Self Employed Women's Association

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Full name Self-Employed Women's Association of India
Founded 1972
Members 1,916,676
Affiliation ITUC
Key people Ela Bhatt, president
Office location Ahmedabad. India
Country India
Products at the SEWA Hansiba Store in Mumbai.

Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), meaning "service" and several Indian languages, is a trade union based in Ahmedabad, India that promotes the rights of low-income, independently-employed female workers.[1] With over 2 million participating women, SEWA is the largest non-profit in India and is often recognized as the most influential union in the global informal economy.[2] Self-employed women are defined as those who do not receive a salary like that of formally-employed workers and therefore have a more precarious income and life.[3] SEWA is framed around the goal of full employment in which a women secures for her family: income, food, heath care, child care, and shelter.[4] The principles behind accomplishing these goals are struggle and development, meaning negotiating with stakeholders and providing services, respectively.[2][4] Women are the subject of this trade union because Indian history and culture has subjected them to patriarchal role of women that excludes them from regular, secure forms of labour.[5]

SEWA was founded in 1972, by Gandhian and civil rights leader Ela Bhatt as a branch of Textile Labour Association (TLA) which was founded by Gandhi in 1918.[6] The organization grew very quickly, with 30,000 members in 1996, to 318,527 in 2000, to 1,919,676 in 2013.[3][7]

State 2013 Membership[8]
Gujarat 1,000,224
Bihar 82,460
Delhi 40,010
West Bengal (Murshidabad only) 7,057
Rajasthan 37,000
Kerala 10,000
Uttrakhand 4,470
Madhya Pradesh 600,950
Uttar Pradesh 127,780
Maharashtra 4,500
Assam 1,613
Meghalaya 400
Kashmir 212
Total 1,919,676


Sewa founder Ela Bhatt with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Timothy Roemer in 2009.

TLA and Gandhian Roots[edit]

SEWA originated in 1972 as the Association's Women's Wing of Textile Labour Association (TLA) which was established by Gandhi in 1918.[9] SEWA is located in Ahmedabad, India, the city where Gandhi's ashram still exists and once served to facilitate much of the Mahatma's work. Around the era of SEWA's establishment, Ahmedabad youths were enthusiastic to interact with the poor because of Gandhi's legacy in the city.[5] Gandhi's ethos of collective mobilization led to the founding of TLA, which is a labor union generally concerned with textile labourers in the formal sector. While not explicitly stated, low-income labourers in the formal sector are more likely to be men because of cultural practice putting men in positions of security and higher status.[5] Gender discrimination was even apparent in TLA, whose leading figures were all male during the time of SEWA's involvement in the organization. In 1981, TLA expelled SEWA from its organization for publicly supporting the rights of the Dalit caste.[1] Despite the rift between TLA and SEWA, there are clear influences of the Mahatma in SEWA's principles of truth, non-violence, and integration of all people that shape the organization to be so successful.[4]

Ela Bhatt[edit]

In 1972, SEWA materialized first as a collective of women that worked outside the textile mills and other formalized sources of income—individuals not targeted by TLA.[1] An early survey of SEWA members found that 97% lived in slums, 93% were illiterate, the average member had four children, and one in three were the primary bread-winner.[1] It's first large project was the SEWA Cooperative Bank established in 1974 to provide loans to low-income members.[1]

Behind all these accomplishments was SEWA's founder Ela Bhatt. Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad on 7 September 1933 to a Brahman caste family of lawyers and was, herself, a lawyer for TLA beginning in the early 1950s.[5] Bhatt found that poor women in Ahmedabad were not just domestic workers, but conducted a variety of businesses at home—as hawkers, street vendors, construction labourers—and were not being represented in India's economy.[5] Incredibly enough, 94% of Indian working women were self-employed 2009, yet it took until 1972 for any sort of informal labor union to form.[10]


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. SEWA has interacted and has been advised by many law firms like HSA.[11]

"Health and child care and insurance is also part of their economic condition. Without that you can't come out of poverty" – Dr Mirai Chatterjee, Director of Social Security, SEWA.[12] SEWA has two stated goals, Full Employment and Self Reliance. They have 11 questions they use to evaluate their progress[8]

  1. Have more members obtained more employment?
  2. Has their income increased?
  3. Have they obtained food and nutrition?
  4. Has their health been safeguarded?
  5. Have they obtained child-care?
  6. Have they obtained or improved their housing?
  7. Have their assets increased? (e.g. their own savings, land, house, work-space, tools or work, licenses, identity cards, cattled and share in cooperatives; and all in their own name.
  8. Have the worker's organisational strength increased?
  9. Has worker's leadership increased?
  10. Have they become self-reliant both collectively and individually?
  11. Have they become literate?


