We the Self-Employed
SEWA'S electronic newsletter
No. 23 November 2009

Salam! Namaste!

Thank you, ‘Sungi’ Smt. Samina Khan for today’s Occasion.

Launching of my book, in Urdu?! In Pakistan?! Today?!—What a glorious day in my life! Indeed I feel humbled that you found my book worth reading, worth translating and even publishing it! My heart goes out to dedicate it to my sisters in Pakistan who are like my SEWA sisters. In the book I have tried to write what my SEWA sisters would want to say to the world. I wish I could read it in Urdu. While I was in primary school, we were taught both the scripts of the Rashtrabhasha, Devnagari and Urdu i.e. national language of India, then. But the fate thereafter separated us. But, really? The working poor women of all the countries in the region have brought us together, in a rather more serious way. Today, HNSA is launching not only my book but also Sabah. We will carry a common name, identity. Sabah will carry us together from the margins to swim in the mainstream of our region. I suppose, this is the women’s way of regional cooperation. Therefore, I am very happy to be here on the occasion.
Yes, the book is about poor, women, self employed. Since early days, poverty has always hurt me, because it is violence, continued violence that is happening with the consent of the society. Poverty is manmade, not God given. Moreover, poverty of the working poor is totally unacceptable.

In 1986, while I was visiting a small village in Bankura district in Bengal, a tiny shrunken woman said to me, “Kaaj naahi, kaaj kori maroo,” meaning, “I have no work, but the grind of work is killing me.” These words cut right through me, because they spoke of the life of every working poor man and woman in India—a lifetime of hard labor, but with earnings so meager, that, an end to poverty is nowhere in sight. Among the poor, every woman works. Although she toils from dawn to dusk, yet she feels that she has no work, and she is ever searching for work.  All her life she waits for this elusive work, which can provide her with a steady income to feed her family, step out of poverty to build a secure life.


Poverty is filled with vulnerabilities in the lives of the poor. True.


But I have also seen in my lifetime the power of organizing of the poor women for development and self reliance. Yes, we are poor but so many. This so many is our power. In my book you will read vulnerabilities of the poor as well as their collective organized power.


Having experienced distrust by the authorities of the poor and condescension toward the women’s economic activities, we were disappointed. In 1973 December I called a SEWA members’ meeting  Chandaben, illiterate a used garment dealer, a SEWA member, illiterate, asked me, “Ben, why can’t we have our own bank?” “Because we have no money,” I replied patiently. “We need a very large amount of capital to start a bank we are poor!” “Well, we may be poor, but look we are so many,” Chandaben replied. She had such faith in our group’s ability that she was ready to move mountains!  Chandaben’s words started everyone at the meeting thinking, “Why ever not? We have to have our own bank!” The more we dreamed aloud, the more real the idea appeared. It was worth investigating. Later Chandaben was elected as the Chair of the Board of SEWA Bank.

As you know, banking is money. I keep on asking myself, Is money, power? Of course, money has become a new source of power for women. Once, at a SEWA Bank meeting, I asked our board members if money was power. Some women categorically agreed. One woman said that money gave strength and that was power. But when asked who the most powerful person in the room was, the women pointed to Jayashreeben, the Managing Director of SEWA Bank. They felt that she literally had the money-power of the bank. Her power also came, they said, from the fact that Jayashreeben was educated, efficient at her work, honest and had the strong support of the women for whom she worked. I argued that since the money of the bank came from you – the women – why was it that you yourself did not feel the most powerful? They explained that savings and capital give one a sense of power to oneself, but the collective strength of hundreds of thousands of women gave one, “big power”. Essentially, money is power, but collective organized strength to collectively own, manage and benefit is a bigger power. ‘Powershakti’ as the women call it.

