The Power of Video in the Hands of Grassroots Women
Video SEWA: A Case Study

by Sara Stuart and Renuka Bery
Summer 1993


The advent of low cost information technologies has rapidly changed the patterns of communication in our world. More and more we live in a global village. In rural Bangladesh, for example, villagers have access to a host of media from radio to television to VCRs. Despite the pervasion of technology, programming is still most often generated far from the grassroots level. Who creates the messages shapes the content, perspective and possible impacts in a critical way.

Video, a small yet dynamic medium, offers a unique opportunity for self expression. It transcends language barriers and gives people the occasion to speak with their own voices about the important issues in their lives. The benefits to and relationships among video producer, group leader and viewer are entirely different than we have come to expect.

To make a single program in big or mass media is a long, complicated process. Usually outsiders research an issue. Then they prepare a treatment, a brief synopsis of the proposed program, plan and write a detailed script and pretest the idea. When the idea and messages have been approved, the program is recorded. The producers use expensive editing technologies to put the pieces of the program together. Finally they may engage in elaborate evaluation methodologies such as f6cus groups and market surveys to assess the program. This process requires heavy investments of time and money.

These activities have no place in the production and use, of small media. First people learn to operate the equipment. They participate in planning and making a production about their own concerns. They then see their situations framed on a video screen. Afterwards they show the programs they have made themselves to their peers and members of their communities. Such activities are all profound experiences for the small media maker. They have potential for great impact even without considering the value of the recorded program to its viewers.

What is Small Media?

Most, if not all, 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 without preconceived ideas. One's assumptions are based on the expectations created by big media and are often 180 degrees off target. A tape can be considered successful and even cost effective by reaching an audience of one.

Small media play 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 (shot in sequence and edited inside the camera) in half a day.

In the world of instant mass communications, professional media makers have completed their work once they file the story or once they deliver the final edited tape. In contrast, the work is just beginning for the participatory/advocacy video maker. He or she will be involved in facilitating playbacks of the tape, in building on the insight, motivation and understanding the tape creates and in continuing to work toward the goals that the tape is serving.


The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a trade union of over 25,000 poor, self-employed women in Gujarat, India. There are nine smaller SEWAs in other States. In India, the self-employed comprise 94% of the work force.' 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; home-based 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; 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.

Planning for Video at SEWA

The decision to introduce video into an organization requires more than obtaining the equipment and training. Video is not necessarily an appropriate medium for every application. Learning to operate the technology is fairly simple; using it effectively and with skill takes careful planning and organization. Like any other tool, video is only as effective as the people who use it.

The user friendly characteristics of the technology were significant in SEWA's decision to initiate a video unit. Moreover, video, an effective instrument of participation and advocacy, fit well with SEWA's organizational goals. When Ela Bhatt, general secretary of SEWA, visited Mali and saw women who were like SEWA women making video tapes; she was inspired. At SEWA they were tired of outsiders who would make tapes about them; outsiders who never told the stories the way SEWA would. Ela felt tapes about banking practices, skills training and legal rights among others would be invaluable in helping urban to-rural dissemination of SEWA activities. She also envisioned using video tapes to educate women about their rights, to organize and to train.

Who an organization involves in video activities is significant in identifying how committed the organization is to video. While no previous experience with electronic equipment is needed, the candidates should be highly motivated, responsible and trusted by their organization. Participatory and grassroots video is not a job for media professionals and technicians. It is the people involved in the work who understand the issues.

Video is simple and easy to operate even for those unfamiliar with electronic technologies. The barrier of literacy is erased so all people with and without formal education can use the technology and understand the information. It is durable, reliable and cost effective. It extends human resources and strengthens organizations as they grow and increase the scope of their activities. Video is immediately transferable from place-to-place laterally; it fosters direct local exchange from group-to-group and village-to-village.

The instant playback characteristic of video is one of its most empowering qualities; it enables continuous participation and immediate feedback. This dimension allows those who are the subject and those who operate the technology to collaborate as equals.

Video SEWA

Video SEWA was established in 1984 with one set of production equipment and three weeks of training from Communication for Change, formerly 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 including three senior organizers. A second installment of equipment, including editing equipment, and training were given in 1987.

Video at SEWA did not happen overnight. After the initial training, the video team practiced and experimented with the skills they had learned. SEWA union did not pressure the team to produce results quickly because they, too, were involved in learning the possibilities for video within SEWA's context. Everyone had time to develop her skills. The illiterate producers memorized the function and placement of each function on a piece of equipment, however, when they used a different model with the same buttons in different places, they had problems. Thus these SEWA producers were given functional literacy in 20 video words which has enabled them to operate any piece of equipment.

