The personal is economic
At the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), what is widely recognized as just a form for greeting a woman in Gujarat – "ben," which literally translates to "sister" in Gujarati – is actually the backbone of the entire organization - 1.7 million bens strong across India. The collective sisterhood that is SEWA – benhood, if you will - is not only a social network, nor only a labor movement, nor only a set of social enterprises, but actually a comprehensive economic concept that stresses the importance of female welfare and empowerment for economic gains for households, and indeed, for the country.
For the women’s liberation movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, “the personal is political” became a rallying cry. However, listening to the life transformations of bens who have been part of SEWA for decades (SEWA also started in the 1960s), it becomes obvious that one of the central ways in which being part of SEWA has taken hold of both their individual stories and the larger collective informal labor sector movement that they form is that “the personal is economic.” By being part of SEWA, the women build on each other's support - leading to increased autonomy in their homes and communities, economic resources to invest in their houses and families, and education to increase productivity and income and take care of their health.
The bens of SEWA are laborers, activists, entrepreneurs, cooperative members, and often, the main income earners in their households. This fully multidimensional conceptualization of welfare which is so embodied in an Indian woman’s very being – and indeed, the clarity that SEWA as an organization has about the linkages between the personal and the economic, the intersectionalities between health, education, empowerment, and income – is obvious when one takes a look at the eleven questions that SEWA seeks to address in each of its works, be it a union activity, a cooperative organization, a water and sanitation program, or a savings group.
With about 60 women mobilized, SEWA negotiated to lease ten acres of the wasteland for thirty years. The women set about clearing the land, and SEWA started to give them trainings on how to keep nurseries. However, there was no irrigation to grow crops on the land yet, so some of the women who had been trained got work from the local Forestry Department. In the meanwhile, they also got trainings from SEWA on rainwater harvesting, and then reached an agreement with a local large farmer to pipe water from his bore well, and eventually built a bore-well on their own leased land.
The rest of the women – now members of the cooperative – arranged to take trainings on food processing for different crops that they could grow.