From the Archives/

Self-Employed Women’s Association

Although founded in 2002, the International Alliance of Street Vendors (Streetnet International) traces its origins to this 1995 Bellagio conference and now has thousands of members spread across four continents who benefit from Streetnet’s commitment to women’s leadership and youth engagement. These include Ghana’s UNIWA (Union of Informal Workers Association), the Free trade Union of Entrepreneurs in Ukraine, the US’s Street Vendor Project, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The theme of their convening was “The Legal Status of Street Vendors in Cities.” The goal was to lay the foundation for an international trade union movement of street vendors. 11 cities from five continents were represented, including those from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. There were vendor organizers, as well as legal experts, an urban planner, a senior police official, and a member of a chamber of commerce.

In February 2023, SEWA celebrated its 50th anniversary in India. During an event attended by Hillary Rodham Clinton, an update was shared from the organization’s late founder, Ela Bhatt:

  • Drawing from the past 50 years, SEWA aims to have at least one hundred more cities across the world that offer the right to hawk, as well as the place and protection to hawk, to an additional twenty million women street vendors.
    Elaben Ramesh Bhatt

Uniquely, the conference welcomed the active participation of vendors. Empowering vendors to speak for themselves and share the problems and challenges they faced was crucial for the conference. It facilitated the group’s ability to understand the importance of establishing vendors as legitimate economic agents within a larger socio-economic context. The conference began with each of the vendors describing their work, along with their unique obstacles and goals. These conversations were included in the draft of a declaration that was read out loud by Ela R. Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association. They then signed the declaration. By the end of the conference, The Bellagio International Declaration of Street Vendors was adopted by the SEWA convenors on the 23rd of November 1995. But how did SEWA come to be?

Founded in 1972, SEWA was formed to give workers’ rights to self-employed women around the world. Initially, Bhatt organized self-employed women into a union within the Women’s Wing of the Textile Labor Association, based in Ahmedabad, India. SEWA was a response to the fact that state laws protect industrial workers (who are under someone else’s employ), but not self-employed women. Organized by Bhatt and three SEWA collaborators, along with the help of two members of the International Coalition on Women, SEWA convened at Bellagio in November 1995, with the theme “The Legal Status of Street Vendors in Cities.”

SEWA’s conference at Bellagio resulted in the expansion of the organization beyond India, such as in South Africa, and led to the Ghana Trade Union Congress (now known as Ghana TUC), formed in collaboration with SEWA. The latter provided a model for other countries to follow in the matter of organizing informal economy workers. Both SEWA and Ghana TUC went on to collaborate with IUF, an international workers’ rights union which supports food processing industries.

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Learn more about how The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting SEWA’s recent engagement with self-employed women around the world.

Editorial note | Taken from The Rockefeller Foundation’s archive, this article highlights the ways in which this particular institution offers a unique model for serving the world. The article has been edited for brevity.