For the first three years, they worked without electronic editing equipment. All of their programs were shot in sequence and edited in the camera. They developed skills and discipline which most non-professionals never achieve. This method of production suits illiterate producers since they record their stories in the same order as they tell it. Furthermore, it is very time efficient; a program can be completed in a few hours.

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. When it was introduced, video was new to everyone at SEWA. Effective use of the medium has evolved and developed through experience.

SEWA uses tapes to motivate, mobilize and train their existing members, 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.

Video SEWA's success challenges many assumptions about technology and communications. The video team members are "non-professionals" who use sophisticated technology effectively to achieve their own goals. Sometimes they reach a target audience of one -- a key municipal authority; sometimes they reach hundreds of thousands; sometimes they make broadcast quality documentaries and sometimes they make very simple in-camera edited programs which make the critical difference in organizing a group of illiterate women.

A leader of vegetable vendors can make tapes which directly benefit her constituency and which are effective channels of participation, empowerment and awareness building. While the professional media play a vital role in society, they cannot have these participatory characteristics.


Video SEWA tapes are a source of information as well as inspiration. The relevance and impact of SEWA's own training programs are 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.

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 outcome usually depends solely on the women's testimony. "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."

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.

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 gained valuable information from video tapes on how to build a smokeless stove, how to use SEWA's savings and credit services, the reasons for and timing of immunizations, and others.

Video has become a fixture in the SEWA Movement training to motivate and empower new group leaders. Video SEWA tapes their introductions during the session on self expression. When the group leaders review the tapes they gain confidence in themselves and improve their public speaking skills.

Grassroots Organizing

Video has been a part of SEWA for almost ten years. For SEWA to achieve its goals of building a movement of poor self-employed women and of making lasting social change, Video SEWA plays a very important and on-going role. Their tapes have great value to the members, most of whom are illiterate. SEWA organizers are unequivocal in their support of Video SEWA's work. They contribute program ideas and use the videos to raise women's awareness about collective action and their rights. They say their programs are very believable to the members and have tremendous meaning for them.

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 public processions. 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 Lucknow where we are organizing the women who do chikan embroidery (the traditional hand stitched embroidery of Lucknow). 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 (the veil worn by Moslem women). 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."

Raising Awareness

Video can present people with other people like themselves who have information or new ideas to convey, rather than having their story or information retold through a third party, individual or organization. This direct communication encourages local initiatives and self-help.

Screening videos has become an important part of workers' education classes at SEWA. 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. They 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 videotapes acts as a magnet for people to come together for meetings and to start discussions.

The directness and person-centered qualities of video are particularly valuable in advocacy activities. Video can aid in bridging barriers of distance, class and culture so that people of very different backgrounds can grasp each other’s concerns. Sometimes video messages can help to make understanding in situations where a face to face meeting would not.

SEWA used video as a channel of negotiation between the vegetable vendors and municipal leaders. The tape they produced 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.

Reaching Beyond SEWA

Video SEWA has had opportunities to share their experiences with other organizations interested in grassroots video. While teaching with Communication for Change in Bangladesh, Leelaben Datania shared her stories as a grassroots video producer with the rural Bangladeshi trainees; how she, an illiterate vegetable vendor started making tapes and how, through practice and experience, she gained confidence. The participants, especially those overwhelmed by the technology, said Leelaben inspired them.

For many people it is nearly revolutionary to argue in favor of putting "sophisticated" technology in the service of poor people in developing countries. Yet, video puts illiterate viewers as well as illiterate producers on a par with their literate counterparts. This leveling or equalizing aspect can transform relationships and support a high level of participation.

Leelaben, a vegetable vendor/video producer embodies this fundamental aspect of participatory video. When SEWA held an exhibition in Madras of products by all the cooperatives," Leelaben explained, "I went to present Video SEWA tapes. Many people came to watch our programmes and learn about our work. Even some television people came and they didn't believe that I had made the tapes. 'How can a vegetable vendor produce video tapes?’ they asked. Even after I told them about our training workshop and the tapes we have made, they were doubtful. So, I explained to them how I connect the 14-to-14 pin cable and the BNC cable and when you need to set the white balance and audio levels until they were convinced!"

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 worldwide 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 have found a growing market in the United States for their tapes.


Video should be introduced into an environment with a clear plan for sustaining it over time. It takes vision, a strong sense of organizational purpose and hard work to integrate a video unit into an organization. In our experience working with governmental and nongovernmental organizations around the world we have learned that involving people at all levels of the organization is vital to the success and sustainability of video. At SEWA the general secretary as well as the heads of rural activities and the craft cooperative participated. The Union's involvement signified a serious commitment to video. Moreover, when video becomes an integral part in achieving the organizational goals rather than a separate project that continually needs refunding, the chance for long term viability increases greatly.