SEWA Mahila Housing Trust, founded by Renana Jhabvala among others, created the Karmika School for Construction Workers in 2003 to help train women in the construction trades. Women made up 51 percent of employees in construction trades in India in 2003, but most women in the construction industry had been unskilled laborers. After training at Karmika, according to a 2007 survey of graduates, 40 percent reported working 21–30 days per month as opposed to 26 percent who reported similar work days before training. 30 percent became helpers to masons, and 20 percent became masons themselves. These increases come mostly from small private construction projects, such as housing, but there was very little success placing women in the more profitable public sector infrastructure projects.[13] SEWA's childcare cooperatives in Sangini and Shaishav, have helped more than 400 women get regular work as providers of childcare.[14]


In 1994, members' earnings were Rs 3.9 crores for 32,794 women (about Rs 1200 average). By 1998, members' average earnings had risen to Rs 30.45 crores for 49,398 women (about Rs 6164 average). This is from aggregate numbers including urban and rural workers. Most of this increase occurred in urban areas.[15] SEWA has had more difficulty pushing for higher wages in rural areas, due to the excess supply of labor in those regions, which weakens the bargaining position of women.[15][16] In the construction trades, skilled women workers earn comparable salaries to their male counterparts. Mahila Housing SEWA Trust's Karmika School helps women in the construction trades in India to gain those skills.[13] Providing childcare has led to income increases of 50% in Kheda and Surendranagar.[14]

Food and nutrition[edit]

SEWA's push for food security brought about programs to deliver food grain in Gujarat.[12] The child care centers established by SEWA have acted during natural disasters such as floods and droughts to provide necessary food as well as other emergency supplies and assistance. The two districts of Surendranagar and Patan in particular have 25 childcare centers in their communities which were able to respond to droughts, epidemics, cyclone, floods and the earthquake in 2001 not only with childcare but also food, water, and shelter.[14]


In 1984, SEWA began offering health insurance, which cost their member Rs 85 annually. Health care has become one of their largest projects.[12] Since 1992, Vimo SEWA has provided life and hospitalization insurance for its members and their families for as little as Rs 100 per person. Enrollment topped 130,000 people in 2005[17]

SEWA found that the very poor used this access to health care less than those slightly less poor. Some of the factors include distance to care providers and facilities and the "ex-post reimbursement" nature of health insurance, in which patients must pay upfront and then claim reimbursement. They continue studying the issue of how to bring access to all.[18]

SEWA also has programs to improve water quality by training some of their members to repair pumps for wells and campaigning for underground water tanks for drought prone areas.[12]


In studies in the Kheda and Surendranagar districts before 2006, poor women with access to child care earned 50 percent more. Childcare also encourages going to school for the entire community by improving the view of the value of education, as well as freeing older siblings from childcare responsibility, allowing them to continue their education. It removes social barriers by helping to alleviate the caste distinctions as children of all castes learn and play together. It aids poverty alleviation by allowing mothers to work and earn more. SEWA has childcare cooperatives in Sangini and Shaishav.[14]


As of 1989, SEWA bank had 11,000 members. Nearly 40 percent of their loans were for purchasing or improving housing. One requirement of the borrower was purchasing shares in the bank worth 5 percent of the loan. However, most low-income households do not qualify for loans from the bank and still must seek other options.[19] Also, SEWA has pushed for women to put their names on titles for property, in order to improve women's property rights.[20]


The Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank, or SEWA bank, was created to help self-employed women gain access to financial resources. It began with 4000 women each contributing Rs 10.[15] The bank encourages saving and has adapted the traditional banking approach to assist the mostly illiterate members, such as issuing ID cards with pictures and fingerprints, since many women cannot sign their name, as well as institute "mobile banks" which visit the rural areas and slums in order to provide banking services, since it is difficult for the women to come to the bank.[15] The bank grew from 6,631 members in 1975 to 20,657 in 1997 and from 1,660,431 working capital to 167,331,000.[15] SEWA Bank formed savings and credit groups in the 1990s. They began lending to rural women and encouraged these women to have their names included on title deeds to the lands purchased.[20]

Workers' Organizational Strength[edit]

The Surendranagar child care cooperative, which is run locally, inspired the creation of the "Women and Children's Development Mandal". It consists of over 20,000 women and provides services such as finance, employment support, housing services, as well as childcare.[14] SEWA's membership in Ahmedabad had grown to 55,000 workers in 1995, far outpacing the membership of the Textile Labour Association, SEWA's original parent organization, in that city.[13] By organizing and collective action, the women of SEWA were able to achieve a voice in the government that did not listen to them individually. They were able to pool small amounts of money to form the SEWA Bank. They were able to draw attention to the unorganized sector of the economy, those who were self-employed or temporary workers without an explicit employer.[21]

