This book is not only an extraordinary account of Ela Bhatt, a phenomenal Indian woman who changed the lives of millions of poor women in India but it also thoroughly tells tales of SEWA, a powerful cooperation founded by Ela Bhatt and run by poor women and women of India.
What is self-employed?
Being poor, women, and self–employed. In this particular story, self-employed is the situation where a lot of poor women doesn’t exist nor is protected in any organization or corporation–no healthcare insurance, no social security, no employment benefit, nothing. However, they would work in the unprotected condition, hard labor, with very little pay, day-to-day. They sell fruits and vegetables in the street, stitch in their homes at piece-rate for middlemen, work as laborers in wholesale commodity markets, load-unload merchandise, dig earth, collect recyclable garbage and on and on. Their income depends on how much they work. And because they are women, they get paid less than men. Most importantly, the burden of running the family had fallen to them–to earn money and feed the family.
Who is Ela Bhatt and SEWA?
If I didn’t have the reading goal nor hunt down the women pioneers around the world, I wouldn’t know even her name, let alone the impact of how she changed and is changing the world. Ela Bhatt was born and raised in India in Gandhian parents. She graduated and became a lawyer for Textile government firm. In 1972, A day called for life changing for her when she went on a field work one day and saw numbers of women headloaders working tirelessly with very little pay. She wanted to help, fought injustice and improved the lives of fellow Indian sisters. She approached one of the woman headloaders and interviewed her and discussed how she could help. Then another woman came to join, then another and another. Ela organized the meeting with them regularly, arranged ways to sort out a fair system with the middlemen and the government. They had a small office and called it Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) under Ela’s authority in Textile government office. But the government benefit nothing from SEWA and later fired them. Ela continued to run SEWA and the members continue to grow. She and the team went to the city slums and met with women rag pickers and provided help and support. Right around the time when SEWA started to grow rapidly, a bright and young Oxford grads heard about SEWA and asked to join. Now that SEWA became a powerful house, providing help and live improvement system to many poor women, it also became an ecosystem platform of the women helping each other. They went to investigate garment stitchers, street vendors,
embroiders, gum collectors and so on. With a lot of members growing, they established their own Bank, ran by a former VP from the national bank who came to join SEWA. They also built a healthcare system to protect and support the member and their family. I want to strongly highlight that banking and healthcare are two very important infrastructures for all working people. All the members of SEWA is poor and they don’t have access to the credit and loan in the regular banks nor being protected by an organizational system. It was mind-blowing to me to learn about the SEWA community and how they created their dynamic empire with banking and healthcare system. SEWA, rebuilding the women’s lives-providing housing, credit, training, medical help, and the comfort and company of other working women. All these, strictly for poor, strictly for women and strictly run by women. SEWA was founded 47 years ago, in 2013 they have 1,916,676 members and continue to grow. This was only one act of compassion of a woman who fights for injustice. Ela Bhatt.
My personal take away from this powerful story was, first, entrepreneurship and startup. Although only after 2007 that these two words became trendy, but Ela is truly an original entrepreneur who wants to solve the problem and the way she put together the puzzle of unknown to improve lives, found SEWA and sustainably putting growth on it. Second, the power of network. I discovered along with the reading that the growth of SEWA attracted a lot of high profile women who simply wanted to help. It is a giant web of professionals who spread the goody. Fundamentally, the backbone of SEWA is the members itself. The women come together, hold hands, connect hearts, help each other and with the support system of SEWA, they recruit more women, provide help and support, all over India. Imagine the social, the culture, and the capital value they create?
When government fail to serve and support the citizens, the people rise and thrive on their own. SEWA could be a role model for many countries that are struggling with the country’s development and political crisis. Is this relate to you and your country?
The story of Ela Bhatt and SEWA inspire me in so many ways, especially as a woman who work 9-5 and is running a startup. I strongly hope that her name and her story will be in every corner of the world. I wish all the women look up to her. Ela Bhatt, the women pioneer.
This reading is in my yearly reading goal of #womenpioneer.