Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
An organisation and women’s trade union that seeks to empower female workers in the informal and agricultural sectors, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was established in 1972 by Ela Bhatt, aimed at organising and lending support through setting up cooperatives and trade unions and ensuring social security benefits for the workers. The association was initially affiliated with the Textile Labour Association (TLA) and had its first headquarters in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, followed by various regional and state centres under the SEWA Bharat federation.
SEWA’s activities in the 1970s consisted primarily of organising the work of self-employed rural women as well as migrant and agricultural labourers. The organisation surveyed the village of Banaskantha in Gujarat and found that nearly 80% of women from the Ahir, Jat, Rabari and Mochi communities possessed embroidery skills that had been passed down generationally. Subsequently, SEWA aided in establishing embroidery clusters in these regions, which were linked to the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA), making the crafts commercially viable while also helping spread awareness about the market value of the goods to the artisans. As part of their involvement with the artisans, the organisation directly bought products from them and sold them in Ahmedabad, making payments in cash directly to the workers.
Operating primarily as a trade union, SEWA organises members into cooperatives and provides additional services covering healthcare, childcare and related areas. However, the organisation differs from traditional trade unions by enabling the women to take ownership of their work. In 1995, it established the Kutchcraft Association in Kutch in collaboration with over one hundred DWCRA embroidery groups that had been trained by SEWA. It also establishes banking cooperatives such as the SEWA Bank to help workers in the unstructured sector obtain microfinancing and credit from nationalised banks to achieve economic sustainability. Further, the SEWA Academy is involved in educating and training women to establish clusters and groups in order to collectively agitate for their rights.
SEWA initially faced challenges from traditional trade unions and labour movements of organised sectors, with the government resisting its first attempt to register as a labour union in Gujarat, which led to a legal negotiation concluding in their eventual recognition. SEWA’s campaign was recognised by the International Labour Organisation in 1991. In 2007, the Indian trade union movement as well as the International Trade Union Confederation (IUTC) recognised SEWA as a legitimate body representing labour interests.
In 2016, the organisation had nearly 1.9 million members working in over 125 trades across seventeen states in India, with member artisans having worked with designers such as Anita Dongre. The women have also been trained in a number of marketable skills, including making food items that could be sold locally. During the COVID-19 pandemic, SEWA also trained women in digital, photography and writing skills to enable them to market their crafts and accessories effectively online.
Datta, Rekha. “From Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 16, no. 3 (2003): 351–68.
ILO. “Chapter 7: Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).” In Learning from Catalyst of Rural Transformation, 2014. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—emp_policy/documents/publication/wcms_234890.pdf.
Meyers, Tayla. “Covid-19 Hit India’s Women Hard. This Group Fought Back.” Direct Relief, August 12, 2021. https://www.directrelief.org/2021/08/covid-19-hit-indias-women-hard-this-group-fought-back/.
SEWA. “History.” Accessed August 26, 2021. https://www.sewa.org/history/.
Webster, Edward. “Organizing in the Informal Economy: Ela Bhatt and the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India.” LABOUR, Capital and Society 44, no. 1 (2011): 99–125.