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Women who beat poverty, break taboos

Aug 11, 2011

We Are Poor but So Many is a gripping narrative of self-employed women's united struggle against poverty and socio-economic hurdles by Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). Bhatt's memoir of SEWA reflects her belief that women must be placed at the center of economic reforms.

At its heart, Ela Bhatt's We Are Poor but So Many, an account of the work of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) founded by her, is a book of stories. The chief ingredients in this narrative of SEWA's work with poor, self-employed women in Gujarat are real-life stories of its members and leaders, its milestones, struggles, and hurdles en route. 

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Like any good storyteller, Bhatt focuses on the telling, letting the stories speak for themselves. What emerges is a gripping narrative of the women's battle with poverty and prejudice, and SEWA's significant role in bringing change to their lives. 

Established in 1972 in Ahmedabad, SEWA fulfils the complementary roles of a trade union of self-employed women to address their work issues, and a conglomeration of trade cooperatives to make them owners of their own labour. It enables its members to build and own assets, withstand competition, and access health care, child care, shelter, insurance, and credit.

SEWA's membership of rural and urban women working in the informal economy has burgeoned from 320 women in 1973, to about 12.5 lakh women across the country as of 2009. Bhatt has based her lifelong labour of love on the profound belief that women must be placed "at the center of economic reform".

Bhatt's vision extended the conventional idea of a trade union to an entirely unconventional terrain. Whereas most trade unions in the world are constituted of workers in medium or large-scale enterprises which are part of the organised industry, SEWA was the first union of its kind whose members were poor, self-employed women from different communities scattered across a variety of trades.

As author Kalima Rose writes in her 1992 book on SEWA, Where Women are Leaders, "SEWA organises 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 niche in the economy, day by day, with only their wits to guide them against incredible odds of vulnerability, invisibility, and poverty."

Birth of the SEWA Bank

Bhatt's memoir of SEWA revolves around the lives of some very gritty and courageous women like used clothes dealer Chandaben, whose faith in the group's ability planted the seed for SEWA's successful experiment with banking. 

At a SEWA meeting in 1973, Chandaben asked Bhatt why the women couldn't have their own bank. Bhatt patiently replied that a large capital was required to start a bank, something they didn't have. To this, Chandaben replied, "Well, we may be poor, but we are so many." This firm belief in the unified strength of her compatriots led to the birth of the SEWA bank, which boasts of 60,000 members and a working capital of nearly 103 crore rupees as of 2007-08.

The book describes hard-won achievements which it says, are grounded in novel, creative and practical approaches to age-old barriers. It talks of various struggles by the women for fairer prices for their goods, higher wages and employment. 

Bhatt's simple narrative of SEWA's efforts to bring justice to the lives of poor women makes for an absorbing read, and reasserts the place of work in human existence. Work can mean different things to different people. 

In a November 2004 paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, Bhatt and her colleague Renana Jhabvala quote Puriben Ahir, a woman who lives in the desert village of Madhutra and has done many types of hard manual labour, but is also a skilled embroiderer.

Puriben's conception of work is at once pithy and profound: "My whole life has been a search for getting enough to eat for my family, having enough water, sending my children to school and just being able to live a decent life. I have never been afraid to work. In fact, for us, work is life."

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