Kalima Rose_SEWA

Kalima Rose_SEWA - _ We not only want a piece of the pie, '...

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–18. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 6
Background image of page 7

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 8
Background image of page 9

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 10
Background image of page 11

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 12
Background image of page 13

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 14
Background image of page 15

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 16
Background image of page 17

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 18
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: _ We not only want a piece of the pie, ' we also want to choose the flavour, and know how to make it ourselves. Ela Bhatt ; 1 SEWA: Women Movement ‘My hat is an illegal occupation,’ explains Saraswati Ramesh- Chandra, ‘but there is no choice—1 do not have money to buy a piece of land. For three years I did not even sleep at night because there was no door to my hut—only a blanket. '1' was afraid and used to stay awake all night just to keep a watch'over my house and my children.’ ' Saraswati quit school at the age of 13 to earn more income for the family when her father Was laid 015‘ work in the textile mills.” ' For several years she and her. mother supported the entire family on their bidi (indigenous cigarette} rolling income, until she _ married and moved to her husband’s village. She had problems with his family, and returned alone to Ahmedabad with her three children. She was unwelcome'in her parents’ house. Because she had left her husband, she was a social stigma to' them. :As a woman. she had no claim on the family property. With nowhere " ' to ground no assets to her name, she constructed a bamboo hut on alarge barren lot in Bapunagar (an eastern suburb of Ahmeda: bad), and began rolling bidis again for'the same contractor she had worked for as a child. . - ' ‘ 7 _ In 1987, the Self Employed Women's Association (SE WA) was to Where Women Are Leaders negotiating with all the contractors in- Ahmedabad to. pay the legal minimum wage of Rs. 13 (about US $1) for 1000 bidis— about one day’s wcrk for one woman. Most of them were paying- between Rs. 7—8. Saraswati’s contractor, Laxmandas, decided to close shop rather than meet his legal obligations, putting her and 95 other women out of work. Saraswati paid her Rs. 5 member- ship fee to the union with the attitude of ‘What is there to lose?’ _When other bidi workers came and began demonstrating in front ‘ _ of his shop, she; became more interested and joined in. The union’s lawyer filed a case in court and she entered negotiations through the Labour Commissioner for Laxmandas to pay com- pensation for closing down. ‘At first he refused, ’ Saraswati said, ‘but we all got together and showed him the law. We made him pay each worker a flat sum for the number of years each worked for him. I got Rs. 900. l used‘that money to put a door on my hut—“which ended one anxiety for me. " I I find myself continually impressed not only by what SEWA has accomplished in its 20 years of existence, but also by the magnitude of what it takes on. Based in Ahmedabad, the largest city of India’s western state of Gujarat, and working under aname Which ' _translates as ‘service’, SEWA successfully. integrates a complex myriad of lives, occupations, and issues into one union. Under SEWA, women have forged a new. model of what a trade union can'be—a Third World model, which defies conventional con- _ ceptions about who unions organize and what they do for their members. Most unions in the world organize workers in one kind of industry, who share one fixed workplace, and concern themselves with problems which revolve only around the work issues of their members. Some unions dotake up issues related to women workers, - or include a women’s wing in the larger body of the union, but there are very few unions in the world which are devoted entirely to a female membership, as SEWA is. SEWA organizes women who work in their homes, in the streets of cities, in the fields and villages of rural India, with no fixed employer, .carving their small ' niches in the economy, day by day, with only their-wits to guide them against incredible odds of vulnerability, invisibility, and poverty. ' ‘ These then are the common denominators around which SEWA has gathered 30,000 members into its fold since its inception in SEWA: Womian in Movement I? 1972: they are women, they are ‘self—employed’, and they are poor. From these common bases, diverse individuality in trades, religious and ethnic backgrounds, and living environments are brought together. Where these women are individually extremely vulnerable to the forces'of their day-t0-daypovertywhich are compounded by financial exploitation, physical abuse, and general social harassment, they have found that collectively they are able to struggle against theseforces and odds to effect change in their lives and work. SE-WA’S choice of the term ‘self—employed’ to define this large sector of workers was consciously made to give positive status to people who are often described. negatively as informal, unorganized, marginal, or peripheral. How can the self- employed workers who make up 55 per cent of Ahmedabad’s work'- force and 50 per cent of Calcutta‘s and Bombay’s workforce be considered ‘ma'rginal?’ Or, how could the majority of rural women who‘are engaged in the food production of the country be considered ‘peripheral?’ According to SEWA estimates, women account for ' at least 60 per cent of the self-employed population. Only 6. per cent of India’s census recognized female workforce isin regular employment, 94 per cent of working women are- self-employedfi; ‘ Self—employed is a broad term covering all the workers who are“. 1 not in a formal employer—employee relationship. It means women who work at home—weavers, putters, garment and quilt stitchers, patchworkers, embroiderers, bidi rollers, incense stick makers, . milk producers, spinners, basket and broom weavers, metalworkers, - carpenters, shoemakers, painters, sculptors, and atoymakers. It , includes women Who sell or. trade their services or labour—agri- ' cultural workers, headloaders, hand-cart pullers, waste paper col- lectors, aerobats, cleaners, and construction workiers. And it includes the multitude of hawkers and vendors who carry out trade in the streets and markets from their baskets or cartloads of wares. Both traditiOnal and modern occupations come under SEWA’s definition of self-employed, from the bartering of goods to capital- istic piece—rate work. Women all over India are struggling for survival in a world where the physical resources they have traditionally depended upon for survival are degraded and diminishing in the face of intense population and industrial pressure. Though they are all economically active, they have not acquired the skills necessary to make an adequate living in an industrializing economy, nor are 18 Where Women Are Leaders there sufficient jobs for all those in need of them. The hillsides and plains where severe erosion, floods, and drought follow deforestation mirror the faces of families whose deprivation and degradation are plainly written into them. . _ Not only in Gujarat, where SEWA’s work has become firmly rooted, but also all over the country, where its work has begun to make inroads, some-common .pictures,of how women are dealing with their problems emerge. First, women are better fighters than men of the day-to-day poverty which faces them. They exercise incredible ingenuity in‘making ends meet. It is common for men to remain unemployed for long periods of time when no ‘job’ can be found. Women, on the other hand, combine many jobs and occu— - pations simultaneously, bringing in small amounts of cash, trading for foodgrains or clothing, exchanging services fer access to a small rhut, vending small quantities 'of consumer goods, collecting wood or fruits or recyclable waste from common. lands, and using what specialized skills they possess to earn wages. They endow society with their labour, providing‘cheap services, strongbacks, and' traditional skills. Wherever they are given the opportunity, women contribute modernized ideas and skills as well. They request very little'in exchange for their labour, consuming small fractions of the country’s resources in relation to what they produce. ' Second, besides being able to piece together the family income out of ingenuity and'necessity, women spend almost all of their earnings on the family. Whatever little they do earn, they spend on food, clothing, and their meagre shelter. SEWA'women confirm. this fact, but countless other women all over India have also attested that if they earn, for example, Rs. 8 a day, they spend all of it on'food for the family, whereas their husbands contribute a much smaller part of their earnings to the household—1f there is a husband, and if he has earnings. Up to' 30 per cent of poor families are supported Soler by women who are self-employed? ' ' The third quality that has emerged is women’sconcern-about the future. They want their children’s lives to be better than their own, and make repeated sacrifices in- order to ensure this. Not only do they work 12 to 20 hour days to try and effect this change, but they also reveal an- exceptional ecological consciousness. -While their menfoi-k often opt for cash income from wood crops, women organizing across the country insist on protecting trees, or planting trees which will provide fuel and fodder and be a long-term, SEWA: Women in Movement 19 resource rather .than a cash crop. They increasingly understand the effects - of deforestation," droughts, soil erosion, and saline en- croachment on both the land and their families’ lives as they lose the local resources that they depend upon._ Because of their ability to be flexible, to cembine domestic work 7 and'income' earning activities, and to shift occupational skills as 'the season or market demands; because they do not need to fit the terms of formal jobs in order to be economically active; and' because they have needs which are not fulfilled by the formal sector'of society, self-employed women "require a very different kind of union than the traditional definitions of unions can meet. Out of their intense needs for fair credit, maternity protection, fair ' wages for whatever work they are engaged in, skills training, year— round work, and legal-help when they are exploited or abused,- SEWA came into being. The organization began on a small scale. When women who pull freight- on carts and headload textiles between markets saw what advantages the textile unions were gaining for their members, they approached the Textile Labour Association (TLA), India’s largest union of textile workers. They were directed to Ela Bhatt, a lawyer who was then heading the-TLA’s Women’s Wing. They r asked her, ‘What about us? Can’t we get any-of these benefits?’ At that time, Bhatt had been dealing With‘labour issues for 14 years through jobs with the TLA and the-Labour Mini‘stry‘of the Gujarat government. Though dealing with organized labour, she was con- stantly exposed-to the realities of the poor working class and the . numerous problems of the unorganized workers of India. When '- these self-employed women first approached her, she Was ready to hear their question. She reSponded with an idea she had been formulating for many years: ‘You need to Organize yourselves if you want to get some of these benefits.’ ‘ ' ' About two dozen women dame together and pooled a few paise' and‘took some decisions to demand that their wages be 'regularized._' Soon used-clothes and vegetable vendors wanted to join them, for . ' ' protection from police brutality and extortion. Then home-bound ' women in the Muslim-community who stitch textile waste into _- - garments and quilt covers requested somesupport. Agricultural 'Workers'came to these meetings to discuss how they could actually ' .get the minimum wage they- were due under law. Carpenters and. " "'__me_talsmithing women came seeking access to small loans for 20 Where Women Are Leaders working capital. Then the exploitation bidi workers and incense stick makers faced brought them into the fold of the union. Women who had'migrated to the city for textile mill jobs, but had faced retrenchment and werevreduced to picking recyclable waste from- the city’s garbage dumps had several ideas of how to alter their circumstancesyand came to the union for services and support. Weavers, basket-makers and block printers, all facing displacement, of their skills or loss of raw materials orrmarkets, came seeking help - to hold onto the only occupations they knew. Women who had' been victimized for asking for legal wages in the tobacco processing plants came seeking legal assistance. ' In this way'SEWA grew, organically, slowly absorbing more and . more trades, rooting itself in the reality of poor working women. Each of these trades is usually associated with one or two particular communities, which makes for an unuSually varied and vibrant. coalition in the organization. The spirit and diversity of SEWA would preSently be difficult to come by anywhere else, though this is what its members are,working on promoting across India. Tribal, Hindu, Harijan, migrant, and Muslim women; tattooed Vaghari women, women in purdah; sinewed, muscular smiths; sun-darkened cartpullers and agricultural labourers; young nimble girl bidi rollers with their mothers and grandmothers, progressively more thin and bent from years of sitting over their rolling work; street-wise and bawdy vendors alongside of women timidly emerging from home- bound communities; all in different dress; speaking different lan- guages and dialects; practising different trades—all are coming together to generate strength. It is quite an amazing convergence ' to witness. . _ 'To sit in the SEWA reception centre on any given day and watch the comings and goings is like being at a market place. Like people coming to deal, a hundred activities and purposes all spill from a compact fear-storied building and four converted houses Which comprise the bank, the offices of the union, the cooperatives, and the legal, health, and creche services. _ _ This office is generally quiet before 11 am. each day, when it officially opens,'although all the rural organizers pass through at 8:30 am. to meet their colleagues and pick up their respective jeeps to head towards the villages. After 11 a.in., women from all over the city. and from the outlying villages begin pouring into the centre. They come to talk about their problems, or to meet other- SEWA: Women in Movement 2! organizers and plan action, or to attend training classes, Or simply .to meet friends and drink tea, as a break from the constant pressure of work. In the main building, each floor consists of basically one large open room, in which several chairs, desks, tables, and fans accommodate innumerable women in one space. Small screens partially divide the-space between the different . functions of the organization, but just as with the problems and ' lives that SEWA deals with,_there is a lot of traffic around the boundaries. _ . At the back of the building is a stone courtyard, onto which the door of the reception opens. Young girls sit here each morning vending strings of jasmine to tie in the hair. On one side they are hemmed by the small house where the teenage daughters of waste I. cloth quilt stitchers learn fine applique patchwork and the daughters of paper pickers learn electrical wiring. On the opposite side of the courtyard, there is constant traffic between the small house which serves as the legal office and the main building. Through this courtyard and down the lane is the three-storied house which serves as the cityoffices of the 30 cooperatives which are scattered across the city and four rural districts of the state. Bamboo Workers weave in the open lot next to the bank which faces the main street. 'The bank receives the majority of traffic on any given day, and is popularly referred to as ‘the village well’—the place where women gather to share news and friendship. A queue of women accompanied, by their children forms early and keeps moving until closing time. They come to apply for loans or deposit money into their savings accounts. Next to them, a small tea stall is set up under a woven mat, where two women make sweet spicy milk tea fer all the people working, visiting, strategizing, deposit- ing and withdrawing money. Block printers work on the roof, overlooking the small shop next door where their products are sold, along with the products of other SEWA artisans. The video production room—where self-employed women produce their own films on the issues which affect their communities—is squeezed ‘ next to the meeting room on the. third floor where women collect at 11 a.rn." to sing their daily prayers, or to discuss issues facing them as a group. They not only discuss problems related to trade groups, but social issues as well, and here they receive training in legal procedures, or running a creche, or English literacy, or s0me_ ' Other- skill. Above this is the tiniest room of all, which serves as the. 22 Where Women Are Leaders documentation room, where some of the most progressive studies on self-employed women can be found. By_5 :30 each evening, the activity simmers down and the building slowly becomes deserted. Ela Bhatt’s tiny brass handbell, which rings incessantly throughout the day when she is present —-— .to call into her small office the next visitor or the next member who hascome to talk or seek advice—finally quietens down. Then all theleaders seek each other out, and sit in one cubby 'or another, and talk about what'has happened that day. Every day at SEWA, crises OCCur'at all levels. Every day, some small or major victory. is won in the ongoing struggles of SEWA’s members. Setbacks constantly crop up, and new strategies are conceived to overcome them. Out of the overwhelming amount of activity which goes on at once, one senses an underlying ethos of patience. There is not ' just one goal which is fought for. Women here understand that change -is a process of struggles. Their experiente has equipped them for -this———they have struggled all their lives. And while there is still deep frustration about the forces which mire them in poverty, a' sense of joy and empowerment also emanates from this place. Now, their daily struggles yield something more than their indi— vidual bread. They have a place to come when they are in crises, . and they hold a belief based on their experience that they can solve their problems. . -- _ Whether small or large in nature, the changes this convergence has generated continue to influence increasingly broader spheres. The day-to-day, grassroots changes centre around trying to improve women’s working situations. The tactics vary with each individual trade, but usually begin with confronting the direct'exploiter and presenting him with demands for change. For women engaged in piece-ratework, this means asking the contractor for higher wages. For vendors, it means confronting the police officers who beat the women and extract bribes from them on charges of ‘encroachment.’ For women providing services, it means ensuring fair wages and steady work. ' _ ' From the beginning of SEWA’S work, however, it has been apparentthat this direct confrontation could never accomplish all the long~term, structural and social 'changes needed: to seriously change women’s lives.- Women who earn just enough each day to i keep their family going are extremely vulnerable. Missing one day’s work can mean a crisis in the family. As in the formal sector ' SEWA: Women in Movement '23 trade unions, it is common fer women to be victimized when their- union confronts the person giving them work. For the self-employed, however, the repercussions are even .more acute. Terrified of losing the small sporadic incorne that they do have, or of having _ r violence committed against themselves, self-employed women are initially reluctant to join in making demands on their employers. Yet SEWA has found that the only way to bring change is to. ‘organize, organize, and organize some more.’ In numbers they have found voice and strength. When they stand in sufficient - numbers, their voices do shake the balance and change things in _ their favour—from the tactics of their neighbourhood trader or local landowner, up to the national and international polic1es. Once they have policy backing, the ground is firmer from which to organize more women and push their demands into broader spheres. . . . _ _ , A real problem in organizing the self—employed 13 that confron- - tation obviously cannot create more work. For agricultural labourers who are unemployed seven months‘in a year, the union cannot change the seasons. Nor can the union demand that customers buy traditional crafts in a declining market. Out of these vulnerabilities— Iof not enough-work, low skill levels, and victimization of indi- viduals who demand fairer practices—SEWA saw the usefulness of helping women get access to alternatives. Besides agitating- 'against conditions, SEWA women have a positive vision of the society they are working toward. They perceive that-altematrve structures could positively create this reality. A If labourers are desperate for, work, the farmer can dictate the wages. If they also have their own cattle to milk and skilled craft to generate income, they have the choice about what to accept from the farmer. They also have optioris which can carry them through if a crisis occurs in‘ one of their occupations, like a drought which dispenses with agricultural labour for one or two years. L SEWA’s responsiveness to its members’ reality is evident in this .approach. _ Government. poverty alleviation schemes across the country support one activity for income generation, leaving the woman financially vulnerable if her buffalo on loan falls Sick, or- when it is not lactating, or during the off season for her ‘craft. Recognizing that rural women traditionally combine land-based, livestock, and craft activities to'provide them with work through all the seasons, SEWA’s rural programme is aimed at supporting a 24 Where Women Are Leaders . multi—occupational base by strengthening women in two or three different trades.‘ ' SEWA has organized 30 all-women’s cooperatives in rural and urban areas including production, service, and banking cooper— atives. Through its concrete experiences in developing these, SEWA has, seen that cooperatives can provide a structure for . women to control their own assets and to come together on the basis of their work, where they are both the owners and workers. For most Women who become members of these cooperatives, this. marks the first time in their lives that they have owned anything. In a male dominated society, poor women’s ownership of assets can become a reality more readily collectively than independently. And because cooperatives are small and decentralized, they can develop at each group’s own pace and be responsive to individual experiences, letting the women grow into their new roles and realities. Collectively, many small cooperatives can make eco- , nomically weak women effective in the mainstream. SEWA builds women’s cooperatives as modern extensions of the traditional system of self-employment, where people own their own means of production and work for themselves. - All of SEWA’s attributes—that it represents the self—employed,- that its members are women, that it provides services, that it promotes alternative economic structures—make its definition as a union revolutionary, and give it'the strength and leverage to affect change vertically. SEWA'is constantly, systematically, simultan— eously working on three levels—grassroots, national and inter— national—to bring visibility and change in women’s lives.‘ From women headloaders in one city’s cloth market demanding standardization of their wages in 1972, this organizatioh has grown to change the perceptions of women and their work worldwide; This achievement is based on the strength of working from the bottom up, from poor women’s experiences to policy change based-0n their experience. SEWA respects traditional systems of . work and their modern manifestations which are largely informal, based on verbal interactions, and decentralized through the lanes, neighbourhoods, markets, villages, and fields of Gujarat. SEWA women build their organization based on these realities, rather ' than trying to conform to alien industrialized models. I A few examples will-illustrate the'kinds of-intense needs self— a - employed women have for access to services and resources, and SEWA: Women in Movement 25 the ways SEWA has responded to these needs: Most of the ' ' systems which presently extend these services are in the hands of those who either do not perceive or' misunderstand these women and their problems, and they often overlook or exclude the self- emplOyed'women most in need of them. SEWA’s 20 years of work , in developing ways to meet the needs of poor w‘omen thrOugh their work lives has forged models for women in India, and begun to change the perspectives of western-based international trade 7 unions and labour organizations towards women workers. SEWA’S initial project was credit. Fair credit was a unanimous demand from all the trade groups which came together under SEWA. When families earn the minimum for day-to-day survival, 7 times of emergency or- social obligations such as marriages and deaths mean debts. Most lower class self~ernployed women also take loans for working capital. For whichever purpose they borrow the money, they pay exorbitant interest rates—as high as 10 per cent per day. This indebtedness makes them more susceptible to exploitative wages, as the loans are often extended to them by the ‘ traders or landowners for whom-they work. SEWA started Out by helping its members get loans from nationalized banks, but - it quickly became, apparent how ill«equipped both the women and these formal institutions were to deal with one another. Most SEWA ,women could not fill out deposit and withdrawal slips, found fortrial banking hours inconvenient due to their work sche— dules, did not understand what queues to stand in, or which banks or branches to m‘ake‘their payments to. The bottom line was that they could not sign their names, and that their names even changed from visit to visit. Sometimes they gave their husbands’ name, sometimes their mothers’ or fathers’ name. All these formalities are irrelevant in their day-to-day worlds within their'kn0wn com:' munities where verbal dealings are the means of agreement. The banks quickly became exasperated over these discrepancies. Middle class bank employees did'nbt have any experience in'dealing with ' .illiterate clients who wanted'only small loans, nor with what- they termed the ‘un'couth’ manners of their new clients._ - _ SEWA women realized that what they really needed was their ' 'own bank which could fit their needs. This was really SEWA’s beginning to innovative solutions for bridging the modern and traditional worlds. To overcome the problem of illiteracy, they .would'use the women’s photographs instead of signatures on their 26 Where Women Are Leaders pass-books. The problem of banking hours was overcome by sendin bank workersout‘to the women’s neighbourhoods and workplaces, to collect savings and loan instalments. Organizers disregardedx professional advice that such a bank for poor, illiterate women would be suicidal. Now, 16__years later, they see that they have better recoveryrates and higher profit margins than the most formal institutions, and that their model is being promoted by ' women’s organizations around the world. Early on in its banking experience, SEWA conducted research to find out why some women were defaulting on loan payments. SEWA found that in many families one family member or another was constantly ill, hampering their ability to work and generate income. SEWA was most alarmed, however, to discover that out of 500 women defaulters who were surveyed, 20 had died and 15 of the 20 deaths were during childbirth. These women were experi- encing two. major problems: the most immediate cause of their problem was tetanus, due to limited access to proper medical care. In 1975, many SEWA members were still having their umbilical cords cut with a dirty sickle. Their'secondary problem was their need for income. If they had no surplus, and no maternity benefit, they could not leave work for childbirth. Many self-employed women have told me about the numerous times they have worked until the labour pains began, and after two or three days, were back in the fields or vegetable markets, or rolling bidis again. This not only endangers the health of the mother, but also of her young child. It pushes her, from her already precarious state of poor nutrition and overworked body, into a cycle of poorer health, loss of the baby, a repeated pregnancy to have another child, followed by poorer health-It quickly became clear to SEWA organizers that a self-employed woman needed a way topmtect herself from sbme of the risks of childbirth, to be able to rest after childbirth and recover her strength, and a way to eat and feed her family during this period when she would be away froni work. SEWA strongly believed that society as a whole should assume the responsibility of the nation’s children, not solely the poor mother. Unable to find any public support for these women through the government’s Life Insurance Corporation, SEWA was com- ‘ pelled to initiate its own maternal protection scheme. When a woman became. pregnant, she was registered under the scheme" by ' paying a fee of .Rs. 15. Then SEWA linked her to prenatal services ' ~ SEWA: Women in Movement 2] apprdpriate to the area where she lived and worked. At the time of delivery, she was given a‘ stipend of 100 and a. kilo of ghee (clarified butter), a high energy food which post-partumwomen traditionally eat. In addition to linking these women to health I services and the cash benefit, SEWA also conducted training courses for midwives in the rural areas where they work, teaching them the need for sterilized tools and sanitary conditions. _ Within a very short time, the results of this scheme were evident in the health and survival rates of bdth the mothers and their I children. After several years of