COMMUNITY ACTION A women's association in India
To be a woman and of low caste in India is to belong to the wretched of the earth. Scratching a living as street traders, labourers or taking work into their home, such women are open to the worst kinds of exploitation. Yet in Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat, Glen Williams found that the struggles of the patchwork quilt-makers have brought self-respect and a better standard of living to those whose rights have for too long been denied.
'I sit down at my sewing machine at 10 a.m. after preparing the morning meal. I sew until 5 p.m., then I cook for the evening. After dinner, I sit down again and sew until 12 at night,’ says Sidar Bibi, a woman from the Moslem quarter of the old walled city of Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat State in western India.
Sidar Bibi is one of 1,500 women who make a living from sewing patchwork quilts out of scraps of cloth (called chindi) from Ahmedabad’s textile mills. Traders buy chindi from the mills and distribute it to women who clean, trim and sew it in their own homes. The traders buy up the finished quilts and sell them at a fat profit.
The patchwork quilt-makers of Ahmedabad are just one group of the ’self-employed’ women forming over half the female workforce in India’s cities. The largest and most exploited group are the ‘home workers’. With only rudimentary equipment and working within their own homes, often helped by their children, these women produce a vast range of items including incense sticks, brooms, bangles, envelopes, toys, sweets, cigarettes, clothes, quilts and block-printed fabrics.
Home workers such as Sidar Bibi are paid at grindingly exploitative rates for their labour. But because they are isolated and rarely meet other workers, they have little information about prices and wages, let alone notions of labour laws and trade unions. In any case Indian trade unions, being male-dominated, tend to ignore the wretched position of women workers.
Yet earlier this year the quilt-makers of Ahmedabad won a stunning victory over local traders by forcing up the price of their quilts by a hefty 35 per cent. This success was due to tough negotiating by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of which most of them are members.
SEWA was formed in 1972, with the aim of campaigning to provide women workers with status, dignity and positive recognition. SEWA’s 13,000 members in and around Ahmedabad consist of garment and quilt makers, used clothes sellers, handcart pullers, vegetable vendors, junk smiths, milk producers, cotton pod shellers, handloom weavers, firewood collectors and block printers. The members pinpointed three main problems in their working lives — lack of capital, harassment by police and municipal authorities and poverty-induced family problems. SEWA tackles these difficulties in three ways:
• a cooperative bank, providing facilities for borrowing and saving, as well as supplying raw materials, tools and equipment on credit, and giving technical guidance and marketing assistance.
• a union, representing workers in matters relating to trades, occupations and legal issues.
• a trust, with a wide range of activities including production units (block-printing and patchwork quilts), job training and literacy courses, as well as medical insurance and mother-and-child health care.
Giving loans to small traders was SEWA’s main function during its first few years. The union acted as an intermediary between its members and local banks, processing loan applications and administering repayments. But this system had drawbacks. As they noted, ‘Our members, being all women accompanied by children, filthy in appearance, illiterate, rowdy, uncouth in manners, unaccustomed to business talks, were annoying and not welcome to the bank staff at their office premises.’ Names and installment slips were muddled up, repayments made at the wrong banks or behind schedule and even keeping the money safely became a major worry. Finally the members met to sort out their problems. After much heated talk someone simply said. ‘Let’s have a bank of our own. We can do it. We are poor, but there are so many of us.’ And so they did. Members contributed 10 rupees ($1) each to form the initial capital, and the SEWA Co-operative Bank was duly registered.
The problem of identifying several thousand women unable to sign their names at the Cooperative Bank has been overcome by an ingenious card and number system. Each woman receives an identification card containing a photograph of herself holding a slate marked with her account number. The same photograph is also pasted into her passbook and into the bank ledgers against her account. Checking women’s identities by matching up photographs is a quick and simple process.