Another dimension in sustaining video activities is generating income. SEWA, without much extra effort, has been able to rent and sell their tapes to organizations interested in their work and their experiences. The income they generate has been used to purchase more playback equipment and keeps them supplied with video tape.

Generating income should not be a prerequisite when planning a video unit. When earning money becomes the motivation for a video unit the original intent of a production can easily get lost or substituted by the requirements of the buyer. Goals and motivations as well as control change when working with clients. Video SEWA has bridged the differences in production styles and made tapes for outside organizations without compromising their goals and priorities.


Evaluation is an important part of any program but it can be especially sensitive. All those involved in the project must have a voice in setting the criteria by which to assess their work and all those involved must benefit from the process of assessment. The organization must set its own priorities and goals.

Measuring the impact of communications activities is an imprecise and subjective business. It is difficult to separate media from the broader activities they support. A valuable tool gets used. Evaluating the process is as important as the outcomes. Grassroots organizers, village women, field workers and leaders are busy people. If they are initiating video activities and finding them useful, then the project has succeeded to a large extent. Do the tapes satisfy the organizational needs? Are the leaders and managers nurturing video activities and giving them the attention they need? Evaluating technical skill is appropriate; tapes, though simple, should be clear, attractive, effective and should tackle real problems.

Although their activities have never been formally evaluated, with almost ten years of experience Video SEWA already has considerable knowledge of the impact and value of their work. The need for evaluation has become more apparent. Particular emphasis will be given to assessing the following aspects of the program: 1) Video SEWA's role in internal and external communication at SEWA; 2) Demonstrating the importance of poor self employed women having access to powerful communication tools; 3) Developing local markets for Video SEWA's products and services; 4) Limitations and advantages of the new equipment design; and 5) Strengths and weaknesses of the training.

Certainly, video is not a panacea. Like any other tool, it can be used carefully and with skill or it can be misused. There are difficulties and constraints which must be considered. However, the problems which plague development video activities are most often the same problems faced by any project: management, personnel, logistics and leadership. If the organization which receives the video training and equipment lacks experienced leaders and is unorganized, there will be difficulties.

Future Strategies at Video SEWA

For the first eight years Video SEWA operated from two closets. They have recently moved to newly renovated space in SEWA Academy, SEWA's training wing. Video SEWA has a room which can accommodate editing, small meetings, interviews and house the equipment. There will also be space at the Academy to hold group screenings.

Although the activities at Video SEWA are centralized, unlike a traditional in-house communications unit which is staffed by people with media backgrounds, the video team members bring their own skills and experiences from many different areas of the organization. One of Video SEWA's goals in the next phase of its work is to encourage greater participation from all SEWA members. As training is the starting point for most of SEWA's work, the move to SEWA Academy will facilitate the participation of more new members.

SEWA Academy is a meeting place for exchange and documentation and training. Video SEWA will play a critical role in the research and documentation activities of SEWA Academy and will utilize the knowledge and experience of SEWA members as well as expose them to new ideas and information from outside sources. It has been agreed that all SEWA reports will be accompanied by video reports to expand the reach of their research and include the illiterate members.

To extend the reach of Video SEWA's work and thereby its impact they need to encompass the growing rural membership. These members will benefit especially from Video SEWA's work; they are the most in need of relevant and empowering sources of information.

Video Technology

When SEWA received video training there were fewer equipment choices than there are today. Remarkably, Video SEWA has used the same set of U-matic (3/4") production equipment for almost ten years. With all the new advances in technology and the miniaturizing of equipment, their production rig seems rather cumbersome and outmoded. Yet the quality of video produced using this equipment continues to remain high. This higher quality format has enabled them to distribute their programs for broadcast on several occasions, to produce tapes for clients, to prepare different language versions without significant loss of quality and to send their programs around the world.

Video technology has changed dramatically in the last ten years. Large cameras with separate record decks have been combined into one unit--the camcorder. The miniaturization of technology has continued without greatly compromising the quality while the costs have decreased significantly making the equipment more affordable and accessible to everyone.

Equipment decisions are difficult especially with so many options available on the market. Picture quality, cost and intended usage are the three most important factors to consider. Most recently Communication for Change has used the Hi8mm format because the picture quality is superb. But it, too, has problems. Just as determining whether video is the most appropriate communications medium to bring to an organization, equipment needs must be carefully assessed to provide the most relevant equipment package. (See annex.)

