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Meeting Gloria Steinem with Ela Bhatt and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) members, by Tatum Street, Intern

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The power of a conversation should never be underestimated. For those fortunate enough to have experienced the discussion between Gloria Steinem and SEWA members, this simple truth was spoken by a collective of voices, joining in what would become more than a conversation, but an organising committee.

“We own our own bodies”

The meeting takes place inside the beautifully adorned walls of SEWA’s Delhi Office, where magnificent hand- woven textiles and embroidered masterpieces tell the stories of the women who produced them.

Attending the meeting are SEWA’s grassroots leaders; a collective of members who “shoulder organising in different trades”. These women form a cooperative of agricultural workers, artisans, construction workers, vegetable vendors, waste collectors, salt pan workers and other ‘self-employed’ trade groups.

Steinem sits beside SEWA’s democratically elected President, Kapilaben, and to either side her longtime friends and feminist pioneers, Devki Jain, and founder of SEWA, Ela Bhatt offer quiet guidance.

Staff members from Apne Aap Women WorldWide’s Delhi and field offices and the organisation’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, also join the circle of SEWA members, listening to the women share their experiences of their struggles and successes and exchanging their own.

Director of SEWA, Reemaben Nanavaty, translates between Gujarati and English and weaves a vivid picture of SEWA’s organising backdrop.

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), was formed in 1972 as a trade union of ‘self-employed’ women. Inspired by the Gandhian belief that positive organised strength can be cultivated by awakening the consciousness in workers, SEWA grew as an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers. These women are the unprotected labour force of India, part of the unorganised, informal sector. While they make up the majority of the labour force – 93% – their work is unrecognised and thus remains invisible; isolated from the market.

SEWA’s process of organising women workers is done with the ultimate goal of them achieving full employment and self-reliance. The concept of full employment necessitates workers access to work security, income security, food security and social security, which at the least ensures adequate health care, child care and shelter.

In the forty years since it was formed, when Steinem first visited SEWA, the organisation has begun working in almost 14 states in India, including conflict afflicted areas of Jammu and Kashmir, in addition to its work in neighbouring countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Today, with a membership of 1.9 million women, SEWA’s vision for growth and economic empowerment of workers continues to reach women in the unprotected labour force, organising them to achieve full employment and autonomy through development training and leadership building.

Nanavaty describes the organising work of SEWA as an “organic process”, through which members “feel as though it’s a family coming together and are able to openly discuss and share their issues.”

Members come from varied and diverse localities. From tribal and urban regions to the remote desert areas of Pujara, the women explain how getting organised has enabled them to gather their collective strength and improve both their local and national economies, enriching their livelihoods and communities.

“That’s how SEWA is growing like a banyan tree. So our members are the leaves of the tree”.

But the growth does not end here. Organising also involves finding and developing new trades and areas to extend SEWA’s vision for an economy that recognises and values women’s work in unorganised sectors. In addition, the workers are supported in advancing their skills and business acumen, so that they may become the owners and managers of their own trades and enterprises. This is an important step in SEWA’s model of economic self-reliance and autonomy.

“At SEWA we work on a joint strategy. It’s a joint action of union and cooperative.”

As a union, SEWA works to organise workers in different trades and to bring “voice and visibility” to their issues, helping to enhance and solidify the collective strength of its members. Converging with this organising process is the creation of alternative pathways for women workers, particularly in rural areas where the desperation for employment opportunities takes on a pronounced edge.

“Two thirds of our membership is rural, and as we all are aware in the rural areas there’s surplus of labour and less of employment opportunities. So in order to increase the bargaining power we have to create alternative opportunities as well.”

Focusing on the local skills of women and the local resources, SEWA employs its collective of different organisations, owned and run by its members, to cultivate employment opportunities for women workers and integrate them into the market.

“We build our workers on economic organisations, and that’s how we try to bring them into the mainstream and increase their bargaining power.”

These organisations focus on areas of education, training, leadership building, health care, as well as marketing and trade – providing platforms for women to strengthen their bargaining power and ascertain their place in the market.

“So the different organisations which are all owned by our members become the branches of the banyan tree, which take roots, and they complement and supplement each other… Today we are a family of organisations.”

