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Women Taking Control

Remaking India's Economy

by Mirai Chatterjee

Ahmedabad, India --Poor, self-employed workers constitute 89 percent of the total workforce in India. Ninety-four percent of all women workers are in this self-employed sector. These poor women's incomes are well below the government-defined poverty levels. They are, for the most part, illiterate and invisible to the world at large.

The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a registered trade union, committed to organizing these women to improve the conditions of their jobs and lives. As Ela Bhatt, general secretary of SEWA explains, "We are organizing women towards a society where all will obtain full employment, guarantee of income and security, including at least health care, child care and shelter."

Since 1972, SEWA has organized 30,000 self-employed women in Gujarat state and thousands more in six other states of India. SEWA's membership is made up of three major categories of workers: first, homebased workers, mainly piece-rated workers who produce a wide range of goods such as garments, shoes and incense stick, but also craftswomen; second, hawkers and vendors of all types, including fruit, vegetable, fish and flower sellers--those who sell eatables from carts and hawkers of a variety of other goods; and finally, manual laborers, including agricultural workers, construction workers and service providers such as cleaners and porters.

Through the years, SEWA has discovered that organizing poor, self- employed women requires special strategies. "Being a trade union, in the early years, we undertook typical union-type actions like sit-ins and strikes," says Niru Jadev, a senior organizer and secretary of SEWA. "However, by experience we learned that typical union action alone cannot address the issues of these self-employed workers in India, especially the 80 percent who live in the rural areas of our country. This is because these workers are the most exploited, the poorest of the poor and also the most vulnerable. They cannot hold out during strikes or other such action. If they work today, they eat; if they don't work, they go hungry. It is as simple as that."

After several experiences of organizing workers, SEWA developed the dual strategy of struggle and development to organize women. At the same time, from the start, SEWA has emphasized the importance of self-reliance or Swavalambnam, as advocated by Mahatma Gandhi several decades ago. SEWA believes that if self- employed women are to achieve justice, recognition and their rightful place in the Indian economy and society, they must be strong, courageous, confident, autonomous and self-reliant.

Economic self-reliance is still a distant goal for self-employed women because they are so very poor, but it is the foremost priority for these workers. As SEWA members often say: "The question of filling our stomachs and [those] of our children every day is the biggest one. All else follows."

SEWA helps self-employed women strengthen their economic position by assisting them in confronting exploitative middlemen, contractors and merchants, demanding just treatment from government agencies and the legal system and effecting policy and legislative changes through such strategies as class action suits.

In addition to the union, SEWA has wrought great changes in the lives of self-employed women by organizing them into alternative economic systems, namely cooperatives, where each worker has an equal share and thus is a worker-owner of the economic unit.

The importance of organizing

Organizing poor women is a long, difficult, obstacle-strewn process. These workers are vulnerable and geographically scattered. There are many divisions that must be overcome-- barriers of caste, community and language. It is crucial that poor women be encouraged to believe in themselves and the power of collective action. Tremendous changes occur in workers who realize the strength that they have together. Women who previously could not even articulate their names, speak with courage and confidence to government officials, police officers and others.

"All my life I suffered the blows of the police and city authorities who did not want me to sell my vegetables in this marketplace," says Laxmi Teta, a leader of the vegetable vendors of Manek Chowk, a bustling bazaar in downtown Ahmedabad. "Then I saw that if we all came together, we would have the courage to stand up boldly for our rights, the courage that we all individually lack."

She describes what happened when the vegetable sellers challenged the city's regulations in court. "We fought right up to the Supreme Court. I told the judge: 'Sir, we only want to make an honest living, in peace. Surely justice will not be denied to us.' The judge and the lawyers were amazed. 'How could a poor, illiterate woman have the courage to speak out in the highest court of the land?' they wondered. 'The answer is SEWA,' I said. We now understand the importance of organizing."

A bank for and by workers

In organizing self-employed women, SEWA activists were constantly confronted with the women's indebtedness. Poor women rarely own assets. If they are able to gain title to a house, a piece of land or a buffalo, all too often it becomes necessary to sell or mortgage it to pay off debts. This prevents them from breaking out of the cycle of poverty and indebtedness. At the same time, they have very little access to institutional credit by way of banks or financing agencies. To extricate themselves from this vicious circle, 4,000 SEWA members established their own bank in 1974. The bank was financed by the members, each of whom contributed Rs. 10 ($0.40), one day's wage at that time, to generate the bank's share capital.

"We workers are always in debt," explains Chandaben, a used clothes vendor and founding member of SEWA Bank. "Whether it is for our small businesses or during our children's sickness, we are always borrowing money. And at high interest rates, usually Rs.10 ($0.40) per month for every Rs.100 ($4.00) we borrow.

