RAY OF LIGHT FOR DESTITUTE WOMEN:
Eighty-nine percent of women who work in India are self-employed. Existing outside the protection of labour laws and the minimum wage, they are particularly subject to exploitation often at the hands of unscrupulous banks and money lenders. Ahmedabad , however, has maintained a tradition of self-help since the days of Gandhi, and has achieved world recognition as the home base of the ground breaking Self-Employed Women's Association, or SEWA, founded in the early 1970s by Ela Bhatt.
Originally set up to offer legal advice, to provide training and childcare, to negotiate with police and local government for vendors' licences and to provide education for members children, it soon grew. To enable the women of Ahmedabad to buy basic materials and tools, and use their income to live on rather than to pay off loan sharks, SEWA opened its own co-operative. Mahila Bank, the first to offer women low interest loans, savings and deposit accounts, and insurance.
A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH:
In 1984, a major textile industry slump affected 35,000 families, most of them Harijans and Muslims. Many had to resort to rag and paper picking, collecting grimy scraps of paper, polythene and broken glass for recycling, a task which threatened their health and brought in pathetic wages. Setting up training centres in weaving, sewing, dyeing and printing, and providing efficient machinery, SEWA helped to re-establish many women in the textile labour force, and provided an outlet for their products.
Contracts with government institutions guarantee a place of work for cleaners and vendors; members now provide vegetables, fruit and eggs to all government hospitals, jails and municipal schools in Ahmedabad .
ALL ROUND DEVELOPMENT:
SEWA also trained its members in accountancy, management and office skills, and its management committee includes farmers, rag pickers and bidi-makers. By the 1980s, members felt confident enough to bring their personal grievances to this approachable team, voicing complaints of verbal and sexual assault in the workplace and at home. Two thousand women registered a protest against 'Sati' in 1987.
A committee was formed to investigate crimes against Muslim women, particularly 'talaq', a practice sanctioned by the Quran that allows a man to divorce his wife by uttering the words " I divorce you " three times, often leaving them destitute. Verbal divorce and polygamy, still common elsewhere in India, were banned in Gujarat in 1988. SEWA also strongly opposes sex determination tests that lead to female foeticide, a widespread practice in Gujarat, and its work has now spread to nine other Indian cities.
The SEWA craft shop on the east side of Ellis Bridge, a few doors from the organization's reception centre, is well worth a browse for clothes.