SEWA bens: Stories of personal and economic transformation

November 2017

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.

Vaaliben and Manjulaben animatedly talk about their experiences at the beginning of joining SEWA.

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.

The eleven questions of SEWA can be seen in each of their district offices and are commonly brought up in any conversation about a SEWA activity. The recognition of the interconnected nature of each of these aspects of women's livelihoods is central to SEWA's work.

These linkages between the personal and the economic – the nexus that SEWA forms in linking the informal and the formal, the household and the economic market – also become obvious when listening to the personal narratives of women who have been a part of the “banyan tree” of SEWA for decades.

"I like to see SEWA as a banyan tree with many branches. Today SEWA is the largest primary union and our work has extended to various sister organizations [...] The focus is to introduce a flourishing local economy and highest importance is to the collective organized strength. Development is a slow process, but the change is coming." - Elaben Bhatt, founder of SEWA, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2011

The Vanlaxmi tree grower's cooperative (Ganeshpura, Mehsana)

When I reach the beautiful, sprawling cooperative farmland in November, I am surrounded by eggplant shrubs, leafy greens and lemon trees – the produce of the season. I am greeted with flowers and seated under a cool shade under large leafy trees. It does not surprise me that the cooperative has now started an eco-tourism enterprise, hosting groups of students or office workers for retreats.

I sit on a charpoy and start chatting with the coordinator, Niruben, asking her how the cooperative started, how crops are grown, and about the women who worked the land. I can tell that Niruben has been through the story many times – but she recounts it to me with much passion and gusto.

About thirty years ago, SEWA began working in Ganeshpura. When Niruben first started her work, the farmland that we were sitting on was a wasteland, and SEWA had no presence in the district. Women would run away when they saw SEWA members approaching. Slowly, though, SEWA started organizing, going door-to-door, building relationships, and learning about the lives of women in Ganeshpura. They found that the majority of women were either agricultural laborers on their own land, or piece-rate workers on others’ land. Their three main worries centered on access to fuel, fodder, and continuous employment.

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 Vanlaxmi cooperative's bore well, with piping for drip irrigation, which they now have running throughout their plots.

The women soon decided that they wanted to establish a cooperative, growing crops on the land that they had leased, together. Most of these women did not have their own land, therefore did not have guaranteed employment throughout the year – a cooperative would give them this.

Starting in 1991, three women were trained on accounting, auditing, and cooperative financial management.

Leelaben is the current Secretary of the cooperative.

The rest of the women – now members of the cooperative – arranged to take trainings on food processing for different crops that they could grow.

On the ten acres of land, they now grow lemons, mango, aamla; wheat, baajri; ravaya, choli, methi, paalak; sitafal and chikoo.
The coop members also took trainings in vermi-composting from a government scheme, and soon established relationships with local markets in which they could sell the crops that they grow.
In 2003, the women started growing their crops organically – testing the soil for fertilizer levels, and selling their produce at the IIM organic food festival.

Today, the cooperative has twenty total members, each of whom have a plot of land on which to grow her crops, decided by lottery every three years. Over the last five years, they have also started a side eco-tourism enterprise, inviting local officers, clubs, and students to use it as a venue for retreats, with healthy meals prepared from the produce grown on the land.

A map of the Vanlaxmi cooperative plots.

A cooperative plot.

Crops currently being grown on the land.
RUDI stall.
From farm to plate - a hearty thaali prepared from produce grown on the Vanlaxmi cooperative's land. Guests who visit the cooperative for their newest enterprise - promoting eco-tourism - enjoy meals such as these.

The history of the Vanalaxmi cooperative will undoubtedly continue with more innovations from the women. Now, we look to the powerful stories of individual personal and economic transformation of cooperative members who have been with SEWA for the last two to three decades.


SEWA member since 1995

At the age of about 60 years old, Vaaliben has been a member of SEWA for about twenty-two years. Today, she is a leader (aagewan) who heads 25 savings groups, a midwife, a health and nutrition trainer, and a part of the Vanalaxmi cooperative.

Vaaliben speaks to me with a twinkle in her eye. Her entire face constantly breaks into hopeful, wide smiles as she speaks, and her enthusiastic gestures exude confidence and open-heartedness that make her seem far younger, with a far easier life, than her personal story suggests. When I sat down to speak with her, she spoke frankly and eagerly, telling me in earnest how strongly she felt about the importance of her work at SEWA, the difference it has made in her life and the lives of her children and grandchildren, and the hopes she has for both her family and the SEWA members in her community she supports as a leader (aagewan) and midwife.