Workers' leadership[edit]

In a 2007 survey of Karmika School graduates, 68 percent report more confidence in their work and higher status within the family.[13] SEWA's organization and leaders have directly created or indirectly inspired other organizations within India, in other countries and worldwide, including WIEGO Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing and SEWU Self-Employed Women's Union,[16] Participation in SEWA's programs and their models has increased women's participation in community affairs, reduced domestic violence, and raised their feeling of empowerment overall.[15] SEWA was recognized as a Central trade union in 2009. SEWA assisted in passing India's Act on the Unorganized Sector, which establishes some welfare and social security for non-traditional employees. They continue to work for a better share of social security and the rights of labor standards enjoyed by traditional employees.[21]


According to personal interviews in July 1998, women who have worked with SEWA in their communities feel more confident and gain more respect from the men. They have managed co-operative businesses, in one case in the village of Baldana, better than the men who had managed that same business. The cooperative had been operating at a loss. SEWA helped convert it to women management. The men of the village "forcibly ousted women on renewed profitability. Soon, corruption led to huge losses again and women's and SEWA's intervention."[15]


Many of SEWA's members are illiterate, leading to problems in understanding laws, conducting business and daily life. "We cannot read the bus numbers, often we miss our bus" unnamed SEWA member. In 1992, SEWA began offering literacy classes in May 1992 for Rs 5 per month.[15]

SEWA's sister organizations[edit]

  • 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.


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 17 January 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.


  1. ^ a b c d e "Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India: Feminist, Gandhian Power in Development". The University of Chicago Press Hournal. 
  2. ^ a b "Organizing Informal Workers:Benefits, Challenges and Successes". 2015 UNDP Human Development Report. 
  3. ^ a b "From Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women's Association in India". International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. 
  4. ^ a b c "Introduction". 
  5. ^ a b c d e "Organizing in the Informal Economy: Ela Bhatt and the Self-Employed Women's Association of India". Labour, Capital and Society. 
  6. ^ Spodek, Howard (2011). Ahmedabad: Shock city of the twentieth century India. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 253. 
  7. ^ "SEWA Annual Report 2013" (PDF). 
  8. ^ a b "SEWA". 
  9. ^ "Ahmedabad textile laborers win strike for economic justice, 1918". 
  10. ^ Bhatt, Ela (July 23, 2009). "Citizenship of Marginals". 
  11. ^ "Conversation with Hemant Sahai Managing Partner HSA Advocates".  External link in |publisher= (help)
  12. ^ a b c d Eaton, Lynn (15 September 2007). "Improving Health through Wealth". British Medical Journal. 335 (7619): 538–539. doi:10.1136/ 
  13. ^ a b c d Baruah, Bipasha (Feb 2010). "Women and Globalisation: Challenges and Opportunities Facing Construction Workers in Contemporary India". Development in Practice. 20 (1): 31–44. doi:10.1080/09614520903436935. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Chatterjee, Mirai (26 August – 1 September 2006). "Decentralised Childcare Services: The SEWA Experience". Economic and Political Weekly. 41 (34): 3660–3664. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Datta, Rekha (Spring 2003). "Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women's Association in India". International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 16 (3): 351–368. 
  16. ^ a b Horn, Pat. "Global Interests of Informal Sector Workers under the Spotlight". Agenda (48): 44–50. 
  17. ^ Ranson, M. Kent; Tara Sinha; Saul S Morris; Anne J Mills (Jan–Feb 2006). "CRTs - Cluster Randomized Trials or "Courting Real Troubles": Challenges of Running a CRT in Rural Gujarat, India". Canadian Journal of Public Health. 97 (1): 72–75. 
  18. ^ de Allegri, Manuela; Rainer Sauerborn (23 June 2007). "Community Based Health Insurance in Developing Countries". British Medical Journal. 334: 1282–1283. doi:10.1136/bmj.39240.632963.80. 
  19. ^ Mehta, Meera; Dinesh Mehta (27 April 1991). "Housing Finance System and Urban Poor". Economic and Political Weekly. 26 (17): 1109–1110. 
  20. ^ a b Unni, Jeemol (22–28 May 1999). "Property Rights for Women: Case for Joint Titles to Agricultural Land and Urban Housing". Economic and Political Weekly. 34 (21): 1281–1286. 
  21. ^ a b Nayak, Nalini (January 2013). "Organizing the Unorganized Workers: Lessons from SEWA Experiences". The Indian Journal of Industrial Relations. 48 (3): 402–414. 

External links[edit]