“SEWA makes me happy to be old”, Steinem laughs with her hand over her heart, “because I have had a chance to at least have a hint, a bit of knowledge, about how huge the growth is. Absolutely amazing, amazing, amazing.”

Recalling her visit to the Bank of India branch with Ela Bhatt all those years ago, Steinem remembers the inspirational sight of women with their own identification cards complete with their photographs, getting money each morning to buy the produce for what they were selling on that day.

“This was already enormous, but this; this is a world government, or at least a multi-national one.”

Having listened intently to Nanavaty’s description of the SEWA model, the 79 year old feminist icon and organiser of women’s movements contemplates her lifetime use of a tree as a symbol of change; an image evoked from the Gandhian lesson that change begins from the roots.

“But up until now, it’s been a bit of a quandary because it’s one root. Now today, forevermore, I’m going to say a banyan tree because it makes so much more sense that there are many different organisations and many different groups all coming from one main root, but spread out and out and out… It’s actually the perfect image for social change.”

Beginning from the roots, this vision for social change could be no more profound than as seen in the individual. An agricultural worker from the Asana district and SEWA member is living testimony of this as she shares her personal story with us. Coming forward to sit beside Steinem, this now self-employed woman intimately narrates her experience of growth cultivated through her involvement with SEWA.

Marking her personal transformation before and after her escape from economic dependency, she describes her struggles against the crippling backdrop of unemployment:

“I had to struggle to come out of my own house.”

She says that even her own family had no respect for her.

Now a leading member of SEWA and manager of her own trade, she recalls a time at the beginning of her membership when she was too afraid to speak in front of others. A paralysing product of a lifetime spent within the confines of her family home, where her labour earned no respect or dignity, this inability to speak was overcome in the supportive space provided by SEWA.

In this collective of women she found respect which she had never before received – not even within her home – and from this gained a voice to bring her issues to light.

The woman wipes away tears from her eyes, but explains that they come from a place of joy, not pain, of pride, not defeat. Here, the currency of her labour extends beyond the economic imperative, taking value in the self-identifiable, the personal – the ultimate markers of growth.

Personal narratives and stories exchanged surge in the emotionally charged room. Steinem’s watery-eyes indicate the impact of this meeting. It has become a visceral sensation of the power of conversation and a memory this feminist will always remember.

Looking forward. This new organising committee begins to discuss the pressing issues facing women and girls in a globalising world.

For SEWA members the urgent need to resist acquisition of land is of vital importance – posing a grave threat to the economic autonomy they continue to work to secure.

The women share their successes in organising to retain their land from agribusiness, but the threat to their products by the cheaper ones made in Chinese sweat shops is an incessant reality. Steinem speaks about the pervasive role of multinational corporations in the global economy – the big retailers like Wall Mart – which thrive on massive production and cheap, exploited labour.

With these mass produced, sweat-shop products flooding the market, local producers like SEWA women continue to be undercut while exploited workers remain in abominable conditions. Steinem stresses that while there are many women’s organisations who are working to help market ethical, handmade goods by women in various countries and organise against big retailers, still, “we need more”.

Apne Aap women share their own struggles in their fight against sex-trafficking and prostitution. A recurring theme threads through the conversation; describing the many and varied ways in which women’s bodies are simultaneously exploited and devalued – where their currency is reduced to their role as sexual commodity or as invisible, therefore, dispensable labour.

On the very day after India changed its trade laws to allow the import of frozen human embryos for artificial reproductive treatments, permitting the outsourcing of Indian women’s bodies for pregnancy by infertile couples in foreign countries, SEWA and Apne Aap women join forces in discussing and organising ways to resist such extreme forms of female exploitation.

Steinem advocates for the incorporation of ‘bodily integrity’ in every human rights document, reminding all of us sitting here together that our bodies are not construction sites:

“Nothing beyond our skin; not a needle, not a pill, not an embryo, not a penis. We own our own bodies.”

As the meeting ends the women of SEWA sing a concluding song in Gujarati, called “We Shall Overcome”. Apne Aap women and men raise their voices and join in the anthem as the two organisations extend their branches, together.

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