EMPOWERING WOMEN IN AN INSECURE WORLD: Joining SEWA Makes a Difference

EMPOWERING WOMEN IN AN INSECURE WORLD Joining SEWA Makes a Difference

This monograph is based on the findings of the Gujarat Social Income and Insecurity Survey (GSIS) conducted in 2007-08 amongst a sample of 1,407 respondents in Ahmedabad city and Surendrangar district. The GSIS explored the components of social income – an expanded definition of income, in which a person’s socio-economic security is the composite of several sources of income and support that includes private investments, employer benefits, community transfers and state benefits. Since twenty percent of the households sampled was SEWA members, the GSIS also gave SEWA the opportunity to measure the impact of our efforts, to determine how joining SEWA makes a difference.

The survey revealed a picture of life for workers in Gujarat, best characterized as insecure, except for the minority in salaried employment. Average incomes of workers have remained low at Rs. 127 per day, with women earning only 40 percent of that earned by men. We found that nearly two out of every five people were not able to procure enough food for their household. Infrastructure is certainly improving in Gujarat, although housing and sanitation amongst the poor remains a serious gap. In this environment, it is not surprising that crisis is ubiquitous: almost 80% of households faced a financial shock in the past year. In crisis, workers primarily depend on the community, with little support from employers or private investments for casual or non-salaried workers. Entitlements from the State, despite a wide array of schemes, remain ‘clogged’ in bureaucratic distribution channels.

Joining SEWA Makes a Difference Joining

SEWA does make a difference. In addition to the intangible transformations in women’s lives – of voice, self-esteem and a widened world – the survey establishes the concrete impact of SEWA in women’s lives. SEWA members tend to be from the working class and castes—OBCs, SCs and minorities – and make their living from their own work rather than from owning assets. Despite being more disadvantaged than the general population, SEWA members are more financially adept. Joining SEWA has led to inclusion in formal financial systems. Whereas only 25% of non-SEWA families put some savings in financial institutions, more than 60% of SEWA members did so, even among the poorest families.

The survey found that due to their wider networks, the SEWA members have more access to credit and are more likely to borrow from a variety of sources, while non-SEWA members tend to be more confined to their family circles and to money lenders. Furthermore, the interest rates paid by SEWA members are also lower than those paid by non-SEWA members. 4 Most workers were found to have uncertain work conditions and had devised coping mechanisms. Among the women workers, SEWA members seem to be more confident of their ability to cope than non-SEWA women, and find work more easily. Dealing with labour markets requires workers to negotiate with employers and contractors. SEWA members tend to negotiate better rates, more notice period, better working conditions, more work. SEWA members show more initiative and a better understanding of the advantage of skills. They are keener to improve themselves and their skills and look for opportunities to do so. The survey showed that most workers do not use any form of protective equipment. SEWA members are however more conscious of their work environment and are twice as likely to take better measures to protect themselves.

SEWA families faced crises as often as non-SEWA families, but are better equipped to cope. SEWA members are more likely to receive financial support in a crisis and are able to turn for support outside the family and to larger networks of support. More than half the SEWA members could count on financial support outside their families, as compared to only a quarter of nonSEWA families. SEWA families are also much more likely to get the benefit of medical insurance and to avail of Government schemes.

Most significantly, SEWA members have a voice and expect more from life and society. They are twice as likely to have control over their own income and seem to be less accepting of poverty in general and not to be so easily satisfied with their lot. In interviews with SEWA women we find that they say that after joining SEWA “a larger world opened up” and in this larger world they need not accept the deprivations and oppressions of their life, but can see that there is a possibility for something better.

Yet a range of insecurities remain. SEWA believes that people’s organisations are critical to ensuring that the fruits of growth reach the poor, while also shielding them from its destablising effects. Further, several policy changes – infrastructure, financial and livelihoods access, social protection, skills development and child care – are still required for truly ‘inclusive’ growth in Gujarat and beyond.

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