expanding this pregramme, SEWA still believed that the government should be providing this service to women—but not as a welfare service. SEWA clearly saw this as an Occupational health issue. It lobbied the state to take up a maternity scheme for landless agricultural workers, who make up 75 per cent of the female population. In 1987, Gujarat-state‘—.with SEWA’s help—began implementing. the Maternity Protection. Schemethrough the Labour Ministry. SEWA meanwhile continues ‘ lobbying the central government to launch this programme nation— wide for self-employed women. I . ‘ These kinds of accomplishments are monumental in the face of slow government bureaucracies and caste distinctions _which sup— press ideologies that lower caste and poor women can think for and help themselves—~1‘fthey-ar‘e given access to resources. This is “One reason Why SEWA reCOgnizes how fragile such gains are on a small scale. Educating people in one district to the needs and methods of such a programme is sufficient only as long as-those receiving the training and developing the requisite sympathies are ' I-present; If they are transferred to another position, or another district-or state, or if the politicians who support the programme leave, the-setbacks can be detrimental and frustrating. For these . reasons, SEWA is constantly working at each level of society to I press for ‘change. The grassroots changes are vital for individual -'women,but they can only be sustained if they become part of the _ entire society’s consciousness, and if large scale policies support . both the programmes and the ideology. . . An important point to make here is that part of the reason tha women submit to the exploitation inflicted upon them in the first place is.'that they are not conversant with the formal, literate world, and that many of them live and deal in a limited circumscribed environment which does not promote unifying with people outside. 28 'Where Women Are Leaders How then, have'they managed to organize, and make inroads into the formal 'systems? This obviously requires the help z'of.-peopl_e ' who are conversant with that formal world, orpoor and illiterate woi'n'en 'wOul'd have come together'long ago and SEWA would not he so unusual. The general experience of the self-employed,.how-' ever, is that people who are conversant with both worlds are the ones who exploit them, milking benefits from both sides. The initialinspiration for devoting the kinds of skills which would bridge the gap between these two worlds came from Ela Bhatt. Her concern with women’s labour problems and the degraded conditions under which their families were forced to live gave her the strong conviction that self-employed women should learn themselves how to deal with the two worlds in order to change these conditions. The headloaders who approached her in 1971 were the kindling to her fire. They came to meether with Gal B'aj.i,_. their the/cedar (contractor). Although he was concerned that the, women were living on the street, he was still very obviously con- trolling them. He wanted charity, not justice. The initial insight .Ela gained from her contact with them—that the best way to change situations of poverty was through struggling for jUStice in women’s work lives—has proved a powerful organizing tool which eliminates any sense of charity in the organization. The success of her strategy gained its first widespread recognition _ i in 1977-when she was awarded Asia’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for ‘making a reality'of the Gandhian principle of self-help among the depressed workforce of self-employed wome'n.’ Now, after 20- years as the leader of SE A, her belief in women’s self- reliance through self-employment has growninto her belief that the future of India lies in the hands of rural and poor women. She constantly reiterates that if India wants to pull itself out of poverty, it is through giving these persevering women access to resources, decision—making, planning, and implementing .of their own pro- grammes, that this will be accomplished. - ' ' In SEWA’s 20 years of existence, over 46,000 women'have - joined Bhatt’s work, dedicating their individual skills-to facilitate interfacing the formal and informal Worlds. The majority of SEWA’s organizers are working class women themselves. 'Some with special leadership qualities have come to represent their ' trades in the union, and others who are literate bring this skill with their first—hand understanding to forge bridges. A few middle class and elite professional women have also been drawn to SEWA, SEWA: Women in Movement 29 leaving outside jobs in business management, as physicians, and lawyers,-to contributetheir skills to the organization. Others have __ I I come from different parts of India with skills of union organizing, public health management, and economics, to settle down in ._ Ahmedabad specifically to work with» SEW-A. And some have 3' come from other countries, tostay for a short time and teach skills developed elsewhere. One sirch contributor was Martha-Stuart, who came from ‘Are You Listening?’ based, in New York. She began the process of training'self—employed women in the use of video equipment, so that they could communicate their work life and struggles to the larger world from their own perspective. From " this start, SEWA has begun extending this training to illiterate communities all over the world. . . , This is the basis of SEWA‘s ideology—that women from all . levels of society join .together to plan with rather than planning for poor women. The strength of the organization is in its member 'ship, which generates the understanding and ideas which the middle class women can help convey. SEWA does not engage lawyers, doctors and managers simply-to provide services to the organization. Lawyers, doctors and managers who believe in the _ work come-to learn from the self-employed the context of their problems. They provide their services while they pass on their skills. The idea is holding hands in mutual respect while they shift control. Out of this ideology, 60 womenfrom various trade groups are now providing basic health care services to their communities. Other self-employed women are learning to prepare and represent their own legal cases. Artisans have grown from exploited piece- r'ate workers,'_to partners in business in their own cooperatives... From these cooperatives, certain women have risen as managers of the cooperatives. When women workers assume these posl- - tions, SEWA sees policy change become a reality. There‘is. conviction in the demands when they are voiced by the workers - ' themselves. I Through this kind of interaction and growth, SEWA has paved '- the way for putting selfzemployed workers on the world lab0ur_ map. During the course of building SEWA on the experiences of self-employed women in Gujarat, it became increasingly apparent that many Women across India and other parts of the world were _ likewise economically active'while remaining poor, marginalized,_‘ . unprotected and even invisible as workers. While labour uniOns ifi ' I the west were lobbying against putting out work into workers’ 30 Where Women Are Leaders homes, SEWA’s home-based workers recognized that centralized, industrial modelled workplaces would never suit their need. They began demanding'to be legitimated, and protected at home. The International Labour Organization (ILO), which sets-'Vstandards for international‘labdur. laws, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) which represents 96 million workers in 81 countries, have begunto respond to SEWA’s demands by initiating an' ILO Convention (1990) for- the recognition and pro- tection of home—based-workers._ ' - Besides Working to reorient modern trends. toward validating home—based artisans, labourers or cultivators who are traditionally self-employed, SEWA also promotes traditional ways of trading - that have been marginalized by the modern, Western, urban models. Street vendors provide important daily services to consumers, supplying them with fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, eggs, milk, and cooked snacks, yet there is hardly an urban development plan in - ' the country which incorporates them. These vendors ask nothing except their right to ply the streets or squat in the markets with their two baskets or small hand-cart. Because they are not officially allotted space or given licences, they are labelled ‘encroachers’, harassed and beaten by the police, their goods confiscated, and bribes extorted from them to let them sit unharassed for a day or two. ' - For years, the municipal authorities and the police'werenot responsive to SEWA’s requests to allocate space and issue licences ' to these women vendors. Some vendors’ families had been selling in the main market for up to three generations,'but nonetheless found themselves evicted. SEWA organizers decided to take their case to the Supreme Court. They were successful in getting a ruling in favour of the women hawkers, who now sit with the security of licences to back up theirrefusal to move or pay ‘fines.’ This ruling has alsoset the stage for the National Policy on Hawkers and Vendors which SEWA is currently lobbying to push through Parliament. This policy formally legitimates this traditional way of trading, by providing licences, space, and facilities for vendors in both urban and rural markets across the country. SEWA is con— stantly challenging the relics of colonialism and western influence which marginalize Indian ways of life and. work, and demanding that society at large also examine its policies'and priorities. SEWA’s major achievements in this regard at the national level SEWA: Women in Movement 31 came when the Prime Minister agreed to appoint a National " Commission on Self-Employed Women to study the problems of I such women across the country and develop an agenda for change. ' The President of India nominated Ela Bhatt to Parliament and appointed her to head that Commission. The "Commission’s year and a half study across the nation included 800 public hearings— meeting'women in their workplaces, in the fields and nnnes, on construction sites, in the streets and markets. The Commassron’s research revealed that the problems of self-employed women In Gujarat reflect women’s situation nationwide. In late 1988, .the Commission’s Shramshakti (‘women’s labour power’) report was published, aimed at bringing visibility and positive change in the. lives of tens of millions of women. These changes are outlined through the policy recommendations which largely promote the 4_ grassroots strategies SEWA has found effective in its work, while revamping social services, protective legislation, and the labour monitoring bureaucracies; SEWA organizers were actively dis- seminating the findings of the Commission, pursuing translations into all the Indian languages, and organizing working groups to; carry out the recommendations when the National Front Govern» ment was elected to power in late 1989. When Ela Bhatt was appointed as the first Woman- to sit on-the national Planning- Commission which drafts the long-term Five-Year Plans, it became clear that the agenda of poor, working women had finain won some of the policy attention they had begun struggling for I? years earlier. - . That SEWA has succeeded in building a'union which reflects its grassroots sensibilities is reflected in comments I have heard from ' dozens of SEWA women. Time. and again they say, ‘SEWA is my ' mother,’ or ‘The bank is like'my. mother,’ or, ‘When we have a difficulty, we gohome to SEWA.’ This has special-significance in Indian culture, where a girl goes .to live at her in—laws’house after ' marriage. She usually thinks of her mother’s home as the place of: warmth andsafety, where. she can be free, relaxed, and more - herself. At home she is usually listened to, protected, and helped in whatevermanner her family can offer to 50va her' problems. One reason SEWA members ascribe maternal attributes 'to their work organization is because of the philosophy: of struggle to. which SEWA adheres. It isan especially feminine philosophy I - . which adheres to non-violence, to arbitration and reconciliation, '32 Where Women Are Leaders _ and most importantly, to a quiet, fiercely determined resistance to exploitation. When SEWA women formulate their demands, they _ agree to what they consider just and minimum, and then they remain firm till their demands are met. They inform their opponents of all their plans before they take action. These strategies gain _ them credibility not only in their opponents’ eyes, but also in the eyes of the general public. SEWA has seen time andagain how ' important the support of the general public is in its struggles for poor women who have little status in society, if the scales are to be 7 tipped in their favour. When SEWA bidi workers marched by the thousands in protest of exploitative practices and low wages, citizens sympathized with their' demands. When the vegetable vendors peacefully occupied their vending spaces, from which they had been evicted, the public responded and told them that they had missed buying from them in their absence. The women’s refusal to . employ violent means, combined Withthe support of the public, renders the authorities powerless to declare a law and order problem, ' ‘ and their opponents are compelled torespond to their demands.“ One can recognize here the resonance with Gandhi’s philosophy. of non-violent struggle for India’s independence from Britain. SEWA draws a great deal of inspiration from Gandhi’s work, and ' believes that he was instrumental 'in getting Indian society to ‘ recognize women’s importance in the world of work and social change. Gandhi himself ascribed the tactics employed in the freedom struggle to the tactics he had observed his wife and mother using at home to resist their own exploitation. While the organization reinforces the philosophy ,of non-violent orga_nizing,‘the_women - practiseit from the experience of their. day-to-day lives. I do not want to oversimplify here, or promote the idea that all women are generous and transcendent to'violence. But during the year and a half I spent at SEWA, I didwitness women’s faith and experience in the process of change through conciliation and ' compromise, rather than through aggression. Their conscious application to the public sphere of the negotiating and nurturing. qualities- wornen areconditioned to practise within the Indian family arise from the same practical incentives. Because they are the poorest in society, their families, homes, and occupations are ' the most obvious and immediate targets of any violenceinboth rural and urban areas! Poor women in Ahmedabad have experienced- SEWA: Women in Movement 33 several intense and destructive waves of caste 'and communal violence in which they have lost children, relatives, their homes, and their work; Their experience of these tragedies gives them reason to recognize the benefits of non—violence. Their'inspiring. ' example has come not only by recognizing-the benefits, however, but also by-being able to practise non~violence under'extremely. oppressive circumstances. ' ' 7 _ ' I once heard Ela Bhatt talk on why SEWA has found inspiration -' in Gandhi’s practices. She said one reason was because Gandhi did not-rely on miracles in his work against powerful social forces. SEWA women also recognize that no miracles will change their lives, and they persevere in their day-to-day struggle toward self- reliance. They continue to gather women by trade group, to learn about their specific problems and develop solutions to overcome them. Collectively they distil problems common to several trade groups, and work out ways to alleviate them. They continue to respect the process as much as any result. They say that gaining a demand is useful only if it leads to more organizing, only if it' inspires travelling further in the process of change. A woman who 10 years ago never ventured Out of her house, but sent'her son to collect tobacco and tendu'leaves from the contractor so that she could support herself and her children by rolling bidis would not have even, been able to introduce herself. Shewould have told us that she did not work if we'asked her about what occupation she was engaged in. She would have described herself as a wife, or mother, or- widow. Since her alliance with SEWA, however, she has grown frdmbeing able to speak her own name into the definition of a bidi worker. Meeting so many sister workers - ' gives her-the courage to not only collect {thesupplies and return her products herself, but also to ask her contractor to pay her the legal wage. Then her consciousness expands to recognize herself as a unionized-worker, along with all the women who stitch garments, weave cloth, process food, make incense, produce baskets and brooms, and who work as smiths, potters, and carpenj ters. Once she sees she is one of so many, she comes to understand how deeply the exploitation runs in the system, andhow she, along I: '3 with. so many sisters, should be getting a. better deal for their labour. From her slum in Ahmedabad, she moves out to other. neighbourhoods where women also practise her trade, to other: 34 Where Women Are Leaders trade groups with whom she shares her religion, to other states, to the local Panchayat (elected government representing about five villages), to state governments, to courts, to the Parliament, to the International Labour Organization. She then says loudly, clearly, - ‘I am a worker. Recognize me. I work at home, (Or in themarket. _ Or in the fields.) Recognize my workplace. Grant us the protection we need in our Work. We wantdignity,'not desperation'm-our work should previde us this.’ And from this place, her strength beCornes infectious, and she stands with her sisters saying, ‘We will plan the agenda for change. We willsit and decide our priorities, And we will manifest the changes!’ I 'SEWA women have a vision ref-governing bodies of the near . future: From village level Panchayats to Parliament to organizations like the ILO, they see their tribal, Muslim, Harijan, poor, low- , . caste, callouSed, articulate selves sitting on these bodies, making decisions, no longerthe recipients of policies and plans made by others. - ' I 7 This movement from the private, individual, circumscribed world to a broader consciousness of collective, public, political worlds is. reflected on some level in all the women who have been associated with SEWA for any length of time. To generate the self-respect needed to resist explditation, to demand change collectively and refrain from violence under such oppressive economic and social situations, requires a great deal of inspiration-.The blooming strength and emergence of thesewomen from their limited com—7 munities and desperate economic situations speak for the inspiration they'cul] from coming together. ' ' This strength- and emergence are creating what is perhaps SEWA’s most important contribution. In the Shift from traditional to modern'worlds, from verbal interactions to highly sephisticated technologies, voidsare created which individuals cannot muster ' the resources to span. Poverty is only One of the repercussions of these voids. Communalism and fundamentalism, with their resulting violence, also enter in attempts to hold Onto the old, understood systems which are irreversiblyretreating. The persistent work of a sisterhood—which for 20 years has crossed over definitions of poverty and wealth, of the boundaries of different communities, of literacyand illiteracy, of who can use services and technologies— ' now holds out viable, positive values and models which can serve as starting points to fill those voids in a healing, Indian way. - SEWA: women-in Movement 35 END NOTES . This account is'drawn'from Usha Jumani’s “The Informal sector as “People’s Economy": Seven Individual Views_l':rom Women of Ahmedabad,’ July 1988, pp. 35—39. ' - ' . Bhatt‘: Ela, ‘Women and Small Scale Enterprise Development in a New Era." Paper presented at the International Institute of Development, Ottowa, October 1987, p. 10'. . These trends are noted in Shramshak‘ti, the Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women, Government of India, 1988. For further discussion of these issues, See ‘The Grind of Work,’ preface in that Report. . These ideas on SEWA’s reliance on Gandhian' ideas are drawn from Ela Bhatt’s introduction in 'Pushpa Joshi (ed.), Gandhi On Women. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1933. ' ' ‘ , 262 Where Women Are Leaders Anasuya. Several of the groups report difficulty in financing their buildings, staff salaries, and the services the-y provide their members. Each SEWA groupprovides'creche facilities, education or training, and credit or savings schemes. - 7 While several of the SEWA groups assert that they would like to have more interaction and support from their Federation, Bhatt, who is General Secretary of the Federation, feels they are not all prepared to collaborate at this point. ‘While each SEWA is an autonomous unit, I think there is fear that because SEWA. in Gujarat is so large it will dominate the others in the Federation,’ she said. ‘I had, and still have, hopes that we could all work together, but so far each time we build the fire, some demons throw something in to'pollute it and we have to start again. Each SEWA is doing good work in its respective area. We have all learned a great deal from each others’ experiences. Still the day may come when we will be a stronger national force for the self- employed.’ _ _ - Indeed, when one looks at the work on the national policy, a more unified coalition of voices enforcing the same sentiments frOm diverse locations in the country'is still awaiting to be heard. I \ 11 _ MOVng on: Pushing. l ' ' .- Policy Outward - Women are poorer than men amongst the poor. They are the worst victims of all soda-economic decay, degradation, and ‘ distortions. Yet I envisage poor Women as being in the vanguard of development processes and movement . .' . . ' Ela' Bhatt in an interview upon accepting her appointment to the'Central Planning Commission, December-1989 SEWA began in 1972 seeking visibility for women as workers andwornen’s control over their own income. In the process of fighting for these rights, SEWA has proved itself a resilient, fleioble, and innovative organization. To its credit, it has been‘able to start wherever women are—psychologically, ocwpationally, financrally, socially, and geographically. ' The magnitude of its gains in leadership, in visibility and income control marks the crossing over from the cmpdwermcnt of particular Women or a few organizations to more widespread climate change,» Women within the organization have used their perceptions and solutions to move from individual survival issues-toward govern- ment poliCy change, helping to shift India’s development process more realistically towards people’s aspirations and abilities. 264 Where Women Are Leaders ' SEWA’s integrated approach has managed to increase incomes and assets of women, increase their access to Services, their range of job skills, and their confidence. By'evolving ways to bridge'the traditional—informal, and modern—formal systems, SEWA has recovered women’s land, acquired access to bank accounts, licences, and worker identification cards. By envisioning the kinds of systems . they need to serve them, articulating them, developing the training to learn how to build them; and then employing themselves at delivering the‘systems, these women have made concrete contri- butions to development thinking and job creation in India. ' Ela Bhatt is the most visible of'these women leaders, and one can measure the enormous progress made by the women’s devel- I opment movement by tracing her work. She began speaking for India’s poor women in 1972 by demanding visibility and assets for them. Together, they spent almost a decade building the grassroots models to support these demands. After recognizing that local models could not work without national support, they began lobbying .for a National Commission to study and document the problemsof self-employed women workers. In 1986, the govem- ment announced a National Commission on Self-Employed women and appointed Ela Bhatt as the Chairperson of the Commission. This marked the shift from SEWA being m'ainly a preSsure group on the government toits becoming a majorcontributor to govern- ment policy documents and their implementation. I ' ' As Chairperson of theNational Commission, Ela 'Bhatt travelled extensively for two :years, meeting self-employed women across the country in cooperatives, unions, voluntary agencies, and local women’s organizations. She met educators, researchers, and government agents responsible for- development and welfare pro- grammes. She commissioned research, and conducted a broad- based‘survey on‘women’s economic status. ' ' 7 I SHRAMSHAKTI- .. Shramshakti, the resulting report, distilsthis nationwide. study of self—employed women, their organizations, and'the policies-they require; Shramshaktt- puts .forth recommendations aimed-at formalizing-legitimate systems for women in the informal sector- It I Moving on: Pushing. Policy Ofitward 265 calls for decentralized protective boardson-which women workers, employers, and labour officials sit together to enforce a system of ' registration that establishes the employer—employeerelationship, guarantees minimum wages, fair conditions of employment, and social security. It recOmmends formal incorporation of urban self- employed workers in urban; planning:.licensed space allotted to vendors in every complex; common work sheds Constructed for home-based workers; and sorting grounds for waste pickers. At the state level, a Development Commissioner for Women is called for to coordinate the various state departments to support women’s multiple-occupation _reality,- and overcome the segregated approach to resource planning and use. In addition to the existing formal sector Labour Commissioner, a separate Labour Commis- sioner is recommended to oversee unorganized or self-employed workers, with Women’s Development Corporations specifically promoting economic development for poor women. In addition,'.. ‘- Shramshakti recommends half of all programme resources to be . , directed to women. . _ Shramshakti specifically promotes women’s cooperative member- 7 , ' ship as a way to shift exploitative production relationships and focus economic development into small industries, nonntraditional and environment-regenerating occupations like wasteland rehabili-. _ tation and agro—forestry. It calls for extending current cooperative memberships to include both male and female family members who participate in production.- Shramshakti advocates the need for female extension workers, and. reservation of seats for wOmen office bearers in mixed cooperative soCieties and on' governing r ' bodies. . - - . Improvement in- women’s health depends on better medical facilities, a-living wage, -a safe workplace, improved work condi— - tions, controlled hours, creches, benefits for health and maternity, - pensions, housing and potable water. Sh'ramshakti advocates for these. changes through training local women (including traditional midwives) to be health workers. Supported by Mahiia 'Mandais (women's organizations), these women can provide both immediate local services and links to government health care services. Organ- _ 'izations of community health workers are able to develop effective. health networks: they act as pressure groups to‘improve work 7 conditions; they can focus institutional research to include issues 7 relevant to women’s work; and they can ensure. that appropriate 266 Where Women Are Leaders occupational health training is' included as part of physicia'ns’ education. . ’ Childcare services must be widely expanded in a way-responsive to both'women and their daughters who look after their younger siblings. Centres'need to provideflexible day-care which is family-' based, school-based, women’s organization-based, or mobile for . migrants. As in SEWA’s example, it must be locally managed (by women from each village or neighbourhood), intermediater '- administered (as SEWA administers 30 centresfrom its Ahmedabad headquarters), overseen by an autonomous umbrella organization '(as- the integrated Childhood Development scheme). Funding - should be shared by the Ministries of Labour, Education, and. ‘ Women and Child Development, by employers (through a tax), and by parents using the service (or their workers’ organizations). Schools must include facilities for young children so that older girls can attend school. Schools and creches must operate on shifts that ‘ allow. girls to both help their mothers earn-and attend schodl; __ To fightthe escalating industrial retrenchment of women, the Commission calls for job protection for women in the formal sector through a "Technology ?olicy Cell’. This Cell would have the authority to review'all plans for technology transfer and auto~ mation, assess its impact on women’s employment, and assign employers responsibility for redressing that impact. _ To enhance a change in attitudes and values toward women, the Commission calls for a Media Monitoring Unit to reorient media to the interests, concerns, and development issues of women working in the informal sector. The Monitoring Unit would insure that realiStic images of women as workers are projected: that women produced videos are used for television; that readable regional language publications will inform women of economic schemes and rights; and that relevant radio programmes are broadcast in the evening hours so that working women can listen to these programmes. . ' ' PUSHING POLICIES THROUGH Women leaders a't.SEWA have skilfully'survived political climate changesby remaining unaligned and consistently putting their 9.1M b-J/g.‘.;r_'.’