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Ela R. Bhatt, Founder
Self Employed Women's Association,
Approaches to Poverty Removal

There is a great deal of discussion in both academic literature as well as among program implementators as to how to identify the poor, and hence how to reach them. Poverty was initially defined as an income concept, but in recent years it is also being seen as a vulnerability concept. Using the income concept, poverty removal is seen as happening through raising incomes; while for the vulnerability concept, poverty removal is seen as a process of removing vulnerability, both economic and social. Both approaches are valuable and meaningful. The income approach tends to lead more to ‘income-generation’ programs, while the vulnerability approach leads to more social programs such as education and health provision.

In SEWA’s years of working at the grass roots as well as with policy makers at all levels, we find that both poverty and poverty removal need a combination of both approaches, but with a deeper understanding of where the poor are placed within the structures of society. Poverty is connected to both the economic structures and social structures within which the poor find themselves, and to remove poverty those structures do have to be addressed.


SEWA’s approach to addressing these structural issues has been to focus on what the poor need to address the structures and situations in which they find themselves. These needs have been identified, not through an academic exercise, but in the struggle to remove poverty. As a labour union, our method of working has been to address problems as they are brought to us by our members and in that process to deal with new problems and issues as they arise. In this process we find out what are the real barriers the poor face and what they need to overcome them.

As a labour union our underlying approach is to see the poor as workers and producers, rather than just as income-deprived or vulnerable people. The first structural issue is their place in the economy. Where do they fit into the economy? What is their contribution to the economy and what do they receive from the economy? What are the economic barriers they face? In this context we have adopted the concept of the informal sector as the main pool of poverty.

However, the economic structure is closely connected with the social structure. Barriers to entry to labour as well as product markets, for example, are closely connected with gender, caste and class. Furthermore, social needs such as health, child-care, education and housing are all linked to economic capabilities as well as to the provision of social security, by markets and the State. Thus it is the market and State structures which determine the poverty or well being of the people.


The interrelated nature of these structures emerges very forcefully in our daily work. In dry rural areas for example, the provision of drinking water is closely linked to the capability of women to enter the labour markets, so that when we try to intervene to link the embroiderers with markets, we find that we have to deal with the Gujarat Water Board on better drinking water schemes for them. Similarly, while organising women workers for better wages in tobacco processing plants, we were faced with the need for child care for their children who otherwise had to spend their days in the midst of tobacco heaps. Although SEWA Bank is one of the pioneers of micro-credit, we very early discovered that without helping the small entrepreneurs to deal with changing markets and policies, we could not expect the loans to work towards poverty reduction.

Since the economic and social structures are so interrelated, the solutions too have to be integrated. This means that there is no one formula for poverty reduction, rather it has to be an approach which addresses the various economic and social factors which cause and perpetuate poverty. Hence SEWA’s approach has been an integrated approach, where various inputs are needed not one after the other but simultaneously.


What do the Poor Need

As we have seen the poor are not merely deprived persons, but workers and producers in their own right. They wish to earn their living, not depend on doles or outside support. They need a continuous flow of employment through which they can earn enough in terms of cash and kind to meet their needs. In other words they need full employment.

However, here we would like to qualify as to what is meant by full employment in the context of the informal sector. In the formal sector, employment is created through the creation of jobs by firms, and this employment is generally regular, full time, protected employment, with a clear employer-employee relationship. However, in the informal sector there are no ‘jobs’. Employment is a combination of self-employment, or own-account work, wage employment, casual work, part-time work and a variety of employment relations. At any one time a poor person could be working at a number of different employments. For example, a small or marginal farmer would also work as a weaver; or an agricultural labourer would also have her own cattle, or a construction worker would roll bidis (cigarettes) in the nights. The type of work she does may also be seasonal. A salt worker may be an agricultural worker during the monsoons, or a paper picker may make kites during the kite season.


Creating employment is then no longer a matter of creating ‘jobs’, but of strengthening these workers and producers to overcome structural constraints and enter markets where they would be competitive. Often these markets, which may be labour markets, products markets or financial markets may not exist locally, and would need to be built up or institutions created which would link with the larger markets.

If better functioning markets are required for reaching full employment, the role of the State is no less important. Policies and programs of the Government determine the institutions that control both markets and the formation of capabilities. Policies may creat barriers to entry or they may facilitate growth of employment. Government funds may destroy existing work or they may enhance the poor’s capacity to earn more. In India, although the Government has begun the process of liberalization, this process has been reached only to the formal sector and has yet to reach the poor who remain straitjacketed by confining policies

Integrated Approach

What do the poor need to reach this state of full employment?

  1. The poor need capital formation at the household level through access to financial services (savings, credit, insurance) to build up and create assets of their own (land, house, workshed, equipment, cattle, bank balance). Asset ownership is the surest weapon to fight the vulnerability of poverty.
  2. The poor need building of their capacity to stand firm in the competitive market i.e. access to market infrastructure, access to technology, information, education, knowledge and relevant skills (accountancy, management, planning, designing, e.g.).
  3. The poor need social security - at least healthcare, childcare, shelter and relief, - to combat the chronic risks faced by them and their families.
  4. The poor need collective, organised strength (through their associations) to be able to actively participate at various levels in the planning, implementation and monitoring processes of the programmes meant for them, and also in all other affairs of the nation.
It is equally important that we ensure that the poor imbibe all the four components simultaneously, and in the combination that they think is viable and manageable by them. One without the other does not yield result. One after the other also makes no sense. This is very important. Also, the poor themselves are the planners, users, managers and owners of the poverty alleviation programmes meant for them.

Towards Self Empowermen

SEWA responds to the needs of the members, like banking, social security. SEWA tries to do that proficiently through building, their own organisations SEWA tries to mainstream its experiences in poverty reduction that worked and that have not worked. Out strategy of poverty reduction is joint action of struggle and development through their own organisations. Essentially this whole process itself is that of self-empowerment.
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Self Employed Women's Association
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