INDIA - The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA)

Shattering Stereotypes

When the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) held an exhibition in Madras of cooperative-made products, Leelaben was there to present Video SEWA tapes. Leelaben, an uneducated vegetable vendor, was a member of the Video SEWA production team. "Many people came to watch our programs and learn about our work," she said. "Even some television people came and they didn't believe that I had made the tapes. ‘How can a vegetable vendor produce videotapes?' 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!"

Partner Organization Profile

The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a trade union of over 250,000 poor women working in the non-formal sector in Gujarat, India. There are nine smaller SEWAs in other States. In India, the self-employed comprise 94% of the work force. SEWA members include small-scale vendors of vegetables, garments and other products; home-based producers who often work on a piece-rate, fabric block-printers, 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 union activities, the organization has established development programs that provide its members with skills training, cooperative mechanisms to aid in production and marketing, child care and health benefits. By combining advocacy and development, SEWA enables its members to protect their interests, improve their standards of living, and gain their rightful places in the economy. Internationally, SEWA is recognized as a leader among non-governmental organizations.

Project Implementation

When Ela Bhatt, then General Secretary of SEWA, visited a C4C partner organization in Mali, she saw women in similar circumstances to SEWA members creating their own videotapes. She was inspired by their example. Ela felt that tapes about banking practices, skills training and legal rights could be invaluable in helping urban-to-rural dissemination of SEWA activities. She also envisioned using videotapes to educate women about their rights, to organize and to provide training. As an effective instrument of participation and advocacy, video fit well with SEWA's goals.

Video SEWA was established in 1984 with one set of 3/4 inch U-Matic production equipment and three weeks of training from Communication for Change, then known as Martha Stuart Communications. Of the twenty SEWA members and workers who participated in the training, one third were non-literate and another third had less than high school-level education. Before long, all would gain functional literacy in 20 video-related terms, enabling them to operate any piece of equipment. The participants included women of all ages, Hindus and Muslims, craftswomen and vendors, and individuals from diverse branches and levels of SEWA, including three senior organizers.

After the initial training, the video team put the production skills they'd gained into practice. Initially, all programs were shot in sequence and edited "in-camera." While this approach requires careful planning, it also hones storytelling and organizational skills. Furthermore, it means that some programs can be filmed and shown to others within a few hours.

Video SEWA tapes depict diverse opportunities for earning income, present innovative production techniques, and provide health information for members and their families. They are used for mobilizing and training current members and staff, and for reaching out to new members and other trade groups. Through video, SEWA members - many of whom are non-literate - have gained valuable information on how to use SEWA's savings and credit services, how to build a smokeless stove, and how to prepare oral rehydration solution. Perhaps most importantly, they have learned how strength through solidarity can help them advocate for better conditions for themselves and their families. [Learn more about how video promotes collective action]

Video has also helped support 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 such hearings and give evidence. The outcome usually depends solely on the women's testimony. Inexperienced in legal tactics, the workers can often be very intimidated by lawyers, who will try to get them to alter their statements. Using video, SEWA members have practiced their courtroom skills and strengthened their self-confidence.

Preparing for Their Day in Court

When a group of bidi workers (women who roll cigarettes) were preparing to testify, SEWA set up a mock court with a judge, witnesses, plaintiff and defense 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 talked with the women about their 'performance.' This process helped build their confidence and prepare them to stand up for themselves in court. As with 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 courtroom.

SEWA tapes create visibility for the concerns of self-employed women and help them wield influence with policy makers. In a dispute over the rights of vegetable vendors to market their wares on the streets, SEWA used video as a channel of negotiation between the vendors and municipal leaders. In their tape, the vendors spoke compellingly of their situation. On seeing it, the concerned local official was impressed; more receptive to the vendors' home-made media message than to a confrontational approach, he became more attentive to their needs.

Over the years, Video SEWA's productions have attained professional standards. In a follow-up C4C workshop, Video SEWA members acquired and learned to use editing equipment. Team members have trained other colleagues, who carry on video activities in their turn. To date, over 200 videotapes have been produced by Video SEWA, and tapes are shown at nearly every meeting convened by SEWA.

The effect of Video SEWA programs reaches well beyond the organization itself. For many years, SEWA has advocated for inclusion of the self-employed in national labor policy. To this end, SEWA organizers sought to encourage the women of Gujarat State to stand up and have their work counted in the 1991 census. Video SEWA supported this goal by producing a 15-minute program, My Work, Myself. This video reached an audience of approximately half a million women through community playbacks, and was also broadcast on Gujarat State television three days before the census was taken.

Video SEWA's achievements have reached farther still, beyond the borders of India. As co-trainers in Communication for Change workshops, Video SEWA team members have shared their skills with others who are building their participatory video capabilities.

Sharing Strengths

When Neelam Dave and Leelaben Datania from the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India came as guest trainers to the Banchte Shekha participatory video workshop in Bangladesh, the benefits were mutual. Leelaben described to workshop participants how she, an illiterate vegetable vendor, had started making tapes and how she gained confidence through practice and experience. The participants, especially those initially intimidated by the technology, said that Leelaben inspired them. For their part, Leelaben and Neelam gained greatly from the opportunity to work in another country and within the context of a different organization. They returned to SEWA with a fresh perspective and new ideas for ways to involve Video SEWA in the organization’s rural activities

Due to SEWA's involvement in international conferences and agencies, the organization receives great numbers of visitors, most of whom do not speak or read Gujarati. Video SEWA has produced a number of English-language video primers on various aspects of SEWA's work. These programs are shared with visitors and also rented or sold for use in India and abroad. The income generated in this way has been used to purchase additional equipment and tape stock.

For nearly twenty years, SEWA has been effectively using video to help achieve its long-term goals. The SEWA experience shows how the integration of participatory video and organizational activities can be mutually beneficial, fostering growth and sustainability in both areas.

"The voices, faces, work and lives of our members come alive through Video SEWA. It is a powerful medium and one that is effective in bringing information on the world outside to our village members. It also honestly and directly conveys women's hopes, struggles and achievements to a wide audience: policy makers, planners, legislators, politicians, educators, academics and society in general. When our members learn about their sisters who once also were within the confines of their four walls but have come out, speak out and are strong leaders, they feel inspired and motivated...

...This year Video SEWA began to formally register itself as a cooperative providing information and communication services. Through their own cooperative, Video SEWA members hope to move further in the direction of self-reliance and sustainability of this medium of, by and for poor, self-employed women."
from the 1998 SEWA Annual Report

[Learn more about Video SEWA. Watch "Video SEWA: A People's Alternative" and read "The Power of Video in the Hands of Grassroots Women - Video SEWA: A Case Study"]

[Learn more about SEWA and their recent video activities or email Video SEWA for information about purchasing their recent tapes.]

Video SEWA was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development.

© Communication for Change, Inc. 2003-2019. All rights reserved.