Some Experiences of Video SEWA: A Grassroots Women's Video Team in Ahmedabad India

prepared for SAIS Conference: Media as a Forum for Community Building by Sara Stuart


Before presenting some experiences of Video SEWA, the video cooperative of the Self Employed Women's Association and lessons we might draw from this experience, I would like to lay some groundwork by defining a few characteristics of what I call "direct or small media" and by explaining a bit about the work of SEWA.

Most, if not all of our thinking about messages which emanate from television screens has been shaped by big media (e.g. broadcasts aimed at audiences of millions and mass market video cassette programs). To grasp the characteristics and impact of small or direct media it is best to start with a blank slate. Our assumptions are based on the expectations created by big media and are often 180 degrees off target.

For example, a taping can be considered successful and even cost effective by reaching an audience of one. Small media plays a role in a larger process. The purpose of direct communication is change or awareness raising or confidence building, not a finished program. Technical quality has little or no relationship to the value and impact of a tape. Grassroots organizers with little formal education are often the most effective producers and they can produce simple in-camera edited programs in half a day. The benefits to and relationships among video producer, group leader and viewer are entirely different than we have come to expect. Learning to operate the equipment, participating in a production about your own concerns, seeing your situation framed on a video screen, leading discussions after viewing a tape you helped to plan and make, are all profound experiences with the potential for great impact even without considering the value of the recorded program to its viewers. Research, treatments, script meetings, pre-testing, focus groups, elaborate expensive editing and market surveys have no place in the production and use of small media. These points will become clearer as I get into the specifics.


The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a trade union of over 25,000 poor, self-employed women in Gujarat and there are nine baby SEWAs in other States. In India, the self-employed comprise 94% of the work force. [SEWA in 1988, Published by Mahila SEWA Trust, 1989.] The members of SEWA fall roughly into three categories: small scale vendors who sell goods such as vegetables, fish, household items, garments and other products; homebased producers who often work on a piece rate making products like incense sticks, garments, block printing fabric; and service providers who sell their labor. SEWA members are organized by trade group and the various trades are represented at all levels of the organization. SEWA advocates for women's rights before the authorities and operates a cooperative bank. In addition to the activities of a union, the organization has established development programs which provide its members with skills training, cooperative mechanisms to aid in production and marketing, child care and health benefits. By combining struggle and development, SEWA enables its members to protect their interests, to improve their standards of living and to gain their rightful places in the economy.

Video SEWA

Video SEWA was established in 1984 with one set of production equipment and three weeks of training from Martha Stuart Communications. Of the twenty SEWA members and workers who participated in the training, one third were illiterate and another third had less than a high school education. They included women of all ages, Hindus and Muslims, craftswomen and vendors and women from many arms and levels of SEWA as an organization. A second installment of equipment, including editing equipment, and training were given in 1987. Video SEWA operates as a self-sufficient cooperative serving a larger people's organization. It has four full-time team members. In addition, workers and leaders throughout the organization have experience working with video and making programs.

SEWA uses tapes to motivate, mobilize and strengthen the existing membership, to organize new trade groups and new members of existing trade groups. Their programs are used for teaching, informing and orienting SEWA staff members. Their tapes create visibility for the issues of self-employed women and influence policy makers. Video SEWA members lead and facilitate group discussions when their programs are used. They are involved in and responsible for the impact of their work.

Since 1984 Video SEWA has produced countless recordings and more than one hundred finished programs for use in organizing, training and advocacy activities. Their tapes reach villagers and slum dwellers in Gujarat as well as policy makers in Delhi and Washington. Gradually, video has become an integral part of SEWA activities and of all on-going work. When introduced video was new to everyone at SEWA. Effective use of the medium has evolved and developed through experience.

Inspiring collective action at community level through use of video

SEWA's organizing efforts often begin with workers' education classes. These generally involve one week of training and discussions in which the goal is to raise awareness among a particular trade group of self-employed women workers about their common difficulties and to encourage the women to organize.

Understanding the strength and power of collective action comes slowly to the grassroots women who participate in workers' education classes. For many it is a completely new idea. Video SEWA has taped several of their demonstrations. The recordings show hundreds of poor women marching through the streets of Ahmedabad chanting their demands. These tapes are perhaps the most powerful and most often used tapes. They raise spirits, inspire confidence and solidarity, and illustrate the power of collective action.

Renana Jhabvala, Secretary of SEWA, has said, "We took this tape of the garment workers procession to Locknow where we are organizing the women who do chikan embroidery. They are the worst paid that I have seen anywhere and they are Moslem, so very conservative. We did some training with them and talked about organizing, coming out of their homes and not wearing purdah. On the last day we showed this tape and they were so excited and jumped up to plan out the route for their own procession. In reality, they were nowhere near the stage where they could take out a procession, but this enthusiasm is helping them to get organized. When women actually see that others like them have succeeded through organizing it makes a really big difference."

Video contributes to community building

Screening videos has become an important part of workers' education classes. They give new members an opportunity to see and understand issues pertaining to their own and other trade groups. The issues of piece rate workers are similar everywhere and SEWA tapes convey this effectively. Watching tapes helps new members feel a connection with a larger movement. New members identify with the women on the SEWA tapes. Some village women viewed an interview with Chandaben, a used clothes dealer and senior SEWA organizer. They were delighted to see that even Chandaben takes snuff and speaks very quickly like they do. When organizing in slums and villages, playing video tapes acts as a magnet for people to come together for meetings and to start discussions.

