Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Co-operative Federation’s history can be traced back to the struggle for workers’ rights led by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Since its inception in 1971 and recognition in 1972, the SEWA trade union has worked actively to promote the rights of women working in the informal economy. But, alongside the struggle for rights was the existing need of the women to earn a livelihood. SEWA initiated several cooperatives for these workers, across sectors. SEWA believes that the cooperative model creates fair employment and decent work, accounting for the needs of women in the informal economy.
Building cooperatives across sectors also brought to the forefront the needs of women workers to efficiently manage the co-operatives and to access markets. At a meeting in April 1992, 900 women from various categories of co-operatives presented issues and problems of their trade to the Union Minister of Cooperatives. While the cooperatives belonged to different trades and services, they all needed a strong, cohesive force that encouraged, catalyzed and led their growth: SEWA Federation was envisioned with this necessity in mind.
On 31st December 1992, India’s first Women’s Federation, the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Co-operative Federation Limited was formally established. The Federation was tasked with supporting SEWA’s cooperatives in Capacity Building for Management, Marketing, and Policy and Advocacy Interventions with Key Stakeholders.
In 1996, the Federation became a member of the National Cooperative Union of India (NCUI).
Our Vision: To work with collectives that are run by, with, and for poor women to help them achieve full employment and self-reliance at the collective and the member level.
Since its inception, the SEWA Federation has worked with a singular mission: The holistic empowerment of poor self-employed women, within collectives and co-operatives.
SEWA Federation envisions a business environment where women-run social businesses can compete with other traditional companies by being managed as efficiently as them. To achieve this goal, the Federation has developed the following multi-dimensional strategy:
- Enable women to gain ownership of their trade through co-operatives and collectives, and to bring them into the mainstream economy.
- Establish a direct relationship between the producers and consumers, thereby eliminating exploitative middle agents.
- Advocate for the rights and interests of workers at the State and institutional levels.
- Train women in management skills like accounting, auditing, marketing, planning techniques, etc.
- Build the capacity of co-operative and collective members to access useful knowledge and technologies.
SEWA’s co-operatives can be categorized into the following 6 groups:
- Land-based co-operatives of women farmers
- Artisanal co-operatives (e.g. block-printers, embroiderers, puppet-makers, etc.)
- Service co-operatives (e.g. catering, domestic work, cleaning, and construction)
- Dairy co-operatives
- Savings and Credit cooperatives
- Trade and vending cooperatives (fish vendors, etc.)
SEWA’s role vis-à-vis the co-operatives has been three-fold, as described below:
- To organize the members, help them think through their proposed co-operative’s by-laws and support them until they are registered, have their first general meeting and elect their governing board. Some of the co-operatives are quite independent, while others remain more closely linked to the SEWA Co-operative Federation and count on its support and advice for growth.
- To link the members of the co-operatives within their network to different services. While each co-operative is an independent entity, the co-operative members are often members of more than one co-operative. They refer to the services of the other co-operatives within the SEWA co-operative network according to their needs (e.g. healthcare, childcare, insurance and other financial services).
- To provide policy advocacy for the members of the co-operatives. SEWA represents the issues and challenges of the co-operatives in policy forums and keeps these primary co-operatives linked to the wider labor movement.
The SEWA Co-operative Federation is registered as a secondary level co-operative and is a state-level organization governed by the co-operative laws of Gujarat state in India.
SEWA Federation has 106-member co-operatives, with around 300,000 women members. All member co-operatives elect 9-15 members who constitute the Board of Directors (BOD). The board meets every three months and an Annual General Meeting (AGM) is held once a year where designated representatives (usually the Chairpersons and the Secretaries) gather to review and adopt the year’s activities and the audited accounts.
The Board elects the President of the Federation, who in turn nominates the Managing Director (MD). The MD works with various vertical teams (currently comprising of agriculture, handicrafts and services which constitute the largest population of self-employed workers in India) and with a horizontal accelerator team (Samuhik Shakti), which works with member co-operatives to build capacity, support training and business planning, and conduct research and advocacy.
SEWA Federation’s core team currently includes 25 women, many of whom come from different member co-operatives and have risen to leadership levels after working within these co-operatives for several years. Rest of the team members are professionals and experts in the areas of services provided by the Federation.
