and families in this IDP camp began receiving humanitarian assistance in the form of cooking oil, lentils, peas and salt. Even with support, however, the camp remained among the least resourced. A local organization offered to provide food and water consistently but insisted that, if they did so, the women street vendors must leave the administration of the camp to the organization and focus on cooking and running the kitchen. Mahmoud and the other women refused this collaboration. No longer being able to participate in decision-making around how the camp was run, they felt, would disempower them. Instead, they continued to run the camp until they were forced to flee the area in December 2023, when the RSF extended its fighting to Gezira state.


Sustaining Communities


For most street vendors in greater Khartoum it was not feasible financially to leave the city at the outbreak of war. Many were forced to continue to sell beverages and food on the street, the survival of their families depending on their meager daily earnings. Working in the streets exposed them to violence and exploitation. Some were killed while on the street. Moreover, like other residents of the city, during the early weeks of the war, women street vendors and their communities needed food, clothes, medicine, sanitary towels, toothpaste, soap and medicine.

It took local organizations several weeks and larger humanitarian agencies much longer to set up support for the displaced and others affected by war. Together with members of neighborhood committees and small local organizations, leaders of cooperatives were able to address some of these urgent needs. These leaders were in direct contact with most members of their cooperatives as well as with other street vendor cooperatives. They knew exactly what their community in greater Khartoum needed as well as the needs of those who were able to escape to Gezira and White Nile States and to eastern Sudan. They took action to raise and offer support: from material necessities to the evacuation of individuals and communities.

The experiences of women street vendors in and outside greater Khartoum point to how not just financial resources but resourcefulness, unconditional solidarities and a politics of care sustain communities during wartime. While it is important not to romanticize their role, their work is crucial and should be centered in any consideration of Sudan’s present and future. Feminist frameworks highlight the importance of focusing on and supporting women’s strategic interests of working toward achieving gender equality and transforming power relations in the long run. But survival, and the priorities that women leaders of cooperatives and other grassroots organizations set, are equally significant.

Moreover, women street vendors, organized in cooperatives, played key roles in sustaining activists and communities even before the war began: in the context of economic and political crises and during the 2018–2019 uprising. What if the transitional government and its partners had invested more effort into strengthening and expanding the capacity of women’s cooperatives as community leaders? What if the voices, experiences and contributions of these leaders had informed Sudan’s transition? What would engaging them in a post-conflict setting mean for Sudan’s transition to democracy? These questions should be front and center in any effort to end the war, address its consequences and rebuild the country.


[Nada Mustafa Ali teaches in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.]


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This article appears in MER issue 310 “The Struggle for Sudan.”

How to cite this article:

Nada Ali "Khartoum’s Women Street Vendor Cooperatives and the Politics of Care," Middle East Report 310 (Spring 2024).

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