How a women's cooperative in India is helping accelerate empowerment

SEWA holds the belief that by organising, women workers can gain a voice and their work can become more apparent.

SEWA holds the belief that by organizing, women workers can gain a voice and their work can become more apparent. Image: Self-Employed Women's Association

Pooja Chhabria
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Share:
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Listen to the article

  • The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is working to support informal women workers in India.
  • Mirai Chatterjee, the leader of the movement, explains how it empowers women to become self-reliant while giving them a voice to speak up.
  • The 2023 edition of the Forum's Global Gender Gap Report finds that at the current rate of progress, it will take 131 years to reach full parity.

Chanchi Ben (also called sister) worked as a small farmer in Vinchhiya village, about 170km from the bustling economic and industrial hub of Ahmedabad city in western India. But she was beginning to get hopeless.

"She is poor. She is disabled. She is Dalit. And, of course, she's a woman," says Mirai Chatterjee, who leads India's Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). She narrated Chanchi's story during an interview with the World Economic Forum at the 2023 Annual Meeting in Davos.

SEWA began over 50 years ago, and today is helping over 2 million women, primarily informal workers, organise into unions and cooperatives for economic empowerment and self-reliance.

Mirai Chatterjee, who leads the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, at a session in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos.
Mirai Chatterjee, who leads the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, at a session in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos. Image: World Economic Forum

Mirai recalls the outrage that erupted once SEWA members chose Chanchi Ben as the health worker of her community. "The village menfolk and some upper caste members asked how she could become the local leader, but we stood by her side."

"Today, Chanchi Ben has been asked to step in as sarpanch [head] of her village, and the upper caste, who wouldn't allow her to cross their threshold, invites her home for delivery of life-saving medicines. And she hugs their babies and gives them polio drops."

This is just one example of a woman on the road to economic empowerment after joining the SEWA movement, Mirai says. "There are thousands of others, and it's a work in progress. It's a journey."

The informal sector plays a pivotal role in the Indian economy, as it employs 90% of the workforce and generates half the economic output, according to a BBC report.

'Women simply cannot work without basic care services infrastructure'

The local women leaders, who are members of SEWA, also played a crucial role during the pandemic. Embedded in their communities, they provided health education and awareness about coronavirus and linked people to primary medical care.

But the vulnerability of millions of informal sector women workers has been cruelly exposed during this period, says Mirai, and big business, government and society at large must do more to ensure that its workers receive a fair deal.

There's also a long way to go for many others.

Have you read?

At the Forum's Annual Meeting this year, Mirai highlighted 'one of the big issues' plaguing India: the falling female workforce participation rate. "Our policymakers are extremely concerned about that – and that is one opportunity for promoting care."

"[Because] if women don't have basic care services infrastructure, they simply cannot work."

Mirai says she led a microstudy among Indian women workers to find that 85% couldn't return to work after the pandemic because "there simply wasn't that kind of support."

She added that a solid social case exists for building a well-functioning care economy. "If we want to reduce gender inequalities in every country of the globe, then this is the way to go: invest, invest, invest."

In India, SEWA initiates and runs national campaigns which often lead to policy advocacy.
In India, SEWA initiates and runs national campaigns which often lead to policy advocacy. Image: Self-Employed Women's Association

Even globally, a lack of affordable quality childcare services is often associated with lower rates of female labour force participation. And the dire situation was made doubly hard when the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns increased demands on women to provide unpaid care to the sick, the elderly and young children.

Female-led firms were, on average, four percentage points more likely to close their business than male-led firms in 2020, a World Bank report found. Male firms closed at an average rate of 17% in 2020 and 12% in 2021. The gender gap in firm closures persisted into 2021.

'If you care to listen, women have the answers'

Image: Global Gender Gap Report 2023

The 2023 edition of the Forum's Global Gender Gap Report highlights governments increasingly recognize the importance of investing in the care economy and are taking steps to support it. They are implementing policies such as expanding access to affordable childcare, improving parental leave policies, and investing in healthcare and eldercare services to promote the wellbeing of individuals and the overall economy.

But while ongoing efforts are a step in the right direction, significant scaling is needed to overcome existing gender gaps in economic participation.

The report finds that at the current rate of progress, it will take 131 years to reach gender parity.

Among the eight regions covered in the report, South Asia has the second-lowest score, with only 63.4% of the gender gap closed. India occupies the 127th rank out of 146 countries.

But the good news, according to Mirai, is the proven ability of Indian women to find a collective voice and bargaining power when they come together in unions, such as SEWA. "One of the things we've learned in the last 50 years of the SEWA movement is that if you care to listen, women have the answers," she says.

She cites the example of microfinance coming into the mainstream after a push from the women's cooperative. "Sewa Bank was the first women's cooperative bank in the world involved in microfinance, and now there's a serious discussion about extending micro insurance to low-income families."

"They (members of Sewa) may not have been to colleges or have the opportunity for higher education, but they know what they want and what works for their communities, which is really important." Several of these women have emerged from poverty to achieve full employment, which includes work and income security, food security and social security.

Mirai emphasises the need to adopt such a decentralised approach and build consultation with women.

"Women build resilience. Women leave no one behind, and their needs and demands show us the way forward.," she says.

"The big lesson is to invest in women, have faith in them, and they will not let you down. They're open, and they're looking for opportunities. If only we would give them a chance."

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum