Self Employed Women’s Association
February 2006

With this issue, SEWA’s Electronic Newsletter “We, the Self Employed” completes one year!  

“We Are Poor but So Many: The Story of Self Employed Women in India”--An Authentic History of SEWA 

 Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA, affectionately known as Elaben (Sister Ela) has written a book about her experiences in building SEWA. The heroines of the book are the rag pickers, clothes vendors, embroiderers who are the driving force in SEWA’s history like Chandaben who called upon some 100 women like her to get united into an organization; saying "Why do the police beat us and arrest us? Why do they take bribes? We are not criminals; we are workers and business women! We are poor but so many. Let us make our own organization and do something about these problems!

" The book published by Oxford University Press (USA) was released in a book launch in New York on the 8th of December. Among those who attended the book launch were James Wolfehnson ex-president of the World Bank, Ralph Bultjens of New York University, ex ambassador Philips Talbot and Neelam Deo, counsel general of India. The book is the first in a series of books on South Asia edited by B.P Singh. Explaining the purpose of the series, B.P. Singh said

“The purpose of the series would be to provide insights into factors, conditions and policies that impact on the economics, technology development and financial structures of South Asia. Individual titles in the series will represent the thinking and perspectives of the best minds and innovators concerned with and involved in these issues.

” Ela Bhatt, explaining the title in an interview to this newsletter said” The word ‘Many’ is very important to us. We, the informal workers are many-- 350 million workers, producers and entrepreneurs, over 90%, in the total workforce of India. This ‘many’ becomes important when it is an organised number... a big organised number.

 The “many” becomes important when we have a common path, shared goals, values, solidarity, we are moving forward in the same direction. We are strong because we are so many all moving together. In the title of the book what I am trying to say is that we are poor, but the “many” makes a difference because when the “many” unite and move forward together it leads to change, to changing the mainstream.

 “For the poor to be so many is power, organized power, to fight the evils of poverty; for politicians it is a huge vote bank; for bureaucrats, it’s more schemes, bigger budgets to control; for academicians, a fertile field of green fodder to analyse and interpret and to set theories and policies to criticize governments; for journalists, more stories, more controversies.

” One question that is often asked of SEWA is why it is not open to men. As B.P. Singh said in his speech, “SEWA has remained an exclusive organization of women. It was Gautama Buddha, who 2550 years ago, felt that if the Sanghas were opened to women they might decline. SEWA is facing similar pressures in favour of the other gender. The author records aptly: ‘Periodically, SEWA has come under pressure from men who want to join the organization, since in many cases they work alongside the women in the same occupations and face similar problems. Initially, I was open to the idea of men joining our union struggles, because I felt that they would lend more strength to SEWA; however, the women emphatically refused. They said they would feel inhibited with men around, and they believe men would dominate and create tensions. …. Another major but unspoken reason was that the women wanted to keep their earnings and savings private – if not secret – from the men. The decision not to accept men in SEWA has been a good one; it has allowed us as women to explore unfamiliar territories, take on new roles, and expand our horizons with growing self-confidence.

” The book is about economic change in a non-violent way. As Elaben explains, “It is possible to have non-violent economic reforms. First, reforms need to put poor woman in the centre in any economic reform, especially, in the key areas: basic services, banking, labour, and insurance. Second, recognize ‘work’ as central to any economic reform that addresses poverty. For the poor, work is central to their lives. Third, invest adequately in those initiatives by the poor that have potential to grow. Without sustained resources, small successes will not grow to a viable scale. A certain scale is necessary to enter the mainstream and create a countervailing impact. Fourth, develop and spread social security measures for the poor and women that perform in a holistic way as our economic structures, are closely connected with our social structure. And, fifth, build the poor self employed women’s capacity to enter global markets by building new marketable skills and knowledge, individually as well as institutionally. In brief, there has to have a total conceptual context in which the institutional changes, investment patterns, mindset changes have to be brought in the economic reforms. The desirable context is decentralisation and self-rule. And the desirable method is non-violence.

” For the complete interviews, reviews and other information, about the book visit, To order the book click here.

New Leadership at SEWA

Bhanuben Solanki was elected the new President of SEWA, and Jyotiben Mecwan was elected General Secretary at SEWA’s Trienniel Annual General Meeting. The 34th Annual General Meeting of SEWA began with a flag-hosting ceremony on Republic day, 26th January in SEWA Academy. According to SEWA’s constitution the triennial meeting is an election year and this year also the elections were held according to schedule. The organisation witnessed a smooth transfer of leadership to the hands of its second generation, when the representatives of the members elected daughter of a tobacco worker to the post of its next General Secretary. Jyotiben’s mother, Indiraben is one of the early rural leaders of SEWA, who played a pivotal role in the struggle of tobacco agriculture and tobacco processing workers of Kheda. The new President of SEWA Bhanuben Solanki is an agriculture worker from Kheda district of Gujarat.