Impact of grassroots video in organizing

Video activities have proved very helpful in supporting SEWA's legal actions. The self-employed have no formal employer-employee relationship; therefore, they must turn to the courts to settle their disputes with contractors or to establish their rights to a minimum wage. SEWA members attend the hearings and give evidence. "The atmosphere is very intimidating for me," explained Renana Jhabvala. "So you can imagine what it is like for the SEWA members. The lawyers try to cut their evidence into pieces and call them liars. This is very difficult for the women to deal with and they usually change their statements." It can take years to mount a court battle and the outcome depends on the women's testimony. When a group of bidi workers (women who roll the native cigarettes) were preparing to testify, SEWA set up a mock court with a judge, witnesses, plaintiff and defence lawyers, a bailiff and a court audience. Video SEWA recorded the proceedings. These tapes were reviewed by the women who had to testify. The SEWA lawyer then had a discussion with the women. This helped the women greatly; the tape was "very effective" at building their confidence and preparing them to stand up for themselves in court. Like athletes who visualize their performance before a critical contest, the mock trial gave bidi rollers a positive image of themselves performing under pressure in a court room.

Implications for community based training

Some Video SEWA tapes are made to fulfill more formal training needs. They provide specific educational information to groups of women and their children. In SEWA's health and childcare programs they regularly use a tape that explains the causes of diarrhea and shows how to prepare the oral rehydration solution. The tape is shown in training sessions for SEWA members as one of several teaching tools. SEWA members, many of whom are illiterate, have learned from their own video tapes how to build a smokeless stove, how to use SEWA's savings and credit services, the reasons for and timing of immunizations, etc. Their tapes are a source of information as well as inspiration. Again, the relevance and impact of SEWA's own training programs is quite different from mass communications approaches to production and dissemination of training materials. When the trainers themselves are involved in the design and production of their training videos, the tapes fit their needs more precisely than outside materials ever could; and they reinforce the identification of members and workers with their organization.

Reaching the national and international levels

For a number of years SEWA has been a leader in advocating for inclusion of the self-employed in national labor policy. Several years ago Ela Bhatt, General Secretary of SEWA, headed a national commission on the self-employed. The commission's recommendations have been influential in many arenas, among them the census, which was revised to enumerate a much broader range of economic and social activities. Video SEWA supported SEWA in motivating and educating Gujarati women to participate in the 1991 census. Their fifteen minute edited program, "My Work, Myself," reached an audience of approximately half a million women through cassette playbacks and was broadcast on state television three days before the census was taken.

SEWA is well known world-wide, which means that they receive vast numbers of visitors, most of whom do not speak or read Gujarati. There are very few people within the organization who speak English well. Video SEWA has saved the organization mountains of time by producing a range of video primers on various aspects of SEWA's work. These programs are rented and sold for others to use in India and abroad. We are finding a growing market in this country for their tapes.


In summary, if we consider SEWA as a "community," then the members of the community are very much involved in all aspects of production and use of their equipment and programs. Everyone benefits and the video activities contribute to sustainable development and social change. Immediate playback of recordings is a basic tenet of their work. Those who participate in a recording are the first to view it. Immediately, they have the chance to voice their opinion of the taping and receive the reinforcement of seeing themselves and their experience. In such a large organization, maintaining and strengthening solidarity among a vast and diverse membership is extremely important. Here Video SEWA's activities have been directly responsible for community building by bringing the experiences and issues of the many different subgroups to other members.

Video SEWA is not an elite, sophisticated unit. Unlike "professional media" producers, there is no separation between producer and viewer; they are sisters. SEWA has discovered the potential of the medium by showing their tapes to many, many different groups of women and listening to their responses.

My colleague, Alfonso Gumucio, Director of the Centro de Integracion de Medios de Communicacion Alternativa (CIMCA) describes the mass media trap very well: "Instead of making a film that costs a million dollars and reaches a million people, I would rather make a hundred films that cost ten thousand dollars a piece and that also reach a million spectators if each one has ten thousand viewers." [In Cinema and Social Change in Latin America by Julianne Burton, University of Texas Press, 1986.] The investment is the same, but the qualitative results are quite different. Any film that aims for an audience of a million people must be highly generalized in both topic and language. This is viable only if your audience shares a certain minimal economic level and class formation. If you want to direct your film to a peasant audience, you immediately have to acknowledge the differences... You immediately have to contend with particularity. I believe that if you want to address issues in depth, you need to make concrete films for specific groups.

Video, because it is reusable and considerably less expensive than film, can take the narrow audience approach much further. Video SEWA produced a tape which achieved its goal and had a very positive impact by reaching an audience of one. In this case video was a channel of negotiation between the vegetable vendors and municipal leaders. The tape helped a leader listen to and understand the vendors in a way he could never have in a face to face confrontation. The vendors spoke in a way they would never have spoken to representatives of the municipality. The video tape allowed distance as well as honest, direct expression thereby diffusing an emotionally charged relationship. After more than five years of struggle and taking a case to India's Supreme Court, it was time to move from pitched battles to considered negotiation. The video started a serious discussion which ended in licensing street vendors in Manekchowk market.
Video puts illiterate viewers as well as illiterate producers on a par with their literate counterparts. This leveling or equalizing dimension allows us to analyze "who" is communicating. For small media, who is often the critical question. An experienced and committed organizer will make a completely different tape than a producer for national television.

"Why was Gandhi so effective in his communication? The answer I get is that he was not a professional communicator. Although he wrote every day like a journalist, the message came from the heart and needs of the people. He used the medium of salt for communication and his message became meaningful to the poorest of the poor. Video SEWA is succeeding in communicating because they are tackling the real problems like Gandhiji did. So that becomes the medium, not the video or other things -- they are just tools." [Professor E.V. Chitnis, Former Director, Satellite