SEWA helps working women gain confidence

THE GROWTH of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is an inspiring story of an unique organisation combining within its ambit labour unions, workers' cooperatives, and a bank. Its members are women working in the "informal" sector, such as ragpickers, vendors and hawkers, bidi rollers and quiltmakers.

Kalima Rose is obviously moved by the strength, the endurance and the resilience of SEWA members. Her book exudes the vitality, warmth and hope of the women who live on the fringes of society, but still dream of changing it. Their dream is edged with reality for these women have already experienced important changes in their own lives and in themselves.

Select profiles acquaint the reader with individual lives. We learn how women cope and how forging links with each other, through SEWA helps them to cope better. We learn SEWA has encountered stiff opposition and emerged increasingly confident. Realising the fragility of gains made by individual women, or even by a few thousand of them, SEWA works simultaneously at national and international levels, lobbying the government and the bureaucracy and sensitising trade unions and other voluntary agencies.

However, Rose's account, though engaging and readable, doesn't go beyond the surface. By glossing over the contradictions and complexities, she misses larger questions and fails to contribute to continuing debates that have a practical urgency.

Hence, some of the issues that she leaves unresolved are : How does SEWA define the Gandhian legacy? How does SEWA relate to other currents in the women's movement? Does SEWA have any impact on mainstream political processes?

I would also have liked a fuller account of the interactions between poor women and middle-class activists. Working within a framework of sisterhood, shared concerns and visions, can be exhilarating and empowering, but fraught with the risk of personal need to be openly acknowledged and dealt with. Rose's avoidance of these issues may perhaps be strategic -- but, why doesn't she say so?

The book limits itself to SEWA-Ahmedabad, and deals sketchily with other SEWAs set up elsewhere, including Delhi and Lucknow, during the 1980s. SEWA-Ahmedabad might be an inspiring model, but unless can be replicated it will be just another voluntary agency that has helped a few some women for some time -- and whose story ends there.

Rose's book leaves warm glow about the women of SEWA-Ahmedabad but not enough to dispel all the darkness in the picture.

Deepti Priya is a research scholar at Delhi University