Touching lives

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Nanuben started life as an agricultural labourer in village Mehsana, district of Gujarat. She and her husband both were earning Rs 3 per day. Due to irregular work, they decided to migrate to Ahmedabad city in search of work. She joined the business of exchanging new utensils for old clothes from housewives. There, she was introduced to SEWA bank, by Chandaben, one of the leaders of their community and a long time member. Nanuben took a loan of Rs 500 in 1978, with which she bought some household items and some food grains and oil for consumption. Thereafter, she kept on repaying one loan and taking another, using the loan money to buy a house, household furniture, investing in gold and silver, marrying her daughter and putting her savings in a bank. “We lived in a hut and did not have enough to eat. Now we have a pucca house, foodgrains stock and other essentials. Earlier I used to wash and repair all the clothes myself earlier. Now I employ others who do this for me.” Nanuben says proudly.

Dayavantiben’s family makes and sells pani puris (Indian snack) as its sole income-generation activity. She has been a member of SEWA for 15 years and has taken 11 loans from SEWA Bank. Using the loans from SEWA Bank, Dayavantiben has been able to bring tremendous expansion to her business and income and improve her home as well. She has also succeeded in advancing her economic situation by fighting conventional norms for women in her society by working and undertaking financial dealings. Her husband always supported her and now others in her community have started thinking positively about her work as well. In 1996 she was chosen to go to the United Nations Conference for Habitat II in Istanbul, Turkey with SEWA executive members. Thus, she is leading a cultural change and women’s empowerment in her community and can look forward to a better future for herself and her family.

Nanuben and Dayavantiben, along with hundreds of others, are perfect examples of the beneficiaries of SEWA, as documented in the form of case studies conducted by SEWA.

Started in 1972 and inspired by Gandhian philosophy, SEWA is an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses. They have no regular salaried employment with welfare benefits which workers in the organised sector enjoy. They constitute a major chunk of the unorganised sector. They are the unprotected lot and constitute about 93 per cent of the labour force of the country. Of the female labour force in India, more than 94 per cent are in the unorganised sector. Their work is not counted and hence remains invisible. In fact, women workers themselves remain uncounted, undercounted and invisible. 

SEWA is both an organisation and a movement. The movement is enhanced by it being a sangam or confluence of three movements: the labour movement, the cooperative movement and the women’s movement. It is also a movement of self-employed workers: their own, home-grown movement with women as leaders. Through their own movement women become strong and visible. Their tremendous economic and social contributions become recognised. Today, SEWA has an all India membership of 800,000 members.

SEWA works with the objective of strengthening its members’ bargaining power to improve income, employment and access to social security. Its main goal is to organise women workers for full employment. Full employment means employment whereby workers obtain work security, income security, food security and social security. Women are taught to be autonomous and self reliant, individually and collectively, both economically and in terms of their decision making ability. 

At SEWA, workers are encouraged to achieve their goals of full employment and self reliance through the strategy of struggle and development. The struggle is against the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy, while development activities strengthen women’s bargaining power and offer them new alternatives. Practically, the strategy is carried out through the joint action of union and cooperatives. 

The whole life cycle ranges from birth to death. And in between there is need for some type of financial services. SEWA Bank helps meet this need of self employed and vulnerable women workers. It assists and educates them on savings. These women want to save but have no access to banks and other financial institutions resulting in expenditure of the money meant to be saved. Currently, it has over 21 saving products ranging from daily savings to savings for the house, for marriage as well as for contingencies such as disasters and illness. It not only fulfils their needs but also disciplines them leading to better repayment.  There are 15 loan products one of them being daily loans, taken in the morning and repaid in the evening. Others include loans for working capital and for release of mortgaged land and education loans.                             

SEWA Bank also provides insurance facility to its members who work for long hours in poor and miserable conditions. Sometimes certain unfavourable conditions prevent work resulting in loss of work, income and assets forcing them to borrow money at very high rates. This leads them to a deeper vicious cycle of poverty and indebtedness. 

To assist such women, SEWA started an integrated insurance programme for its members in 1992. It was started with the objective of providing support to poor women in times of calamities. It is a collaborative effort of SEWA, SEWA Bank and the nationalised insurance companies. Currently, SEWA has its own insurance unit called VimoSEWA which insures women for life, health, assets, widowhood and accidents. Starting with 7,000 members, it has now reached more than 70,000 women in 11 districts of Gujarat. Today, there are three different packages catering to the needs and affordability of the members. Women also have an option to insure their husbands’ lives and health by giving an additional premium. SEWA, at present has a micro-insurance package and hopes to form a micro-insurance company in the near future.

SEWA Bank also educates women through videos, simple lessons about financial planning, daily money management, planning for future events, loan management etc. for intensive financial literacy and financial planning. It also seeks to make its members entrepreneurs and so imparts a course on business counselling in order to make them understand the meanings of entrepreneur, business cycles and cost so that they make profits instead of losses in their ventures. 

It also organises Utsav, earlier called Mela, which is a place where people come and enjoy themselves; they have stalls and have intensive education on the bank.  Leaders, Bank Sathis and Self Help Groups connect with other organisations. 

Coming to the benefits, the process of capital formation is initiated. Then there is empowerment which is not only social capital but also capital for the bank. The bank has been profitable and has been giving the highest dividend up to now. There has been a process of growth over the last 6-7 years and banking has increased by 30 per cent per year. IT has been introduced to keep up with the changing times resulting in increased reach and efficiency. But the real challenge lies in enabling the leaders of the area, popularly known as Bank Sathis in IT.  At present, SEWA is looking forward to expand its services to the seven northern backward states. SEWA has been supporting its members in capacity-building and in developing their own economic organisations. 

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