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SEWA’s Multi-Pronged Approach to Ease the Squeeze On India’s Women Laborers

Shanti Chaganbhai Parmar knows the dangers of COVID-19. But she’s more frightened of what she will face if she can’t harvest her two acres of lush, fragrant cumin and a third acre swaying with tall, dense castor plants.

Shanti lives hand-to-mouth in the best of days, and had to borrow money this year due to furious rains that damaged last season’s harvest. She’s not sure how she will manage with another crop loss.

So despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mandated lockdown, Shanti keeps trying to sneak onto her own fields in a rural village in the Patan District, 110 miles northwest of Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

“We feel like thieves,” says Shanti, a member of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a Rockefeller Foundation grantee. “The police come and beat us with sticks for venturing out to the fields. They are not understanding. If we don’t reap the castor now, it will be completely destroyed. I am really scared. If this continues longer, we will be ruined.”

SEWA women’s health group meeting in a rural village outside Ahmedabad, India. February 03, 2015.

With its most recent grant to SEWA made last year, The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting linking one million small entrepreneurs to newer markets via a digital platform. SEWA head Reema Nanavaty believes this may be more important than ever now, and could play a vital role in helping restore and build livelihoods for India’s independently employed labor force, increasing their resilience to future pandemics and far lesser stresses.

But with the arrival of COVID-19, part of the grant was repurposed for immediate needs. Funds will be used to hire women to make paper bags, envelopes, and school notebooks, to bind books, to continue making protective gloves and masks, and to prepare rotis and dry snacks that can be distributed to community kitchens and old age homes. “We have learned from past disasters that work is a healer,” says Reema, who has been organizing women at SEWA for over 35 years and overseen its growth to become the single largest union of informal sector workers in India.

This is a moment of few good choices for the women who make up 93.7 percent of the labor force in India’s informal economy. They are farmers, vendors, waste recyclers, construction workers, textile workers and rickshaw drivers who know if they don’t work, they risk starvation.

The quarantine also comes with gender-based pressures. Women in India are nearly ten times more likely than men to be engaged in unpaid household chores.[1] And the country’s National Commission for Women, which receives complaints of domestic violence from across the country, has recorded more than twofold rise in domestic violence in the coronavirus lockdown period.[2]

Equally, it is a challenging moment for SEWA, currently supporting 1.7 million low-income self-employed women and founded 48 years ago by the “gentle revolutionary” Dr. Ela Bhatt, a trustee of The Rockefeller Foundation for a decade.

“We’ve had a lot of disasters in India—quakes, cyclones, droughts,” Reema says. “But it strikes and you know the extent of the damage. Now, each day is like a new day. It’s all unpredictable, and our members are asking, ‘How do I plan?’”

SEWA’s Steps to Meet the Crisis

When the crisis began, Reema was particularly concerned that information reaches the rural areas where many SEWA members live and work. “We had an in-house team of three doctors who began sending audio and video messages along with posters to our district teams, telling them about COVID-19,” she says.

They also organized a contest for children to create posters warning about COVID-19, and received more than 25,000 posters from children ages 4-12. They held a competition for women to start making masks at home, and over 200,000 masks were made in a week. They began supplying food packages to the most vulnerable.

At the same time, SEWA leaders coordinated with national and local governments in a variety of ways on behalf of specific sectors.

For example, some 35,000 salt pan workers who are SEWA members live with their children for eight months in grueling, harsh conditions in shacks next to the salt flats in the desert areas of India. They routinely travel to the nearby villages to buy necessities like grains, vegetables, and water. This is no longer possible under India’s shutdown. Initially, SEWA coordinated to bring them home, but they resisted, saying they needed to collect the salt for their livelihoods. So SEWA worked with the district government to arrange for supply deliveries twice a week.

Poverty is a form of violence. It snatches away dignity.

Reema Nanavaty, head of SEWA

These steps are helpful, but not enough, Reema says.

Shanta Parmar, SEWA’s vice president and a SEWA member for more than three decades, sells potatoes and onions in Jamalpur, northeast of Delhi near the Ganges River. The markets are closed, but the vendors still try to reach potential buyers, sometimes setting up along the river until police drive them away. Even traveling from their homes to attempt these sales is more costly, though, because rickshaws will no longer take multiple passengers.

“Our situation is very critical,” Shanta says. “I have no idea how I will overcome this period.”

Social Problems Exacerbated in Quarantine

Her words echo sentiments Reema hears many times every day. If economic issues top the list of what keeps her up at night, though, growing social problems are a close second. One SEWA member, Rekha from Boriyavi village in the Anand District southeast of Patan, described her own situation.

Three years ago, she took a loan from a local bank for a solar pump to help tend to her half-acre field. “With the help of this pump, we are growing fresh seasonal vegetables like turmeric, ginger, green garlic, cilantro and arrow-leaves,” Rekha says. “Using the income from the sale of these vegetables, we are paying off the loan.”

But with the lock-down, they can’t harvest or sell their crops, and not only their pocketbooks are suffering. “My husband and children are all at home, ten people in our small home. There is smoke from cooking, and the monotonous discussions on financial losses we are incurring, and the panic and anxiety about the pandemic. All this put together builds stress, and the result is I get beaten up for no fault of mine,” Rekha says.

“Poverty is a form of violence,” Reema says. “It snatches away dignity.” She invokes the image of the banyan tree when she describes the work of SEWA. “The trunk is SEWA, the leaves are our members and the shoots are the many economic organizations that take root. We complement and supplement each other.”

At this moment, though, it will take even more than this banyan tree to help India’s informal labor force. SEWA is calling on the government to provide income support to all families of workers in the informal economy, freeze for six months all loan repayments and distribute food rations for as long as the crisis lasts.

“Our members do not want relief,” Reema says, “but meaningful, productive work which will help them overcome hunger and the fear of the disease.”