In addition to the core team, there is a roster of other industry experts from across sectors who come in for a limited period to offer their guidance and insights as required by the Federation team.
SEWA Federation’s Board of Directors comprises of a group of 15 leaders coming from our own co-operatives. These board members represent the various sectors in which the Federation has membership – Agriculture, Dairy, Artisans, Services, Financial Services, and Trade.
|Mirai||Chairperson||Shree Gujarat Mahila Lokswasthya SEWA Sahakari Mandali Ltd.|
|Lalita||Director||Shree Aabodana Mahila Chhapkam SEWA Co-op. Ltd.|
|Jayshree||Director||Shree Mahila SEWA Sahakari Bank Ltd.|
|Rupa||Director||Shree Moti Pipli Mahila Dudh Utpadak Sahkari Mandli Ltd.|
|Jaya||Director||Shree Miroli Mahila Dudh Utpadak Sahkari Mandli Ltd.|
|Lata||Director||Shree Pethapur Mahila Dudh Utpadak Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Manjula||Director||Shree Saundrya Safai Utkrsh Mahila SEWA Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Jashoda||Director||Shree Sangini Mahila Balsewa Sahkari Mandli Ltd.|
|Daxa||Director||Shree Gujarat Mahila Video Sewa Mahiti Communication Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Jyotsana||Director||Shree Trupti Nasta Utpadak Mahila Sewa Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Geeta||Director||Shree Vanlakshmi Vruksh Utpadak Mahila Sewa Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Dipika||Director||Surat Credit Co-operative, Surat|
|Lata||Director||Shree Tapi Jilla Megha Aadivasi Mahila Khet Utpadak Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Ramila||Director||Shree Racheta Bandhkam Mahila Sewa Sahakari Mandli Ltd.|
|Mittal||Managing Director||Shree Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Co-operative Federation Ltd.|
|Registrar||Invited Member||Shree Sahakari Mandli, Gujarat Rajya, Gandhinagar|
Then I learned how unions and cooperatives can work together to fight injustice, poverty and exploitation and put informal women workers firmly on the path to self-reliance from the example of Sabina, our first artisans’ cooperative in the SEWA movement. We had organised ‘khol’ or quilt makers into SEWA, our union, in 1977. Our sisters demanded fair wages from the contractors and merchants who gave them work but paid a pittance. They refused and the women struck work. Their struggle was not successful as the merchants stopped giving them work and they could not hold out for long. It was then that Rahimaben and Karimaben mooted the idea of a unit run by the women themselves which grew into Sabina, a cooperative. When the cooperative was up and running, and more women got work and income, the merchants and contractors were forced to raise their wage rate, as they were not getting enough hands to work for them. Thus, through our organising work, we learned that the joint action of union and cooperatives can be a powerful way for women to become self-reliant and to move towards their goal of economic empowerment.
After SEWA Bank and Sabina, there has been no looking back. My own journey with cooperatives in the SEWA movement began with Sangini, our child care cooperative, and with Lok Swasthya health cooperative. We struggled to register these—each took two years! But it was worth it. A recent stock-taking exercise showed the boards of these to be among the most empowered of those surveyed. Then I was involved with setting up others: Shaishav child care cooperative in Anand, three dai or midwives cooperatives in Anand, Gandhinagar and Mehsana, VimoSEWA insurance e and Megha women farmers’ cooperatives. I have also seen how other cooperatives have grown and become sustainable—Saundarya cleaners’ and Homecare domestic workers’ cooperatives, and many of our milk cooperatives. Today there are 106 cooperatives in Gujarat alone and many more in other states where SEWAs have been formed. Cooperatives are now an inextricable part of the SEWA movement.
But we need to do much more. Sustainability—both financial and in terms of women running their own cooperatives—is an on-going challenge. As the external world of work changes, so also do our cooperatives need to change, adapt and re-orient their economic activities. The challenges are enormous and so are the opportunities. The SEWA Cooperative Federation is fully committed to supporting our sister cooperatives, and ultimately our members, strengthen their work in every possible way that would help them become sustainable, develop young leaders and continue their path-breaking work. We are all in this journey together, with all its ups and downs. We have learned through the years that we must ‘keep on keeping on’ and remain true to our mission of working with, for and by informal workers through cooperatives and with the full support of our union and movement, SEWA.
Chairperson, SEWA Cooperative Federation,
October 11th, 2019