Self-Employed Women's Association of India
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The Self-Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA) is a trade union for poor, self-employed women workers in India. SEWA was founded in 1972 by the noted Gandhian and civil rights leader Dr Ela Bhatt. SEWA's main office is located in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and it works in several states of India. SEWA had a membership of 966,139 in the year 2008. SEWA members are women who earn a living through their own labour or small business. They do not obtain regular salaried employment with welfare benefits like workers in the organized sector. They are the unprotected labour force of India. Constituting 93% of the labour force, these are workers of the unorganized sector. Of the female labour force in India, more than 94% are in the unorganized sector. However their work is not counted and hence remains invisible. SEWA is strongly supported by the World Bank which holds it out as a model to be replicated elsewhere.
SEWA’s main goals are to organize women workers for full employment and self-reliance. SEWA aims to mainstream marginalized, poor women in the informal sector and lift them out of their poverty
The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was founded in 1972 as a trade union of self-employed women. It grew out of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), India's oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by Anasuya Sarabhai. The inspiration for the union came from Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful strike of textile workers in 1917. He believed that by developing unity as well as personality, a worker should be able to hold his or her own against tyranny from employers or the state. To develop this strength he believed that a union should cover all aspects of worker's lives both in the factory and at home. Against this background of active involvement in industrial relations, social work and local, state and national politics, the ideological base provided by Mahatma Gandhi and the feminist seeds planted by Anasuya Sarabhai led to the creation by the TLA of their Women's Wing in 1954. Its original purpose was to assist women belonging to households of mill workers and its work was focused largely on training and welfare activities. By 1968, classes in sewing, knitting embroidery, spinning, press composition typing and stenography were established in centers throughout the city for the wives and daughters of mill workers. The scope of its activities expanded in the early 1970s when a survey was conducted to probe complaints by women tailors of exploitation by contractors. The survey brought out other instances of exploitation of women workers and revealed the large numbers untouched by government legislation and policies.
In 1971, a small group of migrant women working as cart-pullers in Ahmedabad's cloth market came to the TLA with their labour contractor. He had heard of a transport workers' union organized by the TLA and thought they might be able to help the women find some housing. At the time, the women were living on the streets without shelter. They were sent to see Ela Bhatt, the Head of Women's Wing. After talking with the women in her office, she went with them to the areas where they were living and to the market area where they were working. While there, she met another group of women who were working as head-loaders, carrying loads of clothes between the wholesale and retail markets. As she sat with them on the steps of the warehouses where they waited for work, they discussed their jobs and their low and erratic wages. Following the meeting, Ela Bhatt wrote an article for the local newspaper and detailed the problems of the head-loaders. The cloth merchants countered the charges against them with a news article of their own, denying the allegations and testifying to their fair treatment of the head-loaders. The Women's Wing turned the release of this story to their own advantage by reprinting the merchant's claims on the cards and distributing them to use as leverage with the merchants. Soon word of this effective ploy spread and a group of used garment dealers approached the Women's Wing with their own grievances. A public meeting of used garment dealers was called and over hundred women attended. During the meeting in a public park, a woman from the crowd suggested they form an association of their own. Thus, on an appeal from the women and at the initiative of the leader of the Women's Wing, Ela Bhatt, and the president of the TLA, Arvind Buch, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was born in December 1971. The women felt that as a workers' association, SEWA should establish itself as a Trade Union. This was a fairly novel idea, because the self-employed have no real history of organizing. The first struggle SEWA undertook was obtaining official recognition as Trade Union. The Labour Department refused to register SEWA because they felt that since there was no recognized employer, the workers would have no one to struggle against. We argued that a Union was not necessarily against an employer, but was for the unity of the workers. Finally, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union in April 1972. SEWA grew continuously from 1972, increasing in its membership and including more and more different occupations within its fold. The beginning of the Women's Decade in 1975 gave a boost to the growth of SEWA, placing it within the women's movement. In 1977, SEWA's General Secretary, Ela Bhatt, was awarded prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award and this brought international recognition to SEWA.
By 1981, relations between SEWA and TLA had deteriorated. TLA did not appreciate an assertive women's group in its midst. Also, the interests of TLA, representing workers of the organized sector often came into conflict with the demands of SEWA, representing unorganized women workers. The conflict came to a head in 1981 during the anti-reservation riots when members of higher castes attacked the Harijans (untouchables), many of whom were members of both TLA and SEWA. SEWA spoke out in defense of the Harijans (untouchables), whereas TLA remained silent. Because of this outspokenness, TLA threw out SEWA from its fold. After the separation from TLA, SEWA grew even faster and started new initiatives. In particular, the growth of many new co-operatives, a more militant trade union and many supportive services has given SEWA a new shape and direction.
SEWA’s Sister Organizations
- SEWA Bank
In order to address the problem of lack of access to timely and efficient savings and credit facilities and to free themselves from the vicious cycle of eternal debt, SEWA members devised their own solution: "a bank of their own, where they would be accepted in their own right and not be made to feel inferior". 4,000 women members of SEWA contributed share capital of Rs.10 each to establish the Mahila SEWA Co-operative Bank in May 1974. Currently, SEWA Bank has 125,000 self-employed women depositors and has disbursed loans without the need for traditional collateral, of over Rs.350 million.
- SEWA Academy
SEWA Academy was created in 1991. It is the organizational wing responsible for basic membership education and for capacity building, leadership training, communications and research.