"We had nowhere to keep our meager savings nor did anyone except money lenders give us loans. So we thought: 'Why not start our own bank?' A bank run for and by workers like me."

Today, women like Chandaban have shattered the myth that the poor do not save their earnings and that they are not credit-worthy. SEWA built a strong, self-reliant bank which today has 30,000 savings accounts and a net worth of Rs.40 million ($1.6 million). Every year the bank makes loans to thousands of poor, self-employed women who use the money for their small businesses, housing and purchasing assets ranging from land and cattle to tools of trade like looms and sewing machines. The repayment rate for these loans is over 90 percent.

"This is our bank," says Jadiben, an agricultural laborer and director of SEWA bank. "If we do not pay our loan instalments regularly, we will be denying our sisters the chance to come out of debt and away from the clutches of money-lenders who have kept us down for generations. That is why our members pay back their small loans with such regularity and responsibility."

Struggling for self-reliance

SEWA also promotes cooperatives as a means of helping workers attain greater self-reliance. "Sabina," a SEWA-supported cooperative of patchwork quilt makers, was the first such production unit established and run by SEWA members.

In 1977, SEWA began to unionize these quilt makers, known locally as khol makers. The khol makers work in their own homes. Contractors or merchants supply them with pieces of cloth, collect the finished khols and sell them in the bazaars. In return, the women are paid very low wages, determined by the number of khols they make in a day.

When SEWA first organized these workers and supported their demands for higher wages for their painstaking work, the merchants and middlemen were outraged. They began to retaliate against the leaders of the struggle and the most vulnerable khol makers--the widows and single women--by refusing to give them any work.

Renana Jhabvala, secretary of SEWA and a key organizer of the khol workers' struggle, recalls, "The local traders were furious. The women had never taken such bold action before. And the retaliation of the traders was swift and ruthless. Many women stopped getting any work, which is of course their lifeline to survival." In order to support the khol makers who were being singled out, the quilt makers and SEWA organizers established the khol-making cooperative. "It was in these very difficult circumstances that some khol makers and SEWA organizers put their heads together and came up with the idea of organizing an alternative khol production unit," Jhabvala explains. "We thought it would not only give women who were out of work some income, but also that it would free them from the exploitative traders."

This alternative production unit experienced many crises, but today it has grown into Sabina, an independently registered, self-reliant cooperative of patchwork quilt makers. The workers obtain regular work and income from Sabina, and they manage it as well.

In addition to working in the economic sphere, SEWA has been trying to help its members attain self-reliance in other areas by developing supportive services like health and child care. Fifty poor, self-employed women from rural and urban areas have been trained over a period of three years as community health workers (CHWs). These women today provide primary health care, preventative and curative, addressing 80 percent of the common health problems encountered by SEWA members and their families. For serious health problems, the CHWs have learned how best to use the government hospitals, and they help SEWA members receive the referral care they need from these institutions.

"For every illness we used to rush to a doctor, borrowing Rs.25 ($1.00) every time. Then, if we were sick or our children were ill, that meant no work and no money," explains Kamlaben, an agricultural laborer from a village two hours south of Ahmedabad where SEWA's main office is located. "Now, the SEWA health workers advise us how to be healthy, and when we are sick they bring us good, but cheap, medicine right to our doorstep."

Drawing on the experiences of Sabina, SEWA's health workers recently registered their own Lok Swasthya Sewa (People's Health Service) Cooperative. It is the first such cooperative of its kind in the state and is another experiment in self-reliance.

"Through the health workers' cooperative, we are attempting to provide basic health care to SEWA members and their children. We are also running a shop which sells low-cost, quality- controlled, generic drugs for all the common health problems faced by the poor," explains Rajan Desai, president of the newly formed cooperative. "The health workers are now confident about their abilities as health care providers, even though most are barely literate, if at all. Now the challenge is to make our cooperative a viable, self-financing unit."

Sixty women, all workers, are also running 44 child care centers for the children of SEWA members. They are organized in a cooperative and are struggling for self-reliance in this sphere of work as well.

Over the years, SEWA has witnessed the power that is unleashed when poor, self-employed women are organized. This has reinforced the belief that only by organizing can poor women obtain their rightful place--a place of dignity and respect--in Indian society.

Organizing is a continuous and empowering process. Each phase leads to the next phase of organizing. As Ela Bhatt, SEWA's general secretary, emphasizes: "There are no clear successes or failures-- more a series of small victories and compromises. But the important thing is to keep on keeping on."

Mirai Chatterjee has been organizing self-employed women in the Self-Employed Women's Association on health issues for the last seven years. Trained in public health, she is secretary of the SEWA-supported health-workers cooperative.

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