Apart from making loans and receiving savings, the SEWA bank also provides its members with other services ranging from the provision of raw materials at fair prices to redesigning tools and equipment and offering guidance to members in marketing their goods. Repayment of loans is generally excellent, but defaulters in real difficulties are given some financial support.
From the start SEWA was affiliated with the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a federation of 12 unions founded in 1917, with a total membership of over 100,000 workers, mainly men. This gave SEWA certain advantages, including the use of TLA premises for its office and cooperative bank. But relations between SEWA and the politically conservative, male-dominated TLA came under increasing strain as SEWA took up more militant positions on women's rights. Though SEWA’s general secretary, Mrs Ela Bhatt, tried to preserve harmony, relations between the two bodies reached breaking point in April this year, when Mrs Bhatt publicly supported the cause of the harijans (‘untouchables’) during the caste riots led by high-caste medical students in Ahmedabad. This infuriated the conservative TLA leaders, who expelled the women from the TLA, withdrew their deposits from the SEWA bank, evicted SEWA from TLA premises and sacked Mrs Bhatt from the TLA board.
Ironically, the Textile Labour Association’s first president, Ansuyaben Sarabhai, was a woman. Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of social justice through non-violent means, was a co-founder. Both the TLA and SEWA lay claim to Gandhi’s social, moral and spiritual heritage.
Thanks to financial aid from Oxfam, SEWA was able to move its office and bank into different premises with a minimum of disruption. But the TLA continues to harass SEWA by using its powerful influence to undermine the women’s standing with other unions, government officials and funding agencies. This August the TLA forced SEWA’s expulsion from the National Labour Association, a federation of 36 trade unions with considerable influence in Gujarat State. In addition, the TLA has tried to hamper the supply of raw materials to SEWA production units and is attempting to restrict the geographical scope of SEWA’s work to a tiny section of Ahmedabad city. Myths of solidarity among workers have been wrecked on the reefs of political conservatism, male chauvinism and caste discrimination.
The only course now open to SEWA members is to close ranks and continue the struggle, drawing on their reserves of courage, resourcefulness and determination. In the words of Sidar Bibi: ‘I have suffered a lot in my life. I do not want my daughter to suffer like me. We women must work together to make a better life for our daughters. It is only when we help each other, support each other, that we can resist oppression. We must stick together.
Now working in Oxfam’s overseas department Glen Williams was formerly a Community Aid Abroad field director in Indonesia.
Who are India’s self-employed women?
Small-scale traders, selling fruit, vegetables, fish, eggs, brooms, used clothes and household items.
Home workers, producing clothes, handicrafts, block printed fabrics, quilts, incense sticks and cigarettes.
Labourers, selling services such as cleaning, cooking, laundering, transportation, agricultural and construction work.
Bliquish Bano, quilt maker, talks about the Self Employed Women’s Association
‘I was married when I was 14. I was very innocent in those days and it was only four years later that I discovered my husband was a hidva (eunuch). My father obtained a divorce for me. Before he died he married me to a schoolteacher. My second husband was cruel. He would beat me and not let me out of the house. We had two children, a girl and a boy. Then my husband sold off all my things — pots, jewellery and furniture — and ran off with the money. I was left penniless with two children.
‘Since I was a girl I had been making quilts but this did not give me enough income to support my family so I went to the traders to sort their chindi. This work was very hard and the traders paid us very little, only 2.50 rupees a day. So one day I asked for a raise. When I didn’t get it, I left.
‘Then I did many jobs. I worked in a printing factory, cleaning gasoline soaked cloth. There I ruined my eyes, but I used to make good money, especially on night duty. I also worked for a few days in a mill, but the male supervisor did not behave properly. I sewed cement bags for a while but then they got machinery to do it, so I wasn’t needed any more.
‘When I heard SEWA was starting a small quilt business, I went along to investigate. There I found they needed a woman to sort chindi, so I sat down. Since then I have been with them. I feel that this work we are doing of building a chindi business is very important because the traders who bought the quilts before were not giving us a fair price.'