- SEWA Communication
SEWA has also explored several channels to support members in their communication efforts. These include “Anasooya” – SEWA’s fortnightly news letter in Gujarati, “Akashganga” – monthly magazine for adolescent girls, “We the Self Employed” - SEWA’s electronic newsletter published in English and aims to reach policy makers, programme planners and a wider national and international audience. Video SEWA was established in 1984 as a means to provide training to the members of SEWA and to motivate, mobilize and strengthen the existing membership of SEWA through the use of video recordings and tapes.
- Shri Mahila SEWA Anasooya Trust
"Anasooya" was started in 1982 to provide a forum for presentation of experiences, ideas and viewpoints emerging from SEWA's work. It has completed fourteen years successfully and regular - not missing a single issue. It is published on 6th and 22nd of every month.
- SEWA Research
Credible, scientific based research has been a critical tool in SEWA’s advocacy efforts. Through research, SEWA strives to bring its members, the self-employed women, into the mainstream of the world of knowledge. ‘Action oriented research’ is the corner stone of this intervention and SEWA Academy is the organizational wing responsible for this task.
- Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Co-operative Federation Ltd.
From the time of its inception the Federation has concentrated in providing comprehensive training in cooperative education, marketing, management, record keeping, leadership and technical training. It also provides assistance in various areas of cooperative development.
- Vimo SEWA
Is an integrated insurance program aiming to provide social protection for SEWA members to cover their life cycle needs and the various risks they face in their lives, through an insurance organization in which they themselves are users, owners and managers of all services.
- SEWA Housing
In 1994, the Gujarat Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) was officially registered with the overall objectives of improving the housing and infrastructure conditions of poor women in the informal sector.
- SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre
In response to the demand for creating sustainable livelihood strategies for the poorest of the poor women producers, The SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre (STFC) was established in May 2003 as the commercial arm of SEWA by more than 15000 women artisans in the textiles and handicrafts sector.
- SEWA Manager Ni School
The SEWA Manager’s School began in 2005 as a capacity building institution within SEWA with the goal of facilitating economic self-sustainability through building a cadre of grassroots managers.
- SEWA Sanskar Kendra
SEWA Sanskar Kendra (SSK) envisaged as the 'hub' or centre of activity for a cluster of ten to fifteen villages. SSKs were established keeping in mind that the women in the rural communities had requirements of diverse information while they had the least access to information and communication technologies.
- SEWA ICT
ICT revolution has driven numerous initiatives by using new technologies for poverty alleviation and socioeconomic development. SEWA realized the potential of new information technologies in facilitating capacity development, supporting cooperative efforts and reducing vulnerability by increasing access to information, particularly about entitlements and programs. SEWA ICT has enabled poor people, particularly women, living in remote areas to access vital information related to their trade, livelihoods, government schemes including Panchayati Raj (local self-government), seeking and sharing expert opinions on disaster management, management of enterprise, marketing of produce and products. SEWA ICT represented a powerful strategy for overcoming various notions of a 'digital divide' and making the information available to the powerless.
- SEWA Nirman Construction Workers Company Ltd
SEWA NIRMAN generates sustainable livelihood for its members (i.e. the construction workers) by organizing & training semi-skilled workers and free them from exploitation. SEWA NIRMAN works for infrastructure development across the country, focusing on rural development benefiting the construction industry and the entire nation at large.
- SEWA Ecotourism
Vanlaxmi Women Tree Grower's Cooperative initiated by SEWA depicts one of its many achievements in the field of women empowerment and poverty alleviation through sustainable self-employment. This is a case of poor and working landless women's struggle to form and run their eco regenerative activity in the water starved area of Gujarat.
- SEWA Kharaghoda
SEWA has organized around 10,000 salt workers and farmers in Surendranagar and Patan districts of Gujarat. Kharaghoda is situated in Surendranagar, Gujarat.
- SEWA Mahila Shahkari Mandli Ltd
The cooperative completed 22 years of its journey with the support of women. It was started to help paper-picker women. In 1986 the first ever cleaning cooperative was formed with the support of SEWA Federation.
- SEWA Kalakruti
The marketing outlet for member artisans from craft co-operatives is promoted by SEWA. It provides regular employment and helps to preserve traditional skills through cooperative efforts for self-reliance eliminating the middleman. The federation assist the artisans in marketing, helps them in conservation and development of their products. Similarly the federation facilitates vendors and farmers to buy and sell at the Agriculture Producers Marketing Committee eliminating the middle agencies.
- SEWA Bharat
SEWA Bharat is a federation of SEWA member organizations, with the mandate to highlight issues concerning women working in the informal sector, and to strengthen the capacity of the organizations that serve the interests of these women. Presently nine such SEWA member organizations are working in 35 districts of seven states, and together they accounted for a total membership around 12, 00,000.
- HomeNet South Asia
HomeNet South Asia is a network organisation of women homebased workers promoted by UNIFEM and SEWA. It was set up after the Kathmandu Declaration, formulated in an international conference convened in Nepal in year 2000. The formal launching of HomeNet South Asia was held on January 17, 2007 in the Conference “Women Work & Poverty Policy Conference on Home Based Workers of South Asia” which was inaugurated by Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh.
- Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us, The World Bank, New York, N.Y.: Published for the World Bank, Oxford University Press, 2000
- Gender in Bolivian Production: Reducing Differences in Formality and Productivity of Firms (World Bank Country Study) by World Bank,p. 43.