Before she joined SEWA, Vaaliben was a part-time agricultural worker, getting work keeping farmers’ livestock or laboring on their land for only about ten days in a season. She sustained her livelihood and that of her husband and five children - four daughters and one son - on this income alone.
Vaaliben’s husband drank often, and did not have constant employment or a source of household income. She and her family often had nothing to eat and no shoes on their feet. Vaaliben felt especially disappointed that she could not educate her young children.
Vaaliben's fellow SEWA members told me later about the deep personal and financial hardship that she had endured through most her life, illuminating a story of much more resilience and difficulty than her own, straightforward but complaint-free version suggested.
They affectionately call her “Vaahli” ben, the extra emphasis converting her name’s meaning to “loved.”

In 1995, Vaaliben heard about SEWA from a friend, and came to a meeting. She got trained as an aagewan, in managing savings groups, raising livestock, and midwifery. She soon became a midwife and a trainer herself, doing home deliveries, holding health camps, and referring women to doctors and government healthcare schemes. She also became a RUDI ben – a saleswoman for SEWA’s rural enterprise which sells local produce back to village homes. As Vaaliben became more and more deeply involved in SEWA activities, her personal and economic life also transformed. Over the course of the last two decades, she has built and rebuilt her home five times – each time improving it for herself and her family.

Now, Vaaliben is proud to be able to use her savings to pay tuition for her grandson, who she dreams will one day work in a company. Vaaliben also takes great pride in her own work with SEWA – especially in the trainings that she imparts to other women on health and nutrition not only in her own community but also around India, her ability to learn and use a tablet for her rural enterprise work with RUDI, and the hospitality that she can offer by renting her home on AirBnB to English and Hindi-speaking women.

Vaaliben with the gadget she is most proud of learning how to use - a tablet.


SEWA member since 1987

"As long as my legs work, I'm not leaving SEWA. SEWA is what has made my legs strong."

About thirty years ago, Elaben came to Manjulaben's village, organizing women to become part of SEWA. At the time, Manjulaben was a part-time agricultural laborer, working on other people's farms for ten rupees per day. She had a daughter of ten years old, and three sons - who were twelve, eight, and five years old, and she and her family lived in a jhupdee (hut).

When Manjulaben first started to attend SEWA trainings in Ahmedabad, her husband, who drank profusely, reacted aggressively. Once, he came all the way to a training she was attending in Ahmedabad with a stick, threatening to beat her if she did not come back home. When I asked Manjulaben what she did, she said, looking to me as if the answer were obvious, "I continued attending the trainings, of course!"

Manjulaben attended trainings on water and sanitation, and soon became a trainer herself. In her own village, she approached the sarpanch (village elected leader) about building water and sanitation infrastructure. In the beginning, he regarded her with little respect, saying "what are you going to do about it?" Manjulaben persevered. Through her efforts, her village had toilets built, a well repaired, and taps installed in each household. The sarpanch no longer challenged Manjulaben's work.

"Sisterhood gave me courage."

Manjulaben was soon giving health and water and sanitation trainings, managing savings groups, and starting the Vanlaxmi cooperative. She helped dig the pond on the land. Now, she leads twelve savings groups.

In her personal life, she managed to take multiple loans to improve and multiply her homes. First, she built a plastered, finished house with a toilet, then she got the land title in her own name. Now, she owns three houses and two cows - enough space for her whole family.

Manjulaben in front of the two-story home that she lives in with one of her sons.

Manjulaben in her kitchen.

Manjulaben on the top floor of her home.

Inside one of the homes that Manjulaben built for one of her sons and his wife.

Manjulaben is especially fond of her two cows.

Manjulaben is proud of where her children are today. Each of her four children has attended school until at least until 10th grade. Her daughter works at SEWA and at a hospital; one of her sons went to college and became a police officer; one of her sons is employed in a pharmacy; and one of her sons is a mechanic. Her two daughter-in-laws are ASHA workers (government-employed frontline health workers), and one also works in a factory. Manjulaben is a fierce advocate of SEWA - proclaiming "as long as my legs work, I'm not leaving SEWA. SEWA is what has made my legs strong."

Created By
Surili Sheth


Surili Sheth

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