.n';- r; Moving on: Pushing Policy Outward 267 platform forward to whatever party is in power, citing their rights as citizens to have responsible development policies. They under- stand the voting base that their communities constitute, and that no party can'affOrdrto side-line their issues. In 1989, with national elections imminent, SEWA selected the politically attractive and relatively - less complex demands of Shramshakti, published them in a memorandum, and presented them. to each of the natidnal parties. They demanded all parties to include in their manifestoes a commitment to total prohibition; cheaper and better public distribution system of food and edible oil; co—ownership of land and property 'by women; planning and management of village forests and village water resources by women’s groups; nursery and day-care centres in each_village_; administration of health centres and primary schools by women’s groups; a woman pelice officer ineach rural police station; a women’s cooperative bank in each district; technical schools for girls; social security and legal coverage for home-based workers; and a national policy for hawkers and vendors. ' During the pre—election campaigns, the Congress (I), Bharatiya J anata Party, and Janata Dal candidates all referred to the National Commission on Self-Employed Women. They affirmed their interest in forwarding Shramshakti’s agenda, indicating the atten— tion it had garnered across party lines. ' ' PLANNING COMMISSION Shortly after the 1989 elections which brought the National Front into power, SEWA was granted a monumental policy achievement:- Bhatt was appointed as the first woman member of the central government’s Planning Commission. This bodygenerates long- term economic and development plans for the c0untry, initiates new programmes and policies, allocates"resources to implement them, monitors implementation, and leverages the state govern- ments” flow. of resources through the central funds. Bhatt’s agreement to lend her grassroots experience to the plan— ning process did not go without criticism. Because the' Planning Commission, usually staffed by formal economists, is an expert dominated, tradition-bound institution,- pro-eminent national 268 Where Women Are Leaders economists complained that her experience was only in social work. Planning bureaucrats expressed dismay that the plannin process was no longer a professional exercise. ‘Next you will flag that an illiterate farmer has become a member of the Plannin Commission,’ one lashed out. Even in thenon—governmental seem?- some criticized her acceptance of the position as evidence'of her ‘eo—option’ by the government. ' . ‘ For 'SEWA, however, it marked an opportunity to influence economic policy to better serve the self-employed and their local economies. When Bhatt was charged to draft the new Five-Year Plan on Employment, she focused on the major need of the poor self—employed: employment with fair incomes. Though the fragile National Front coalition faced dramatic crises during its year in power,“ Bhattworked doggedly to shape the Employment, Public .Distribution System, and Nutrition chapters of the Plan with a fresh perspective—with self—employed workers as the focus; Her two decades of organizing, training, and advocating for poor women, the grassroots tactics of SEWA, her, nationwide observations and experience from the National Commission on §elf—Employed,Women, and her work with international labour _ organizations took root in her work with the Planning Commission. ‘ I ‘Access to the hard data from all parts of the country feels like Sitting on the Himalayas and seeing the country laid out, in all its detail below,’ Bhatt commented early in her tenure. ‘Yet they are not abstract numbers—I know that data represents the ways that vast numbers of people are struggling for their living.’ - One of her major achievements was making full-employment the central focus of the Plan. Until her- tenure, industrial growth was the focus of economic development, with employment side- lined. The. Planning Commission historically increases the indus— trial growth rate from the previous Five-Year Plan'. Bhatt got the Eighth Plan Commission to change the terms of planning from that of an industrial growth index to a peoplevfocused employment-expan- sion index, slated to increase at 4 per cent annually.‘.To fulfil the Commission’s. aim of full-employment by the year 2000, Bhatt helped shape a national data bank to cover all types of employment, ' including the rural occupations performed by women. Bhatt based the full-employment strategy she developed on food security, income security, and social security—attempting to shift the old paradigms of social welfare for the poor to employ— ment security for all citizens. Half of the resources which were to ' continuum between socia Moving on: Pushing Policy Outward 269 'be invested-were to be allocated to rural development under the Plan, and planning an d implementation were tobe devolved to local area Panchayats. _ Bhatt aggressively promoted labour-intensive manufacturing of _ through government support of raw. - d marketing facilities. But the link she drew between-e-mplOyment generation and social services—pre- viously seen as separate" issues—was her major contribution based on her years of work on wo'men’s economic issues. For women, the 1 services and employment has always mass consumption goods material supplies, credit, an been evident.- to Bhatt, the social service programme aimed at bringing nutritional I foods to poor families‘shouldbe an employment—support programme which helps such families engage in the cultivation of vegetables, post-harvest processing,- dairying, and animal husbandry. These kinds of employment programmes would bring more products into the market, more income into the hands of poor families, and thus better access to nutritional foods. The nutritional supplement pro— grammes could in turn purchase supplies directly from the producers who are in the employment programme drafted directed the existing training and employment programmes- to train people to produce the goods that other Social prOgrammes deliver to the poor. She drew these simple but vital linkages out of the strategies SEWA had developed in Gujarat. ' Bhatt also introduced dramatic pressures on food supply, and is directly responsible for what the poorest citizens in the coun \ thePDS now caters solely to the poor in both urban and rural areas. It links distribution with employment programmes by draw— ing en locally produced foodgrains. It links directly with the I government nutrition programmes by supplying childcare, meal schemes through the regional food supply network. ' ' WOMEN Now PREPARED f ._: The priorities and-stability of the future government will in part b the fall of VP. Singh's - determine the fate of these policies. Wit 5. Similarly, the Plan she _ changes in the Public Distribution _ System (PDS) which previously rationed subsidized food to all ' citizens. The PDS exerts enormous leverage against inflationary : try eat. Withthe Commission’s changes,' 270 Where Women Are Leaders government in November 1990, the fragile coalitions which have ‘ followed, and the changing .pOlitical' and economic Structures globally, it is- still uncertain which policies Will carry- to the next government. What is certain, however, is that many women now ' have Working models andthe leadership ability to participate in policy planning and ensure that their priorities will not be side- lined. Women have developed the understanding to sit at those tables, and phi forward the needs of their-occupations,-their fami- lies, and their. communities. ‘ ' - '_ People in the world of development are'always asking about ' what is replicable. .Is SEWA replicable? Are models from one part of the country replicable on a national level? Bhatt’s imprint on this question can be seen in her insistence that regions and states have to work out their own strategies of employment maximization. 'She acknowledges there 'isno simple formula, citing some states. with growing agricultural and industrial sectors which show a decline in labour absorptibn while others show a rise. What she does believe is replicable is that people anywhere can organize, plan, pressure, and act together. ' -' ' ‘ - However, SEWA strategies do emphasize that certain principles must extend widely. The government must be committed to national policies to avert damage to the environment and to the resource base-‘of the poor. Likewise, the issues of home—based workers .~ require national and international. labour laws. 7 The SEWA team of leaders, organizers, and members have I. shared a strength since SEWA’s inception, and that is their ability to focus their energy on solutions. The low income women are parti- cularly remarkable in this regard; when confronting the ambitious task of devising social change, they have displayed an admirable I ability to project their vision beyond the boundaries of their day- to-day drudgery. Women in debt, facing sick family members, and eviction from their vending spots somehow maintain the ability and willingness to focus on what the Eighth'Plan should include to benefit - women like themSelves'across the country. .Their'ability‘to survive '. the daily, immediate pressures With a long-term vision is striking. 