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Last Updated: Friday, 22 July 2005, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
New challenges for women campaigners
By Kirsty Hughes
BBC News, Ahmedabad

Farm cooperative in Gujarat state
Cooperative farms run by women are changing their lives
Namrata Bali is a leading campaigner working with poor women in India's western Gujarat state.

It is not an easy task.

"We are in the fifth year of drought, we had the 2001 earthquake, cyclones, and the 2002 riots. All these have played havoc in the lives of the poor and can set them back 10 years," says Ms Bali.

Women's organisations also face growing challenges from globalisation which is leading to rapid changes in products, skills and technology that its members are ill-equipped to face.

One of these organisations is Sewa - the Self Employed Women's Association - that has been working from Ahmedabad for 33 years to address these challenges.

Sewa is India's first and largest union in the informal, unprotected sector -93% of India's workforce is in this sector- and claims to have 700,000 members across seven states.

The organisation runs 60 rural and urban literacy classes for girls and women across Gujarat.

It has taught illiterate women to operate video cameras and to film their working lives, trained grassroots activists to go out and offer help to women with their most pressing problems - from small loans, to minimum wages, access to water, health insurance, work skills, and childcare. It has taught rural barefoot doctors.


Near the centre of Ahmedabad, India's most polluted city - a group of Sewa union activists sit on the floor in a hot basement room.

One explains that when she first joined the union she "used to miss the meetings because I was illiterate".

Slum classes
Slum classes for girls are raising literacy
"I couldn't read the destination on the front of the bus, so I often ended up in the wrong place."

The others laugh in recognition.

They have struggled to surface from poverty; their eyes light up as they explain that they have "come out of their homes" and have an identity for the first time.

"We are a women's movement, a development movement and a cooperative movement. We struggle through the union and develop through cooperatives," says Ms Bali, secretary general of Sewa.

Early on they realised that the poorest women had no access to finance and so they set up their own bank.

If the women saved regularly, even only a few rupees a week, they got a loan.


When some women defaulted on loans, Sewa discovered that a short period of ill-health could provoke financial crisis. So they set up health insurance and started providing basic health training.

Sewa has a long track record in promoting cooperatives.

Women garment-workers who work at home, producing perhaps 24 garments in 8 hours, for a total wage of 15-18 rupees, who don't know where their work comes from or goes to, are powerless.

Sewa claims a membership of 700,000 women
But organising them into marketing cooperatives, cutting out two or three layers of middle-men, can transform the situation.

Seventy kilometres from Ahmedabad, a farm cooperative is a vibrant example of Sewa's impact.

Carved out of barren land, today the cooperative is lush and green, providing work for over 40 women members.

They produce agricultural crops, package manure, and run a tree nursery. Next they plan to start processing juices and pickles.

Economic change has prompted social change - their husbands, they say, are now ready to look after the children and to allow the women much greater freedom than before.

Sewa also worked in the camps for Hindus and Muslims displaced by the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 violence, and is committed to supporting some of the orphans through to adulthood.

But some observers criticise Sewa and other 'Gandhian' organisations in Gujarat for not publicly denouncing the violence.

Sewa is meeting this challenges posed by globalisation head-on through moving into business.

Its marketing organisation - the Gram Mahila Haat - for its rural producers, covers agricultural and forest products, salt and handloom weavers.


Its members benefit from pooling their outputs and jointly branding their products, and they get training, advice on market trends, and even access to shared production facilities in village 'hubs'.

For textile workers in the drought-prone Kutch and Patan districts of northern Gujarat, an ambitious Trade Facilitation Centre has been established.

Indian women
Indian women are struggling to surface from poverty
Its marketing manager explains: "We started off as a marketing centre but now we cover the whole process from raw materials to skills, design, production and exporting."

"We've brought in graduate designers and marketing experts. We export 30% of our output".

Sewa's secret seems to be that its officials and members are good entrepreneurs.

They continue to fight for women's rights, from grassroots to international level, but they are also in business, from the home worker to global exports.

It is perhaps not so much a case of 'if you can't beat them join them' as 'let's beat them and join them'.

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