A woman sits working at vegetable cart in an Indian market.
A woman sits at a vegetable stand in an Indian market.

The Self Employed Women’s Association

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a trade union of poor self-employed women established in 1972, in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. SEWA currently organizes 2.6 million poor women workers and is active in 18 states of India and 7 South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka). SEWA works to dismantle the economic and societal barriers that have placed women on the periphery of society.

SEWA is a confluence of 3 movements – the women’s movement, the labour movement, and the cooperative movement. These movements are the basis of SEWA’s vision to improve the lives of marginalized social groups. SEWA follows the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), sarvadharma (integrating all faiths and people), and khadi (propagation of local employment and self-reliance).

Members are spread across 125 different trades and can be classified into four categories:

  • Home-based Workers: Incense stick makers, garment makers, bidi rollers, artisans, etc.
  • Vendor and Hawkers: Vegetables, fruits, cutlery, ready-made clothes, etc.
  • Manual Laborers and Service Providers: Farmers, construction workers, masons, etc.
  • Producers: Micro-entrepreneurs who produce and market their goods
“Work builds peace, because work gives people roots, work builds communities, and work gives meaning and dignity to one’s life.”

– Elaben Bhatt

Founder, Self Employed Women’s Association

Advocating for Workers in India’s Informal Sector

The workers who comprise SEWA’s network do not have an employer-employee relationship like workers in the organized economy, and consequently do not enjoy employment-related benefits. The majority of these workers are caught in a low-productivity trap, lacking employment security and the means to invest in themselves and their growth. This is exacerbated by low income levels, low asset ownership, and indebtedness to informal moneylenders, leaving them in a poverty trap.

SEWA arranges its members according to their skills into self-owned economic organizations such as collectives, cooperatives, federations, and producer companies. Here, members transition from being mere workers to becoming owners and managers of their micro enterprises. This shift facilitates capital formation, asset creation, economic empowerment, and heightened bargaining power, ultimately integrating these members into the mainstream economy. Currently, SEWA comprises a network of member-owned economic organizations, including 3,200 self-help groups (SHGs), 110 cooperatives, 15 economic federations, and 3 producer companies. Through this structure, SEWA provides livelihood security and reduces vulnerability for its members.

Fostering Autonomy and Economic Self-Reliance

SEWA’s goals are to secure full employment and self-reliance for the women in India’s informal sector.

  • Full employment: employment that provides work, income, food and social security
  • Self-reliance: financial independence and equitable role in decision-making

SEWA’s work empowers disadvantaged women, enabling them to achieve full employment and attain economic autonomy and self-reliance, both individually and collectively. This approach involves the following components:

  • Organizing for collective strength
  • Capacity building to stand firm in competitive market, 
  • Capital formation for risk mitigation & fight poverty,
  • Social security to enhance well-being & productivity.
“SEWA revives traditional crafts and skills to bring full employment to women, to strengthen the village economy, to link producers with their markets, and to promote sustainable lifestyles.”

– Elaben Bhatt

Founder, Self Employed Women’s Association

Learn More About SEWA

To learn more about The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and gain insight into their work, core values, main areas of focus, ongoing projects, and publications, please follow the link below to the organization’s website.

The website will provide you with comprehensive information about SEWA’s commitment to empowering self-employed women, their principles and values, the diverse range of sectors they work in, their current initiatives and projects aimed at improving the lives of women workers, as well as access to their publications that delve deeper into their research, experiences, and insights.