Human Impact Stories, SEWA India

SEWA, India

Recently, StreetNet spoke with its members—street vendors who are in their turn affiliated members of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)—in order to understand how StreetNet and SEWA’s joint efforts concretely impact their lives. 

These human impact stories show just how much StreetNet and SEWA’S work helps street vendors and their families access education, improve their economic conditions, experience less workplace harassment, and contribute in meaningful leadership roles within their organization.

Basanti Jodha

When she was 18, Basanti Jodha was newly married, wore a veil, and was not permitted to leave her in-laws’ home without her husband, Sajjan. Even if she had been permitted to go outside, she says, “I was shy. I wondered how to talk to people. I wondered what work I could do.” For income, she rolled incense sticks at home.

At that time, her community was undeveloped. People, including Basanti and her family, lived in shacks made of saris and jute. There was no road and no bridge over the wide drainage ditch. And there was no one people could turn to who would teach them how to change things. 

However, change was on its way. In 1985, Shrimati Manorama Joshi founded SEWA’s Madya Pradesh Union, which is headquartered in Indore. Then, SEWA organizer Annapurna Prajapati began visiting Sirpur Bajrang Nagar. She met with women and families in the community, and, as Basanti says, “She spoke to us as people and explained things well.” Basanti and her husband both appreciated what they heard. 

If whatever I’ve learned from SEWA was available to me before, I would be educated and be a professional. 

Soon, organizers invited Basanti, as they do all potential members, to come to SEWA’s offices in order to better understand the work it does. But when Basanti visited the office, she couldn’t sign the register. Like so many working poor women in India, she couldn’t read or write. So, with what was perhaps the first indication of her capacity for leadership, Basanti asked SEWA to send a teacher to her community to give literacy classes. 

Along with these classes, SEWA taught the group how to stitch bags as an extra income source. Basanti participated in even more training from basic communication skills to negotiations with government authorities. She began attending two meetings a month, inspired by the teachings, particularly the one about not bowing down to fear.

But not everyone in the community was convinced they should also join SEWA. Many women were still wearing veils and under the control of the men in their families. They were often victims of domestic violence. Over time, though, the community saw how SEWA’s advocacy efforts and non-violent negotiation approach brought about better conditions like brick houses, roads, and sanitation. They saw how women, including Basanti, who previously had no access to financial services or banks, were able to take low-interest SEWA loans that helped them build brick houses, start small shops, and buy the carts and equipment needed for vegetable vending. 

SEWA earned the community’s trust, and more women joined. And, as more women and their families have become empowered by SEWA’s work, Basanti says she has seen rates of domestic violence in the community go down. Read  more about how SEWA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Rajani Varni

When Rajani first came with her children to Indore, they were extremely poor. To feed her family, Rajani boiled flour in water to make gruel. She found a very low-paying job in a medicine factory, where she did not earn enough to both make rent and buy food. Women at the factory shared their lunchtime rotis, which Rajani would wrap up to take home to her children. She herself ate only once a day, collected whatever household goods the family needed from what others threw away, and bought small amounts of food and cooking supplies when she could. 

Rajani built a hut in what is now Sindhi Colony but was then, as Rajani says, “like a jungle.” Completely undeveloped, the community consisted of temporary shacks around a huge drain, and it wasn’t long before the municipal corporation decided the shacks were best demolished.

When Rajani and other women went to the municipal offices in hopes of stopping the eviction, they met Annapurna Prajapati, the SEWA organizer. Annapurna helped the women negotiate settlements around the eviction, with which Rajani was able to acquire land for a new home.

When I am old, I will have savings.

Rajani soon became a SEWA member, participating in the trainings that helped her evolve into such a key community leader today. “Being with SEWA,” Rajani says, “I have come up in life. SEWA has helped me, and I have saved. With my savings and loans, I have brought about changes.”

Rajani now operates three stalls, and, with the help of SEWA loans, has been able to build a three-story house, from which she receives rental income from three flats. Her flat and her daughter’s flat next door, while still each one room, show some signs of greater flexibility of income—a fridge hums and a fish-tank bubbles in the background. And Rajani is fortunate because, as she says, “when I am old, I will have savings.” 

Today, Rajani’s hours are still very long—her days begins at five a.m. when she begins her trek to the vegetable mundi to collect produce to sell for the day. By eight, she is selling at one of her stalls, where she remains until nine p.m. The security of her income and goods are still subject to government forces. But as her daughter says, “an ocean is changed drop by drop.” Read  more about how SEWA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Sushila Rathore

Sushila Rathore is a SEWA leader and a vendor who relies on informal income to support her family. Like her SEWA sisters, because of SEWA, she has overcome many systemic barriers placed on her by her gender and poverty.  And, she says she has created and achieved many things she couldn’t have dreamed of.

Street vendor Sushila Rathore cares for her granddaughter in her home, which doubles as a shop in Indore, India.

At 56, Sushila radiates warmth and has a ready smile. Her kind nature shows in the way she speaks with her daughter-in-law, who is quick to serve tea and homemade sweets, and with her granddaughter, who toddles about between rooms. 

As is the case for her sister SEWA leaders, Sushila is the person people in the community come to when they need help with a health crisis, when there is a situation that calls for emergency workers, or when there is a need for negotiation with local authorities. In this capacity, she also organizes events around International Women’s Day, Independence Day, and other major holidays. 

This is a life that has taken Sushila many years to build. When she was a young woman and just married, she and her husband, Mohan, lived with her parents and six brothers-in-law until the housing conditions and crowding forced the couple to move to Adarsh Indira Nagar. They had very little money, and, in order to earn some income, Sushila sold her jewellery so the couple could buy a cart, from which Mohan sold the namkin, or sweets, Sushila made. 

I am able to do any work where there is need.

This income, though, was still not enough. Mohan suggested they open a small shop in their home, and, like many informal economy workers, they took out a high-interest loan from a money-lender, using it to buy some small-batch equipment despite the struggle with loan interest.

Soon after that, SEWA organizers visited the shop. It took some persistence for them to convince Mohan to let them speak with Sushila. Their commitment paid off, and when they explained the benefits of membership to Sushila, she quickly joined. 

She began attending meetings and classes—even when her family didn’t approve of her going out. She learned to read and write, which has given her autonomy in business and household matters—as she says, “I am able to do any work when there is need.” 

Her business as a whole has also seen benefit from her association with SEWA. Through a low-interest SEWA loan, she was able to purchase more equipment to produce and sell larger quantities of namkin. Her market expanded to Bombay and Jalgeon, and when profits declined after 2001, SEWA members gave Sushila the idea to make up the difference in income by opening sweets stalls at special events and festivals. 

Sushila’s participation in festivals grew from there. With SEWA’s help, she has participated in street food festivals organized by Streetnet affiliate NAASVI in cities like Patma and Delhi, where she even won an award for her moong dal halwa, a specialty dessert. She’s further refined her cooking skills through a program SEWA helped organize with a polytechnic institute in which she learned how to cook with measures. This certificate training has opened new doors into more commercial opportunities. 

The success of Sushila’s business has also brought more security and opportunity for her family. Since joining SEWA, Sushila has continued to save through the SEWA Credit Cooperative, and in 2001, with the assistance of another SEWA loan, the family was able to build a two-story brick house. Each of their three children have earned university degrees. The family has been able to take occasional vacations to pilgrimage sites like Gangasajar, Hyderabad, and Rameswaram. Read  more about how SEWA creates change by downloading the PDF.

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