SEWA Organizes the Poorest of the Poor
On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked upon a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI). This blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with SEWA - the Self-Employed Women's Association - a partner of the UU Holdeen India Program. About 30 women sit on the floor ready to begin their organizing meeting. We are at a village office of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) a couple of hours west of Ahmedabad. These women are SEWA village leaders, and they are something to behold. The overwhelming majority are illiterate Dalits. Years ago they would never have dreamed of leaving their village to attend a meeting. Most would not have come out of their home. Today they are leaders. SEWA is a stunning success story—and a testimony to the change we Unitarian Universalists can help create with the right partners. SEWA membership is now 1.2 million. And they plan to add millions more in the next few years. This is grassroots organizing at its best. On this excursion we are accompanied by Reema Nanavaty, SEWA’s extraordinary leader. She is quiet, calm, small, and an organizational force of nature. At the village meeting we hear the women talk of their organizing work and of the changes they have already wrought. Perhaps chief among these changes is the effect their involvement has had upon men, particularly their husbands. They talk of husbands who originally resisted their work, who moved to grudgingly tolerating it, to the miracle of a husband who will actually cook a family meal while she is away or even serve tea to women who gather at the family home. SEWA organizes the poorest of the poor. Its focus is upon empowerment. This is not a charity. The strength these women draw from one another is palpable. They have become a movement ten times the membership of all our UU congregations. It is humbling and deeply moving. One of the women, who works as a “RUDI” (an itinerant merchant of SEWA food and related products), speaks of how she has diversified and now carries a cell phone and charger. For a fee she will charge a phone and also sells minutes, becoming an itinerant cell phone. I jokingly tell her that my phone could use a charging. With a entrepreneurial sparkle in her eye she offers to sell me some minutes if I need to make a quick call. This, I pray, is how our world will change. SEWA is doing truly amazing work. My phone did not get recharged. I did. Rev. Morales is on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.