SEWA is a member-based organization of poor, self-employed women workers from the informal sector of the economy. All non-regular wage workers, both rural and urban, who work without minimum wages and assured work or benefits, belong to the informal economy. Petty traders, small producers, micro entrepreneurs, domestic workers, home-based workers, and casual laborers are all part of it.

Centered in Gujarat, SEWA is a community of self-governing organizations that includes some 900,000 women from six provinces. SEWA members live in rural and urban environments, are Muslim and Hindu and come from all castes. The SEWA community includes workers’ unions, cooperative associations and centers for education and vocational training

In India more than 90% of the country’s poor women work in the informal sector without social benefits or economic security. However, they constitute 60% of the national income, contribute over 54% to the national savings, and over 40% of national exports.

Since its founding in 1972, by the Right Livelihood Award (The Alternate Nobel Prize) winning Ela Bhatt, SEWA has established unions of independent women workers; from home-based workers to street hawkers and cooperative ventures; from a fully chartered bank to networks of village resource center.  These unions have successfully increased economic security through social insurance schemes and provided extensive social services including literacy, life-skills, and vocational training.

All the enterprises—from unions to banks—are cooperatives, owned by the women and governed by a council of elected members. As cooperatives, the aim is to increase collective strength and bargaining power. SEWA organizes women workers into producer collectives, develops alternative work, and employment opportunities. They build economic institutions of their own and access markets. This joint strategy of cooperatives and unions leads to constructive struggle and development. The workers do not remain solely workers but also become owners and managers of their own economic organizations. In other words, SEWA is a movement and also a family of organizations. The movement mobilizes the workers. The organizations consolidate the gains of the mobilization. They feed into each other and grow in number and impact on the larger society.

It is a central tenet of SEWA that the community must know their rights in order to secure them, govern their enterprises, and assure their future.  From its beginning, SEWA has worked to alter women’s status through education.  Education begins with consciousness.  Poor women remain India’s greatest victims because so many of them believe they are worth so little.  They believe that the disasters they confront, the violence they endure, and the deprivations they suffer are their lot in life.  Trapped in the minutiae of daily survival and often overwhelmed by events, they have no sense of their own strength, character, or potential.  They often lack formal schooling and vocational skills, and sometimes even the life skills that allow the access and assessment of reliable information.

For SEWA, education has also always remained bound together with the tools of a livelihood.  SEWA strives to achieve this through joint action of unions and cooperatives.  Petty traders, small producers, micro entrepreneurs, domestic workers, home-based workers, and casual laborers participate in a wide variety of educational schemes which move them toward economic independence through increased work-related skills. 

SEWA workshops dot the geography of Gujarat. Women design, embroider, and sew. They work at home, in stores, factories and on the street. They attend business classes, borrow from the SEWA banks and learn to handle micro-businesses. They sell their goods internationally through the web or domestically, sometimes door to door.

1. Successes

First and foremost is the personal change experienced by each and every woman who steps forward to participate in SEWA.  Each woman moves from isolation into a community of women from whom she can learn and share.  The end of isolation alters her consciousness and her access to resources.  It is the most important step toward greater education, self-awareness, and more secure employment.  The success of SEWA is the success of each woman who becomes economically self-sufficient and able to contribute to her family.

In 1974 with great foresight Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA, pushed to establish a cooperative bank.  The bank became one of India’s 12 fully chartered development banks at a time when the private sector of investment in India was severely limited.  The bank, owned by SEWA members and governed by an elected council, has been making loans for capital investment among the SEWA community for more than 25 years.  Its repayment rate is the envy of non-coop banks and its ratio of capital assets to loans remains high.

More recently, a SEWA success story has been the establishment of Village Resource Centers (VRCs) in the rural area of four provinces. Since 2003 the VRCs have provided thousands of women with a locally accessible focal point for literacy and vocational training - including training in the use of computers - and participation in the democratic self-government of their union.

In terms of major national policy, as a result of the efforts made by SEWA’s founder, Ela Bhatt was appointed as the Chairperson of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, National Policy on Street Vendors was approved under which vendors will get legal status, social security, credit, and legitimate hawking zones.  In 2005, the Government asked SEWA to prepare a new draft bill.  SEWA focused on social security and prepared “The Unorganised Sector Social Security Bill, 2005" and submitted it to the government. This bill has now been approved by the Government.

On the international stage, SEWA played a central role in the passage of Convention 177 by the International Labor Organization (ILO) addressing the needs of home-based workers everywhere. SEWA collaborated with unions in many countries, and the international alliance of organizations of home-based workers called HomeNet in the successful campaign for passage.

2. Strategies

SEWA believes that the basis of development and progress is organization. Self-employed women must organize themselves into sustainable organizations so that they can collectively promote their own development.

SEWA women organize for different goals. Trade organizations promote employment, increase income or link the women workers/producers with the market. Women can also organize to build assets through savings and credit, such as SEWA Bank. They can organize to provide social security, such as health care or child care and they can organize to promote the cause of, and advocate for, poor women. SEWA women organize at the village level, at the district and state level, and at the national and international level. They can organize registered co-operatives, societies, producers associations or even remain unregistered. Their members may be self-employed women directly, or primary organizations of self-employed women.

All SEWA organizations have the following characteristics:

  • They exist for the benefit of the self-employed women members of SEWA.
  • They are owned by the self-employed women workers.
  • They are managed by them.
  • They are democratically run.
  • They aim towards self-reliance, both financially and managerially.

3. Integrated Approach

SEWA has learned through long experience that poor women’s growth, development and employment can be achieved and sustained only when work, income and food security have also been assured. SEWA pursues an integrated approach to poverty reduction through Capital Formation, Capacity Building, Social Security and Organizing. All of these components are required simultaneously and in a combination that is viable and manageable by the workers themselves. One without the other does not yield results. This process in itself becomes an empowering process which equips and enables the women to fight poverty.

The integrated approach used by SEWA addresses simultaneously the numerous interactive limitations that a poor woman faces. Financial assistance alone will not succeed in moving a woman away from structural poverty when what also must be addressed is her sense of self, her expectations from the world around her, and the opportunity for learning from literacy to vocational skills. At SEWA we organize workers to achieve their goals of full employment and self reliance through the strategy of struggle and development. The struggle is against the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy, while development activities strengthen women’s bargaining power and offer them new alternatives.

Practically, the strategy is carried out through the joint action of unions and cooperatives. Gandhian thinking is the guiding force for SEWA’s members. SEWA follows the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), sarvadharma (integrating all faiths, all people) and Khadi (propagation of local employment and self reliance). SEWA women organize around these principles to learn life skills, gain vocational training and education, and form mutually supportive worker cooperatives and unions. In these supportive environments workers gain experience with democratic processes that allow them to use their group solidarity in the political processes of the larger community around them. It also allows them to exercise their collective strength in the marketplace. Whether it is piece work or marketing through the internet, the group—union or coop—has an authority that cloaks the individual worker and opens the way to greater economic power.