Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)


Mains   > Society   >   Role of women   >   Women and Child issues


  • Elaben Bhatt, a noted Gandhian, leading women’s empowerment activist, and renowned founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) passed away.


  • SEWA is a trade union based in Ahmedabad, that promotes the rights of low-income, independently employed female workers.
  • It was established in 1972 as a membership-based organization to organize self-employed women in the informal economy and assist their collective struggle for justice, equality, and fair treatment.
  • It grew out of the Women’s Wing of the Textile Labour association, India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by Anasuya Sarabhai and Mahatma Gandhi.
  • With over 2.1 million participating women, SEWA is the largest organization of informal workers in the world.
  • Since the late 1980s, it has successfully spread into rural India. Presently, around 66 percent of SEWA’s membership is based in rural areas.


With the Gandhian principles of Satya (truth), Ahinsa (non-violence), Sarvadharma (integrating all faiths, all people) and Khadi (propagation of local employment and self-reliance), SEWA has been working with the twin goals of:

  1. Full Employment: Achieve work security, income security, food security and social security viz. healthcare, childcare, nutrition and shelter and
  2. Self-Reliance: Autonomous and self-reliant at both individual and community levels in terms of economic as well as decision making abilities.

Four Pillars of SEWA:

To facilitate members representation, economic empowerment, collective strength and increased bargaining power, SEWA follows an integrated approach of:

  1. Organizing:
    • Collective organized strength through worker’s associations to actively participate in the planning, implementation and monitoring processes of programs meant for these women workers also in all other affairs of the nation
  2. Capacity building:
    • To stand firm in the competitive markets i.e. access to infrastructure, technology, information, education, knowledge, and relevant skills.
  3. Social security:
    • At least health care, child care, shelter and relief – to combat the chronic risks faced by the women workers and their families
  4. Capital Formation:
    • At the household level, SEWA facilitates access to financial services to build and create assets of their own.

SEWA’s 11 Questions:

To evaluate it progress, and ensure that members’ priorities are aligned with organizational goals and progress, SEWA has set itself 11 self-evaluating questions:

  1. Have we created employment?
  2. Have we increased income?
  3. Have we ensured better food and nutrition?
  4. Have we safeguarded health?
  5. Have we provided childcare?
  6. Have we created or improved housing?
  7. Have we generated assets?
  8. Have we increased our organizational strength?
  9. Have we generated workers’ leadership?
  10. Have we become more self-reliant, individually and collectively?
  11. Have we learned to read and write?


  • Creation of organizations:
    • SEWA has developed a number of successful enterprises and organizations at the village, district, state and national levels, alongside becoming the largest primary union in India. It includes 4000 SHGs, 110 cooperatives, 15 economic federations, 3 producer companies.
  • SEWA bank:
    • SEWA bank, the first bank for poor self-employed women, was created in 1974. Services of the bank were based on the specific need of self-employed women.
    • For instance, to overcome the problem of illiteracy, it has a system based on photo identity cards for opening accounts, accessing information, and withdrawals.
    • The bank also provides a variety of business support services to shareholders by linking them to government subsidies which could benefit their businesses and to negotiate prices with wholesalers.
  • Asset building:
    • Through SEWA bank and other activities like Mahila Housing Trust, SEWA has enabled its members to create assets of their own. 
  • Capacity Building:
    • SEWA has launched a number of research, capacity-building and educational organizations, including the SEWA Academy, SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, and SEWA ICT.
    • SEWA has also founded StreetNet and HomeNet, two international networks for street-based workers’ and home-based workers’ organizations.
  • Rural development:
    • SEWA has facilitated the formation of savings and credit self-help groups (SHGs) for women in villages.
    • It also created a number of Community Learning Centres in rural India, to upgrade the skills of its members.
  • Development partner:
    • Its influential presence at the grassroot level has made SEWA an important partner in developing and implementing India’s macro-level rural development policies.
    • The Rural Urban Distribution Initiative (RUDI) was set up in India in 2004 by the SEWA. It is a branded local network for the procurement, marketing, and distribution of agricultural products by rural women and is owned by the small-scale farmers and rural women involved.
  • Social welfare:
    • Self-employment represents nearly half of informal economy workers and by addressing the needs of the self-employed, SEWA addresses the needs of a large majority of India’s labour force.
    • Lok Swasthya SEWA Trust was established by SEWA to provide primary health care including child care to women workers and their families.
    • National Insurance VimoSEWA Cooperative Ltd. is a multi-state cooperative promoted by SEWA and aims to provide social protection to informal sector women workers and their families.
  • Advocacy:
    • SEWA has been a lead advocate for government policies such as the 2004 “National Policy for Urban Street Vendors”, and the “Unorganized Workers Social Security Act” adopted in 2008.
  • Alliances:
    • At the international level, SEWA has made it presence in countries like Afghanistan.
    • It also partnered with global developmental agencies and organizations such as the ILO, UNDP, World Bank, Ford Foundation, and FAO.
    • SEWA also has a number of private sector partners, like the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), and corporate trusts such as the Tech Mahindra Foundation.


SEWA’s experience in mobilizing and empowering poor self-employed women delivers important lessons:

  • Empower through organizing:
    • SEWA’s capacity to organize disadvantaged women to achieve economic, political and social empowerment highlights the importance of collective action in attaining inclusive development.
  • Aim for comprehensive goals:
    • SEWA does not believe that a single intervention like job creation or micro-finance is sufficient to pull women out of poverty. This serves as an example for government to do away with its siloed approach towards development.
  • “Involve rather than intervene”:
    • SEWA’s geographic spread and influence is closely linked to its democratic structure of governance and demand-driven approach. This highlights the role of participatory governance in development.
  • Develop a flexible structure:
    • The decentralized structure of SEWA has allowed it to innovate, take risks, grow and experiment with different areas of work. Also, while it has a Gandhian approach, its activities are not rigid and dogmatic.   
  • Ensure self-reliance and sustainability:
    • SEWA has created economic structures, capacity-building and management programmes and institutions, which provides sustainable livelihood security to self-employed women. Such method can be replicated across the country.  
  • Learn from experiences:
    • An important aspect of SEWA’s success has been its ability to transform mistakes and new challenges into opportunities.
    • For instance, instead of continuing ineffective trade union style campaigns in villages, it focussed on improving the lives of its rural membership through livelihood creation, which became one of the driving forces of its success in rural areas.


Q. “The success of SEWA provides ample proof that women’s organisations can reform our society in a healthy, non-violent and sustainable way”. Elucidate.