I remember that Chandaben delivering a keynote address at the Global Congress of the Women’s World Banking in NY, and giving advice to the then India’s Finance Minister Shri Manmohan Singh who was chairing the Congress. That was the year 1990. In 2008, at the Regional Conference of Home workers in Delhi, Padma Kumari of Nepal, sitting next to India’s Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh says, “weaving is my living. It is my skill that has brought me to meet many sisters like me and your good self.” The Prime Minister happily responded to promise to take forward the National Policy of Home based workers. My point is that after all the working poor women have the capacity to think, act and lead. I have enormous confidence in them. As money is power, skill is even higher power. Women’s bigger powershakti.
Thank you, SAARC Secretariat for lending active support and facilitating our meetings of homebased workers in South Asia. Thank you again, Sungi for the launching of my Urdu book. It is not my book it is yours.
Now we have Homebased Workers Network in South Asia. Actually, it all started with the ILO Convention No 177 on Homework, 1996. There are 50 mill home based workers in South Asia of whom 80% are women.

As a follow-up to the ILO Convention, as an organizing effort, we the grassroots organizations of home based workers of our region had met in Khatmandu – thanks to UNIFEM and WIEGO, our sincere partners – where we had urged SAARC to address the issues and take measures to help the home workers to deal with risks and opportunities of globalization. As you remember, we came out with the Khatmandu Declaration we had urged the SAARC for National Policy for Home based Workers and specifically, to promote increased integration of markets, and include home based products made by women, in the SAFTA List.


Thereafter, an Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation was set up by the SAARC. I was a member of this Commission. The report of the Commission was endorsed by the 12th SAARC Summit that had met  in Islamabad. The Summit had reiterated the resolve for “creation of a suitable environment conducive to poverty alleviation, and, a Fund for the purpose.


Special thanks to the SAARC Development Fund for Poverty alleviation. Its concrete support has brought us together that today we women meet in Islamabad to launch Sabah, a company and the brand of products made by women home based workers! It is our slow and long journey from ILO convention in Geneva in 1996, to Khatmandu 2000, to today’s Islamabad 2009, within the SAARC family. It is a journey of skilled women entering the market mainstream together.  We hope Phulkari, Justi, Kantha, Hash, Alo mirror stitches and also weaving will be together reaching the mainstream market. SEWA TFC (Trade Facilitation Centre) too will strive together and build her own capacities to make that Sabah stands firm in the competitive market, local and global. That is why I am happy to be present today at the launch of Sabah.

In our region, the poor women are spread across rural and urban areas, across different sectors of economy – across levels of access to formal financial services, - and across the range of industrial processes. In the textile sector, for example they are dispersed across contract labour and small businesses. In the clothing sector they are in various piece rate production sites and a vast majority in home based work. Needle and thread is our core skill. So is agriculture, outside home. But as our experience goes often the technology, machines and the skills are confined to stitching on cotton fabric only. They are inept to get along with new technology machines, accessories, new fabrics, innovative designs and cutting work.

In South Asia we saw rapidly expanding economic opportunities, in certain sectors, including global trade. However, our governments and international interventions have been focused on trade at policy level, and, between respective countries and the global markets. The actual producers hardly have any say in the policy process. I hope, when time comes, Sabah will equip herself to make interventions that benefit the poor.


Also about the women’s working conditions they work in poor housing environment which is also one of the reasons for their lack of efficiency, and stress. Their home is their work place the fact that our bankers have yet to recognize. I hope Sabah will take up housing, insurance, also as integral part of her programme.


Regarding markets, the women are unaware of the changing scenario in garment markets, unaware of the impact of WTO on their lives and livelihoods.

The process of globalization leaves the poor artisans out. The global opportunities by-pass them – including the labour market, financial market, and consumer market. The women do not know their markets directly. Some have built up their readymade garment businesses but they only know their own market so far, which is local market. But in the globalization process, the women producers do not know who buys the garments they produce. They do not know what price their products will fetch in global markets, how long their design or the fabric will be in demand.


Whatever, their understanding of global markets is filtered with middle interests. Their flow of information of global opportunities is guarded and cleansed. Government and others although well – meaning, try to help the underpriviledged, but their interpretation of the markets is not always timely or accurate or usable or operational.

