Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organising among Poor Women in the Third World and the First

By Sheila Rowbotham; Swasti Mitter | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Self-Employed Women's Association

Organising women by struggle and development

Renana Jhabvala


ABSTRACT

For the great majority of working women in India, conventional forms of trades unionism are not possible. They labour sewing in the home, collect waste paper in the streets, are employed as building workers on contracts, or eke out a livelihood as small vendors. In the last two decades, partly inspired by the women's movement, grass-roots organisations have sprung up in India on an impressive scale. These have adapted themselves to the actual circumstances of poor women workers and devised new and creative means of mobilisation and defence.

The Self-Employed Women 's Association (SEWA) is a notable example. It has successfully organised thousands of women in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Its secretary, Renana Jhabvala, describes its origins and the manner in which it operates, both at the grass-roots and as a pressure group in relation to the local and national state as well as upon international bodies. SEWA 's method is based on attention to the details of daily existence combined with a broader vision. Renana Jhabvala explains its mix of pragmatic persistence and aspiration for a co-operative economy; its capacity to defend as a trade union and welfare association while reaching out to new forms of work organisation through co-operatives.

The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was born in 1972 as a trade union of self-employed women. It grew out of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), India's oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by a woman, Anasuya Sarabhai. The inspiration for the union came from Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful strike of textile workers in 1917. He believed in creating positive organised strength by awakening workers' consciousness. By developing unity as well as personality, a worker should be able to hold his or her own against tyranny from employers or the state. To develop this strength, he believed that a union should cover all aspects of workers' lives, both in the factory and at home.

Against this background of active involvement in industrial relations, social work, and local state and national politics, the ideological base provided by

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