About the Project

This is the story of poor working women in India — members of the 2.6 million strong Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) — who, through their collective bargaining power, survived the economic and social hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, at at time when dominant global political and economic structures failed to protect the most vulnerable. 

In March 2020, the Government of India announced a national lockdown, restricting all mobility, and consequently, access to work and education. More than 80% of India’s non agricultural workers are engaged in the informal sector. Many of them are daily wage workers with no guaranteed daily income. 

The scarcity of essential supplies, limited government support in terms of basic necessities, and the skyrocketing cost of living adversely impacted personal finances, savings, and led to the erosion of socioeconomic stability for workers and their families.

Additionally, the tightening grip of the police force brought about strict limitations on movement, intensifying tensions between communities and law enforcement due to differing perceptions of the severity of the pandemic.

Every human on the planet faced their own unique set of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, not all challenges were experienced equally.
Two women sit at sewing stations.

The fear of disease and death in the early months of the pandemic gave way to the fatigue of isolation and the desperation for renewed human contact. Some scholars have argued that the pandemic had subverted global health wherein the lives and livelihoods of a vast majority of the world’s population has been imperiled by the decision to physically and socially isolate.

This was especially troubling for women working in India’s informal sector, 2.6 million of which are part of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of poor self-employed women established in 1972 in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujara. Physical solidarity has been the hallmark of SEWA’s movement, and those involved in it found it perplexing and disconcerting to not be immediately at the doorstep or bedside of a sister in need.

More than 80% of India’s non-agricultural workers are in the informal sector, including daily wage laborers who lack stable income. The poorest families among them struggle to make ends meet and often rely on buying grains and lentils each day to feed themselves.

With little to no savings, they are unable to withstand significant economic shocks, and the sudden national lockdown significantly disrupted their lives.

From Marginalization to Empowerment:
Unveiling the Resilience of Women in the Hum Sab Ek Hai Project

While media coverage mainly highlighted the distressing situation of urban migrant male workers walking long distances to return home, millions of women workers, both migrant and non-migrant, make up the daily workforce. These women work in various sectors such as construction, food processing, paper factories, garment factories, salt pans, domestic work, handicrafts, and waste recycling.

This project illuminates the experiences of these disadvantaged by highly empowered women, as they negotiated the brutality of societal and state response to the pandemic, through stories of resilience and determination, told through the voices of the women themselves, through everyday objects that used or made to generated livelihoods, and through the expression of collaborating scholars and artists. 

Harvard Research Collaboration

In 2022, SEWA partnered with Dr. Satchit Balsari at Harvard Medical School to adopt a mixed-methods approach to study the impact of the pandemic on SEWA’s membership, and to analyze SEWA’s response to the range of challenges posed by the health, economic and social fallout of the political and societal response to the pandemic.

Dr. Balsari’s team at Harvard has recorded over 1800 minutes of testimonials from poor women workers, including street vendors, construction workers, farmers, artisans, and salt-pan workers. The team has interviewed over 1000 households across the state of Gujarat. 

This project presents the most compelling narratives and lessons unearthed in the research that also resonate with the challenges faced by poor working women around the world. The narratives presented here are situated in the long arc of labor and feminist struggles around the world, and within the continued struggle for representation and relevance, in post-colonial India.

“Change, to be real, has to come from people; it cannot be trickled down, it cannot be imported, and it cannot be imposed.”

– Elaben Bhatt

Founder, Self Employed Women’s Association

Project Goals

REFLECT
  • Reflect on our socially and physically distanced world in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic through the lives of impoverished working women, as recounted in their own voices, and by exploring the beauty of the everyday objects they made or used while grappling with the greatest public health emergency of our lifetimes.
RECOGNIZE
  • Recognize the innovative spirit of poor but resilient working women who provided food, clothing, and essential services to their families and millions of others.
ELEVATE
  • Elevate the voices of the billions around the world who are excluded from the most consequential decisions about their lives and livelihoods.

Interview Archive

​​The project includes an extensive archive of interviews that captures the personal accounts of women affiliated with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), specifically focusing on their experiences and actions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns in India. 

The interviews reveal the impact of economic and political decisions made without the consent of hundreds of millions of poor families on their lives. The archive captures the innovation and resilience demonstrated by these disadvantaged by extremely empowered women who fight for their right to be seen and to be acknowledged by a society and state to whom they are often invisible. The interviews lead us to new possibilities – alternative worlds where these women would not just survive, but thrive, if only they were allowed to. 

These interviews are being permanently archived and will be made freely available to researchers on request.

Archive coming soon.


Exhibitions

We are planning a series of immersive exhibitions that will narrate these stories of struggle and resilience, through the women’s own voices, through everyday objects they used or made during the pandemic, and through the interpretation of their experiences by a collaboration of artists and scientists. The first exhibition is scheduled in Spring 2024.


1,001 Households Report

The project includes an in-depth household based survey of over 1001 families of SEWA members from various trades across rural and urban India, capturing in detail, the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on household finances, food, education, and health. Anonymized data will be available to researchers. Learnings will be presented to the communities, to policy makers and to key international stakeholders. 

This report outlines key findings and themes emerging from the interviews, offering a comprehensive overview of the experiences of these women during the pandemic. It serves as a valuable resource for understanding the nuanced impacts of the lockdown on women in India.