Not that the garment worker is not coping with the changing markets. She once stitched petticoats and blouse by the dozens, now she has learnt to make jeans and Bermuda shorts. But she garment worker does not know where her new product will sell or at what price. She has not seen any one beyond the middlemen she serves. Similarly as the farmer does not benefit from the price in the global market of the oilseeds she has grown on her small farm. She has seen only the big farmer cum trader cum money lender.
The studies or consultations or conferences on globalization have a poor analysis of what is happening, or may be an excellent analysis, but these reports, studies do not tell what the poor, grassroot producers can do to overcome this neglect. Because, they have hardly any contact with the grassroots.

That is why, we the grassroots need to have our own first hand understanding and knowledge of the outside world.


Sabah is an effort in that direction.


Now we are organized as Sabah to access the markets.  Of course, organizing is never enough. It is a process – an on-going process. Our organizing has to be institutionalized in different forms to be able to respond to various contexts. We have to organize at certain scale and size, cutting across areas, countries.


That is what we are trying to do here in Sabah, I believe. We need information, market links, and emerging technologies. TFC of SEWA is trying to serve such needs. It is a two way learning process, unique as it is!


We will not compete amongst us but will stand united in the market, strengthening each other.  Such will be our regional cooperation the path that we have created. But it is a long way to go.


South Asia is a home to world’s most puzzling and continuing poverty.  In the past we may have explained it due to lingering legacy of colonial rule.  But now, with more than half a century behind us, we cannot continue to complain the same.


In South Asian countries, there is a paradoxical scene. On one hand there is disappointment of its macro trends that are not supportive to the poor, and, on the other hand there is rich tapestry of ‘best practices’ in removing poverty! These varied experiences described as ‘garden of hope’ in the Poverty Commission Report, have gone on to attract world reputation but their lessons are yet to be translated into the mainstream policy action by our own Governments.


What is heartening is that in these efforts, it is the poor and women who are taking the lead, taking the risks − market, political, social, crisis, disasters − to come out of poverty.  What is depressing is that when these efforts succeed, there are few takers of sharing the risks — neither the family, nor the Governments, nor the Corporates nor the Banks nor the multilaterals. Risk sharing is crucial lest the initiatives stagnate or fail.  Shahida Begum of Sakar district, Pakistan was discouraged by her village folk to risk her travel to India, and SEWA Ahmedabad for training. But, she told her co-trainees in TFC that her eldest son supported her. Who said to the villagers to the effect that “someone has to be first, and I am proud that is my mother.” Such family’s encouragement, how crucial it is we all women know. I do have more hope in our younger generation.


Lastly, we have to understand in our minds the power of inclusiveness, coming together for a purpose. Our sister Shahida Begum of Mando-doro village, while she was in SEWA India, told us, “I am not here because of my relatives or friends or husband. I am here because of my skills. We are home based workers; we don’t see any difference between us. We see women here doing similar work. She says that from the differences in us, I learn better. What a profound advice to all of us! My experience in India with poor shows that the women are a breakthrough. They are better fighters for freedom and against poverty. And that is what my book is about.


Depending on our past experience, we have ventured to launch Sabah! Sabah will work only if we work harder and united. We very much hope that SAARC will take up this approach as inherent way of building cooperation. i.e. through women and women’s work. We will build cooperative ties and appeal to our Governments for continued support to women’s initiatives and will share the risks the women take. These are market risks, financial risks and sometimes physical.


To conclude, I would like to say that South Asia is not merely an economic block.  South Asia is an ancient civilization.  It is not a matter of proving macroeconomic indicators to show the world that how globalization and growth rate are working in our region.  We must show that how regional cooperation rejuvenate this civilization. How? We cooperate reforms, govern peacefully. How?  One, put poor women in the centre of any economic reform particularly in key basic services. Two, recognize ‘work’ as central to any reform that addresses poverty. Three, invest adequately in those initiatives by the poor that have potential to grow to a viable scale. Four, develop and spread social security for the working poor that perform in a holistic way. And, five, build the poor, self employed women’s capacity to enter global markets.


My plea is for holistic, peaceful regional cooperation. In that case, women are your best allies.



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