7 AN INDIGENOUS MOVEMENT SEWA's successat changing women’s work and living conditions _ owes-to its grassroots, Indian soil origin. and women‘s ability to - Moving on: Pushing Policy Outward 271 translate their values into working systems. Indian traditions are deeplyembedded in women, and SEWAstarts from where women are: from their strengths, their needs, and their weaknesses. Indian traditions are built as much on economic systems as 'on social and cultural ones. SEWA women have managed to recognize and ‘build on the vibrancy and strength of self—employment in the face of the rapidly changing-economy and its resulting upheaval of traditional social values. ‘ SEWA women acknowledge that change is valuable to sweep away the oppressive and inequitable structures of the past. They - resist, however, the process of change that-marginalizes and downgrades the people who are part of the traditional system. They resist the unchallenged growth of the new 'ec0nomy, which encourages factories while driving artisans out of employment. They challenge government subsidies to ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ agriculture while ‘marginal’ and ‘traditional’ farmers are turned into landless labourers. - , ' SEWA-has worked to transform the traditional economy and its people into the modern economy while maintaining the strengths of the traditional systems. SEWA Bank exemplifies this traditional—— modern union. Vendors, small artisans andsmall and marginal farmers are all part of the traditional system, with ways of doing business quite distinct from the modern formal economy. Each of these self-employed trades have a need for credit, which they meet through the traditional system. of money-lenders Who charge rates of interest up to 120 per cent a year. Though there exists a modern banking sector which charges an interest rate of less than 18 per cent a year, it does not cater to women in the informal sector. - 7 SEWA’s task, in recognizing the needs‘of the self-employed for credit, was to bring the modern bank to illiterate women in a form that could serve their very small credit needs. SEWA Bank, their sclution, moves with the rhythm of their economy. I-tdeals person- to—person, with small savings and small loans, using traditional networks to ensure customers‘ repayment. By combining the tradi— tional qualities of self—employed business and the services of modem banks, SEWA Bank creates a new and vibrant model, which serves wo_men--—a claim most banks. in the world have diffi- culty in making. - . Similarly, SEWA’s model of rural development'draws on'the economic. and ecological traditions of the village. SEWA women assert that they are able to survive economically only if they have a 272 Where Women Are Leaders mix of employment from the land, from livestock, and from some artisan or manual production. Impoverishment- occurs when they have to rely on one limited source of livelihood.- SEWA’s rural development-work holds the distinction of putting resources back into the local environments while creating jobs, rather than'extracting all available assets. Radhanpur and Santalpnr areas of Banaskantha district are arid, impoverished, and drought— stricken areas. When SEWA first started working there in 1987, ~ the organizers found that degraded lands, lack of water, and the hot climate meant minimal livelihood opportunities, Many families, especially those who-survived on livestock, migrated during the summer months. ' ' ' ' I - ' - - SEWA started by creating employment through women’s skills.- First, skilled embroiderers were linked with markets. Their craft immediately became a significant source of income in the region. 7 Dairy and livestock developed into new resources as SEWA reactivated defunct cooperatives and urged the dairy to resume- processing milk and experimenting with fodder—securitysystems‘. Women initiated ecological regeneration of the land base with large-scale nurseries and plantations, with technical assistance 7 provided by the agricultural extension servicesL‘Salt farming and ,. gum collection from adjacent jungles created new income, generating activities. These multiple sources of income have made out? migration unnecessary fer most of the region’s families. Regional development became a reality here in a few years through women’s leadership, and 20 years of their collective experience in an'organ-. ization. Regional planning supports SEWA’s notions of integrated approaches to resources, of governments which deliver, and of people deciding their oWn priorities to strike a balance between ' traditional land—based and modern production-based economies. Child care facilities for self-employed women, likewise emerged ' from a balance of traditional and modern systems. Women are closely connected with childrentraditionally; yet combining work with child care can become an intolerable burden. The solution for SEWA has been provision of modern child care facilities at the work site or at home with hours suited to particular women’s occupations. , . - I . - ' - Even while challenging oppressive structures, SEWA women have strived to build upon the positive social and-cultural traditiOns 7 ' to. move towards somethingnew. It has remainedxan all-women’s ‘ Moving on: l’nshing Policy Outward 273 organiZation because Women feel open, united, and affectionate when they are together as a group without men being present. SEWA draws out this natural affinity, and encourages women to extend this inclusiveness to-women of. all trades, castes, and reli- gions. _‘T_hese. women often refer to SEWA as their piyar or mother‘s. 5 .home, and to other members, irrespective of community, as sisters. ' Also knOWn as their ‘village well’, SEWA is the place women can get together and exchangenews and views. While retaining the '. informality of the village well,.'SEWA orients its meetings to . address work and social issues. Through these meetings, women no longer perceive themselves as simply wives and mothers, but rather'as workers who make a significant contribution to the economy. At this village well, a woman learns to stand up, say her . name. out loud, address a group, and recognize her strength, both ' individually and‘collectively as a group. c -: SEWA leaders refer to their movement as a sangam (confluence [of the cooperative, labour and women’s movements. They do seem _' rte-have succeeded in extracting'the kernel of each movement and ' - making. it relevant to women’s everyday lives. _ WOMEN AS LEADERS ' The real force behindthe' SEWA movement is the self—employed women, They "work endlessly. They have strong hearts, and an ability tobe inclusive. .They bring a desire for change, for respect, and for economic prosperity for their families and communities. With these abilities and- aspirations, women are finding ways to I unite toloverco'me theirinhibitions and oppressions. Their union testifies to women’s ability to. assume leadership-and use-it in various ways. They have highlighted the economic issues impacting them, ' asserted the values they‘want to advocatein the economy, and shaped far-reaching economic and social changes. - -- ' 5 .' 'lhe-h‘omeebased workers" Campaign, for example, .was originally ‘ taken up .by SEWA members. They organized and highlighted the "issue first-locally; then nationally,-and finally internationally. The International confederation of Free Trade Unions took heed,-and _- many of its member Federations arenow engaged in organizing 274 Where Women AreLeaders home—based workers. The International-Labour Organization is I moving, albeit slowly, towards a global-convention on the issue.‘ Groups and unions all over the world are organizing, researching and highlighting the issues of home-based'workers: SEWA'women- ' who initiated this worldwide m0vement continue'to'lend direction ‘ to the actions. _ _ _ . ._ _ ‘ , - Similiarly, SEWA Bank is a forerunner of an emerging global movement of self-help groups. SEWA Bank’s; testimony to poor people’s ability to save and be punctual repayers of loans has led to ' ' groups mushrooming across the country and in communities around - the world,'marking the importance of Savings and: Credit for the ' poor. India’s central banking institutions, like'NABARD and the Reserve Bank of India, are sponsoringthese groups to inform potentially far-reaching policy changes. Thatthese institutions are drawing on SEWA's experience is a powerful testimony to the validity of policies shaped. by poor women. - . ' All of SEWA’s strategies toward economic and social stability for women require extensive training. Training is an' integral-part of organizing women, formalizing their skills,.and involving them ' in shaping their occupations, incomes, and social'policies. SEWA conducts standard training sessions for a broad section of women, and also specific training programmes for specialized skills. I ' SEWA’s training strategy focuses on"‘cascading’ empowerment to women ‘at all levels of the organization: the initially trained women go out with'new information and train'their sisters, who in turn train their family members, and so on. Training is directly linked to action—there is an interrelationship between training and production, training and Organizing, trainer and practitioner, reflection and practice. SEWA’S training draws on the way women . traditionally spread news and skills, and'on the way their village organizations address problems. women from labour and com- munity organizations around the world come to SEWA to learn about their organizing and training methods, as organizing women " has become an economic imperative Worldwide. In 1988, when Bhatt completed the Shramshakti Report,. she laughed as sheisaid, ‘It is little ironic, asking the government to support women’s organizations so that those organizations-can pressure the government.’. Yet SEWA has'grown well into that ' ' irony—pressuring for many years, and nowaCting with the govem- ment as policy planners and developers._ ' Moving on: Pushing Policy Outward : 275 I WOmen at SEWA have a strong vision." Bh'attrlbelieves'that ' _ ‘when women lead the movement of the poor,'the_ growthi'ratezof . ._ ; “ economy will be as fast as the growth of social harmony and the growth of national integration.’ " - ' ' ' ' ' ‘ That is a tallrorder in theface of global ecOnomy‘shaped '_ ‘7 I I K policies and practices that do not value Women’sflabouror the if; ._" integrity of communities over profits. . _ -‘ 7 I 7 . ' Yet these women literally'have learned tof_stand tall in their workwith SEWA and in their. commitment to changeTheyhave ' evinced courage and overcome enormous obstacles in their movement from invisible sisters, mothers, and wives to_outspoken' . proponents for economic change. If the past bears any reliable witness, we can continue to look to these women leadersrfor new, ' viable solutions to the economic turmoil that people'of the world face. We can learn from their spirit and follow their lead in our“ ,respective work and places. As Ela Bhatt said after her work on the National Commission on Self-Employed Women, fl Saw that women everyWhere are ' ready to‘ take leadership; 'In every group'wefmet,’ there were women whose eyes wereburning-with- an inner fire. If these women are reached and encouraged, it is they who will be our future leaders.’ ...
View Full Document

This note was uploaded on 10/26/2009 for the course ANT 126B taught by Professor Jenniferaengst during the Summer '09 term at UC Davis.

Page1 / 18

Kalima Rose_SEWA - _ We not only want a piece of the pie, '...

This preview shows document pages 1 - 18. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online