 SEWA has a two tier structure, with its primary members electing a Pratinidhi Mandal (Representative council), which in turn elects its twenty five member Executive Committee. The Pratinidhi Mandal is elected in a ratio of one representative for two hundred members and in the course of the last year, 2340 Representatives were elected in 11 districts through a systematic democratic process. These representatives met on 26th January to elect their executive committee. In 2005 SEWA had a National membership of 796548 self employed women with 475,011 in Gujarat alone.SEWA has a tradition of electing its president from the trade with highest membership. This year the membership of agriculture workers was highest, i. e. 253,293.


Bhanuben Solanki (agriculture worker) President
Maniben Patni (vegetable vendor) Vice President
Gauriben Ranbhai (Embroiderer) Vice President
Manaliben Shah (Legal services) Vice President
Jyotiben Mecwan (Tobacco work) General Secretary
Rahimaben Sheikh (Garment work) Secretary
Mittalben Shah (Pharmacist)   Secretary
Namrataben Bali (Education work) Treasurer

Other executive committee members

Baluben Parmar(construction worker), Sarojben Padmshali(Beedi worker),Taraben Solanki( tobacco worker), Pushpaben J. Parmar (tobacco factory worker), Jaitunben Sheikh (incense stick roller), Rafiqunnisaben Mansuri (garment worker), Pushpaben Raval (agriculture worker), Nanduben Baraiyya (agriculture worker), Reginaben Peterbhai Parmar (weaver), Manjulaben Parmar(agriculture worker), Rajiben Parmar (paper picker), Chanchalben Jagdishbhai (agriculture worker),  Suryaben Arvindbahi (animal husbandry), Sakiben Rawat (casual labour), Rewaben Khant(agriculture worker), Monaben Gadhvi (hand embroidery work), Bachuba Darbar (agriculture worker), Bhavanaben Jadav(agriculture worker).

Introducing herself the new President said, “I have gradually grown into the  leadership as an elected representative in SEWA for many years. In these years I have been part of organizing the women in my district and at the same time taken part in all of the SEWA activities ---training, insurance, health, childcare and many others. I never feel tired, and feel confident that I can carry SEWA on my head!

”Jyotiben, General Secretary, said, “I grew up as a tobacco worker.  All my gratitude to father who is no longer alive and my mother, Indiraben, who struggled so hard to bring me up, toiling in tobacco fields and factories so that I could go to school. I would come back from school and work alongside my mother so that we could earn a little more. I was able to go to college and get a B. Com degree.

I joined SEWA in 1986 and formed the cooperative of child care workers in Ahmedabad and Kheda. Later I became the co-ordinator of Kheda fought against the exploitation of tobacco agriculture workers, formed savings groups and linked them to SEWA bank through the district saving cooperative. I have tried to give my full mind and heart to do what I know and to learn what I do not”

Rahimaben said “Since my childhood I have been stitching garments and still do so.  I was first elected to the executive committee in 1994…from that year till today this is the fifth time that you have made me the Secretary. I feel the kind of bond with SEWA that a daughter feels with her mother!”  Mittalben added, “I am from the middle class and studied pharmacy, but after I joined SEWA I felt that I have been reborn. SEWA is my life’s work”

As the retiring General Secretary (and the new treasurer) Namrataben reminded the members of the ongoing struggle that SEWA is facing. She quoted Rahimji’s in her address which says that one would find many companions in the moment of happiness, but the true companion is one who stays with you in the moments of difficulties. She expressed gratitude for all the tremendous support received during her tenure and called upon SEWA women to remain constructive and loyal in the moments of toughest struggle.

At the end all once again expressed their firm faith in Gandhian values and sang a song which says they have chosen Gandhi to be their leader and they would never deviate from their path.

Gujarat 475,011
Madhya Pradesh 272,832
Uttar Pradesh 42,100
Bihar 3,376
Delhi 1,260
Kerala 1,119
Rajasthan 850
Total 796,548

Within Gujarat, the break up is as follows

Category Members Un-audited %
Vendors 41,142 8.66
Producers 28,964 6.10
Labour and Services 328,952 69.25
Homebased 75,953 15.99
TOTAL 475,011 100
Area Membership Un-audited %
Urban 155,110 32.65
Rural 319,901 67.35
Total Membership 475,011 100
To subscribe Send a mail to with "Subscribe" in subject line. Please send a mail to with "Remove" in the subject line to remove your name from the mailing list.
Self Employed Women's Association
SEWA Reception Centre, Opp. Victoria Garden, Bhadra, Ahmedabad - 380 001. India.
Phone : 91-79-25506444 / 25506477 / 25506441, Fax : 91 - 79 - 25506446, Email
Design and Developed by STWI