Self Employed Women’s Association

What is the story of SEWA?

SEWA began as groups of urban poor — marginalized, disempowered, migrant cartloaders, vendors, rag pickers — who came together to ensure basic dignity of work and labor for themselves. It started in 1971 as a wing within TLA (Textile Labour Association), the then powerful union demanding worker rights within the organized and formal workforce.

Ela Bhatt, the head of Women’s Wing within TLA, supported these groups of women and spearheaded the establishment of a union representing the marginalized, unprotected women workers. About 90% of workers at that time belonged to what was labeled “marginal”, “informal”, “unorganized”, “peripheral”, “atypical” or “the black economy”. Women constituted over 50% of this unprotected workforce.

SEWA’s starting point and continued struggle over the years has been to shift the identity of these women to that of ‘self-employed workers’. Unionising them was an act of coming together for themselves rather than against anyone.

The union which was named SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) would go on to forge an identity of self-employed women as workers with rights to obtain Full Employment and Self Reliance. SEWA defined Full Employment as women obtaining work and income security, food security, social security (healthcare, childcare, shelter); Self-Reliance as women being autonomous and self-reliant — individually and collectively: both economically and in terms of decision making ability.

As SEWA’s mobilizing and organizing gained ground, they started being recognized nationally and internationally. The cracks between TLA and SEWA appeared and kept deepening with rise in SEWA’s popularity. The final straw was SEWA’s support for reservations for Dalits in High Education. SEWA was asked to leave TLA in 1981.

SEWA continued to grow and thrive outside TLA. It allowed SEWA to carve its new identity based on both Struggle and Development. SEWA straddled both Union and Cooperatives. From a membership of 12 thousand in 1982 (a year after it left TLA) it has grown to a membership of 19 lakh in 2017.

How did SEWA grow? What enabled it?

To start with, SEWA didn’t aim for scaling as an institution. Their ambition was defined by their macro perspective of poverty and commitment to both struggle and development. SEWA was driven by a deep commitment to remove poverty. They defined poverty as being violent, disrespectful to human labour, stripping a person of his or her humanity and taking away freedom. They were deeply influenced by the Gandhian ways of nation building which implied identifying local needs, creating local structures and building local governance institutions. This is the form of engagement they used for working with every trade and geographical community that approached them. This in turn guided them to move from one community to another. They expanded from the urban poor to the rural poor and then to tribals displaced from forest lands.

Initially, while a few groups approached them to address their specific issues, SEWA also started approaching other poor women communities aiming for comprehensive poverty alleviation. In their view poverty could be alleviated only when economic, social, political, food security was ensured for the women. This led them to create many cooperatives and services.

The story of how SEWA COOPERATIVE Bank was established is illustrative. Most women SEWA worked with were in debt to private money lenders, touts, pawn shops, grocers or landlords who charged exorbitant interest rates ranging from 10% per day to 25% per month. They also had no safe space to save because of their living conditions.

The formal banking system was nationalized and SEWA took the opportunity to approach the banks for loans for the poor self-employed women. However, banks were unwilling to lend to illiterate women who had no assets to offer as collateral.

One of the SEWA members, a garment vendor, suggested that SEWA form its own bank. The challenge was that SEWA had no capital to start a bank. The solution came from the SEWA member, “We are poor but we are so many.” So, 6287 SEWA members contributed to the share capital of Rs. 71,320/- at the price of Rs 10 per share. SEWA Cooperative Bank was formed in 1974.

By 1984, SEWA had built a substantial membership and created significant impact in Gujarat. In order to advocate for rights of self-employed women across India they needed a national identity. This led to the formation of SEWA Bharat, a movement across the country.

Tell a little more about their growth, where are they now?

SEWA explains itself as a family of organisations similar in structure to a banyan tree that spreads its branches. Over time the branches grow vines that reach for the ground and take root, becoming trunks themselves. Each branch is independent and autonomous both financially and in decision making.

There has been a steady increase in their membership and reach over the years, from 1972 to 2017 as shown in the table below.

SEWA is organized as a trade union of informal workers that organizes women who work as:

  • Hawkers, vendors and small business women like vegetable, fruit, fish, egg and other vendors of food items, household goods and clothes vendors.
  • Home-based workers like weavers, potters, bidi and agarbatti workers, papad rollers, ready-made garment workers, women who process agricultural products and artisans.
  • Manual labourers & service providers like agricultural labourers, construction workers, contract labourers, handcart pullers, headloaders,domestic workers and laundry workers.
  • Producers & Service providers who invest their labour and capital to carry out their businesses. This category includes Agriculture, cattle farmers, salt workers, gum collectors, cooking & vending etc.

From a predominantly Gujarat based membership in the 1980s, today half of its members are from outside Gujarat. It is present in 17 states and 7 South- Asian countries. It is also part of several international networks to promote the cause of self-employed women workers.

It has over 109 primary trade co-operatives. Its biggest and oldest cooperative which ensures access to capital for the self-employed poor women is the SEWA Cooperative Bank. It has a share capital of Rs. 3240 crores, has paid dividends of 9-12% every year from the second year of its operation. It has maintained a repayment rate 96–98% over the years.

