Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Working together to improve lives

I was back in Gujarat last weekend visiting street vendors who are members of SEWA – the Self Employed Women’s Association. It was nearly ten years since I visited with the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH). After that visit I wrote:

I can picture the lives of the vegetable sellers of Ahmedabad from the outside, as they sit on the streets of the market area in the sun and the monsoon rains, with a small pile of vegetables on the rag in front. I cannot begin to understand how it feels from the inside to live the life of one of the poorest, most marginalised women in India. You start with some significant social impediments: you are poor, from a scheduled caste, you had no chance of education, and you are female. The only employment you can envisage is what your mother did: become a vegetable seller. This means you have to borrow money at usurious interest rates to buy your vegetables, pay inflated prices to the middle man in the wholesale market, deal with police harassment as you sit on the road side, and worry what to do with the children while you earn your few rupees. On the morning of my visit an elephant swaying through the market was simply one more hazard.

On this latest visit, Mirai Chaterjee, a leader of SEWA and a member of the CSDH, took me back. The street vendors in this area, the women at least, are members of the union, SEWA. Mirai introduced me to the local leader. She said (in Guajarati) that she remembered me from ten years earlier. Goodness. How come? This is not exactly a tourist attraction, and they don’t get so many outsiders come to visit.

Mirai is the one on the right

This woman was a street vendor as was her daughter. But the next generation? They are getting educated and do not want to go into the vegetable market. It is tempting to believe that the childcare SEWA provides is a significant step towards education. We know from evidence elsewhere in the world that enrolment in pre-school education is a significant predictor of educational success.

Interesting. These women are Dalit, outcastes. They have presumably married other Dalit for generations. But caste is not destiny, or should not be. Give the children the opportunity to be educated and they seize it and, presumably, flourish.

There are many other ways that SEWA has been active in improving the lot of its members. The wholesale vegetable market is a prime example. The wholesalers were forcing small farmers to sell at low rates and passing produce on to the retailers at high rates. Large profit for them; hardship for the street vendors. SEWA, against opposition from the, largely  male, wholesalers, set up as middlewomen: buying from growers at reasonable prices and selling to retailers with modest profit.

SEWA Bank is an important part of the jigsaw – small loans to street vendors without extortionate interest rates. Health care, insurance, legal representation, housing are all active areas for SEWA and its members.

Inspiring stuff. SEWA shows how collective action by civil society can transform lives.

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