For Video SEWA to continue its work, professional quality remains necessary. In addition, a second tier of very light weight equipment that is simple to operate will complement the professional equipment and enable greater participation by SEWA members with less training.

Looking Beyond the SEWA Experience

SEWA has, perhaps more than any other grassroots organization, the most experience in using video to achieve long term programmatic goals. They have integrated video into their activities for almost ten years. Yet SEWA with its centralized, urban program is not a blueprint for implementing video into an organization. Each organization's environment, structure, goals and needs are different. Numerous other organizations with varying qualifications and objectives have used video in different ways successfully.

In our recent work in Bangladesh we have learned that the tapes the video units are making are important but at least as important is the impact on the grassroots producers and by association their sister somiti (group) members of learning to use these tools. Being able to use a camcorder, being seen in the community operating this equipment and being part of a group and an organization that is important enough to own and make videos is tremendously empowering.

One of our Bangladeshi partners has a rural membership of over 500,000 people. They have established a decentralized participatory video program. Seven rural video teams have been trained with the intention of expanding. Some very effective programs are produced simply by these individuals who already know the issues and are trusted by the subjects. Their video programs do not require a lot of research and editing; the tapes are shot in-sequence, finished without any editing and require only a day or two from conception to completion.

Video activities of the groups we train are presently centered around grassroots awareness and activism. The tapes these grassroots producers are making are powerful, yet their real strength lies in the producers' ability to communicate the ideas effectively and more importantly to inspire people to think more broadly and in different ways.

In areas such as environment, health, rights of the landless, violence against women, video could prove to be an extremely valuable channel for advocacy. We plan to work with our partners to build structures to extend the use of video as a tool for advocacy--to influence policy decisions at many levels both inside and outside the organizations.

Video is full of surprises. Communication for Change, with over 20 years experience has used video to inform and influence community leaders, advocates and policy making on a variety of social issues. As trainers who introduce video as a tool for local development and participation, we can never anticipate all the directions this work will take in an organization. New successes and problems continue to challenge all involved.

Our role as trainers ends once the workshops are completed, but our relationship and commitment to an organization does not stop there. Communication for Change develops partnerships with the organizations we train. As partners we have the opportunity to work together effectively to identify needs, to exchange ideas and experiences and to plan strategically.

Video activities should be flexible; one should not underestimate the doors video can open. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that video is simply a tool to stimulate people's thinking and to motivate them into action. Technology does not make change happen; people do.


Equipment Configurations:

It is virtually impossible to design a blanket equipment package. Each organization has different needs. In some cases, a camcorder, a microphone and headphones and some tape is adequate as an initial investment provided one has a reliable power source, easy access to playback equipment and modest objectives.

Often a larger investment is justified given the amount of time it takes to learn properly and the advantages of higher quality equipment. In our experience we have seen organizations try to share, borrow or rent playback equipment as needed, however, this has always proven to be a significant impediment later. In places where power sources are unreliable, it is necessary to include battery powered monitors and a generator in the basic equipment package.

If an organization seeks outside funding for video activities, it usually makes sense to raise funds for the larger investment all at once from the start, rather than add to the package slowly over a period of months.

Communication for Change believes strongly that equipment and training should be introduced together to promote effective use of the medium. To be trained without having equipment to practice regularly and to develop one's skills can be a negative experience. Training helps eliminate the fears of technology as well as identifies new ways of communicating important issues in the community.

Questions to ponder when thinking about starting a video unit in your organization:

  1. Set goals for using video as a tool in your organization.
  2. Assess these goals. Critically and honestly analyze whether video is the best medium to achieve these goals. It is very easy to be dazzled by the technology and forget the difficulties.
  3. Does your organization need videotape or a video unit to achieve these goals?
  4. Does your organization have the human and financial resources to introduce video?
    1. To start a video unit anticipate the following:
      funding needs for equipment, training and follow-up and operational ctivities
    2. equipment needs
    3. training needs
    4. time for skills to cement
    5. keep expectations within reach
  5. To plan a video unit carefully think about the questions below:
    1. who needs the tools and why?
    2. who will use the video and how?
    3. how will video meet the organization's needs?
    4. Who will learn video? (This is very important for long term
    5. Who will provide training?
    6. Who can be resources/problem solvers?
    7. What equipment will be needed?
    8. How will maintenance and repairs be achieved/financed?
    9. Who will coordinate video activities?
  6. Can the organization sustain video over time?
  7. Does the organization have the necessary resources to meet the demands video will create?
  8. How will video be evaluated? When? By whom?