Snapshot of the kind of cooperatives run by SEWA women

  • SEWA Cooperative Bank (1974)
  • First Milk Cooperative (1979)
  • Anasuya (newsletter) (1982)
  • SEWA National Association (1982)
  • First Artisans’ Cooperative (1982)
  • Video SEWA (1984)
  • First Child Care Cooperative (1986)
  • First Tree Growers; Cooperative (1986)
  • BDMSA (first rural program, in a drought-prone area) (1987)
  • First Vegetable and Fruit Vendors’ Cooperative (1989)
  • SEWA Academy (1990)
  • First Health Care Cooperative (1990)
  • First Salt Farmers’ Cooperative (1991)
  • Vimo SEWA (Insurance) (1992)
  • SEWA Cooperative Federation (1993)
  • Gujarat Mahila Housing Trust (1994)
  • First Midwives Cooperative (1994)
  • Kutch Craft Association (1995)
  • SEWA Gram Mahila Haat (local marketing) (1999)
  • SEWA Trade Facilitation Center (2000)

Is it possible to be truly democratic at such a scale?

SEWA’s expansion is not about scaling a program. The model works on the principles of decentralized people’s planning. The strength of SEWA is to gather women locally, who then identify local needs and build a representative local body and find ways to address their needs.

Overall, members can be engaged with SEWA in three main ways

  • a union, that helps women organise in their struggle for fair treatment and access to justice, to markets, and to services;
  • cooperatives, that help women produce and market their products and build their assets; and
  • member services that are partly financed by user charges, but also in part by donors, and by government departments.

Their structure enables decentralized women led planning. Women can become union members on paying an annual membership fee and become part of a trade union. Every member is part of a trade committee. The members of each trade elect their representatives in the ratio of 1 representative per 100 members. These representatives then form the Trade Representatives Council. This council elects an Executive Committee of 25 members every 3 years. The representation of the Executive Committee reflects the proportion of membership of the trade. The office bearers of the trade union are elected from the office bearers.

The trade committee meets every month to discuss the problems of their trades and possible solutions. The trade representatives Council meets every 3 months. The Executive Committee is the ultimate decision-making body. There is no central bureaucracy and the structure works around needs of the members and their concerns. This structure allows for great flexibility to grow and adapt with member needs.

Decentralization and people led decision making are encoded in SEWA’s structure and the processes. As they move to more geographies and trades, membership keeps changing which changes the nature of issues; each new member brings in a ‘new set of problems, new set of solutions and a full set of expectations’. It enables decision making both individually and collectively.

How are the values and guiding principles relevant in different contexts and geographies?

SEWA identifies with fundamental human values of simplicity, dignity of labour and non-violence. This led them to arrive at clear and simple value framework that applies in any human context. The values are:

  • Women at the center of the work
  • Poor women as leaders of their own programs
  • Programs around their work
  • Commitment to non-violence

Their guiding principles — of identifying and working on local needs, people led and people owned institutions — implies that they do not replicate solutions from other geographies. However, the network of SEWA institutions are informed about each other’s learnings and draw heavily from each other in designing their solutions. The values and guiding principles have led to a structure that enables true representation of worker needs in various trades and across geographies.

How has SEWA remained relevant over the years?

SEWA’s structure is built around constantly evolving member needs. Its greatest strength is its flexible structure and openness to trying new solutions. There were no predetermined standards of success and failure. There are many examples of them failing, e.g., struggle for minimum wages for landless labourers.

The constantly changing nature of SEWA has contributed to them fearlessly charting new territories and trying many innovative solutions such as insurance for the unprotected, cooperative bank etc.

SEWA long-term commitment to enquiry and finding facts before starting on any initiative as well as open sharing of experiences amongst members has shaped SEWA into a ‘learning organisation’.

SEWA has also been willing to collaborate with diverse entities, be it industrial conglomerates, government departments, international departments; anyone who could help mainstream their efforts. They have been influenced by and influenced other actors of change thus remaining relevant over the years.

What has been SEWA’s impact?

SEWA does not have any set goals against which to measure impact. It has distilled

its understanding of poverty into a set of 11 simple questions to assess its initiatives.

It regularly asks of itself if it has been able to achieve the following:

  • Increase employment opportunities?
  • Increase women’s income?
  • Increase women’s assets?
  • Improve access to food and good nutrition?
  • Increase access to health services?
  • Improve access to child care?
  • Improve access to education?
  • Improve housing, water, and sanitation?
  • Strengthen the organization?
  • Encourage more poor women to take leadership?
  • Increase self-reliance individually and collectively?

The impact of SEWA can be seen in the spread of its membership. However, the biggest impact SEWA has made is in shifting mindsets and creating new concepts. It has helped demonstrate the viability of a new order by placing the poor at the centre of political and economic reform; building institutions that are small, local, democratic, and people-owned.

For example, SEWA Bank has been a pioneering model of banking for self employed women which has been replicated across countries.

It has impacted policy at national and international levels. SEWA has represented the needs of self-employed women in Planning Commission and Labour Commission of Government of India. It has been instrumental in creating a global bank for women (Friends of Women’s World Banking) as well creating many international alliances.

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