IN HER WORDS
SEWA Women highlight their lives and stories. Our grassroots women take on the mantle of leadership and fit well into self-selected positions of responsibility, to become advocates and grassroots champions for the women around them. It is the work and lives of our women that make the SEWA Sangathan the force it has been since 1984. Read on for a few stories from our communities.
Devanti Devi, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand
Many families in Purnadih, Hazaribagh cook their meals using LPG cylinders, but, during the lockdown the fund crunch made itself felt. SEWA members shared this problem about the inability to buy gas with their aagewan, Devanti Devi.
Devanti Devi had heard that under the Ujjwala Yojana, each of them would be entitled to Rs. 806 in their bank accounts to purchase a cylinder. She shared this information with everyone and asked them to check their bank accounts. The money had been received by many of these families and they got their cylinders filled.
Rekhaben, Almora, Uttarakhand
At the peak of the lockdowns imposed in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19, 80 Customer Service Points (CSPs) who are financial intermediaries of formal banks, carried out cash transactions worth INR 10Cr for 25,000 customers in villages of Uttarakhand.
Rekhaben, from Almora, had started her journey as a CSP in 2019. When the lockdown was announced, Rekhaben was 7 months pregnant. Armed with a laptop, she’d walk 7 kilometres daily, to help out with immediate cash needs of 4 separate villages around hers. Serving a majorly old and poor population, she operated with empathy, and carried out cash transactions of 3 lacs INR during the lockdown. She also distributed masks and helped in ration distribution.
Batulben, Jaipur, Rajasthan
Batulben from Sanjay Nagar Basti in Rajasthan had attended school until the 8th grade. To support her family financially, Batulben had joined SEWA for training in Lac craft and stitching, and soon became a trainer for these skills. She was also determined to complete her education and with the support of her family, was pursuing her 10th grade studies from an open school.
Due to the Covid19 lockdown, Batulben’s school shut down. She realised that some families around her were unable to access ration, and she, along with her husband, collected ration from the local authorities, prepared and distributed food to 75 people in need. These included families with 6 kids and those that hadn’t eaten for 3 days straight.
Sheela Ben, Samaspur, Uttarakhand
A resident of Samaspur village in Uttarakhand, Sheelaben is one of the oldest aagewans in SEWA, and one whose energy is difficult to match. She had moved to Dehradun with her husband as a young bride, and to support their family of 7, she learned stitching, estimating her measurements as she had never received a primary education. She joined SEWA in 2012, and became an aagewan soon after.
During the lockdown, both her husband and she lost their source of income. She didn’t back away during this time of personal adversity. Sheelaben assisted 60 families around her who needed access to ration kits, by bringing it up with the Nagar Nigam Parshad. She also stitched up the scrap cloth in her home into masks and distributed them in the community.
Health and Sanitation
Rubinaben, a resident of Nahari, was in the 9th month of her second pregnancy. Since she was advised a C-section delivery, she had gotten a card made at Jana Hospital. By the time her delivery date arrived, Jana Hospital was a designated COVID hospital.
Her family suggested admission in private hospitals, three of which turned them away, and one was charging upwards of Rs. 50,000 for her delivery. After being taken to 15 hospitals, she consulted with Mehrunishaben of SEWA, who suggested going to Women’s Hospital, a Government-run facility. Rubinaben delivered a healthy baby within the next two days at Women’s Hospital.
Sangitaben, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand
The last week of June saw more and more migrant workers return to their villages from red zone cities. They were all assigned to quarantine centres for 14 days. Many wouldn’t abide, and were found roaming in their villages.
The aagewan, Sangitaben, got in touch with the ASHA worker of her village. Fights broke out when Sangitaben and Asha ben tried to intervene and ask the quarantined workers to stay put at the centre. Sangitaben, out of her wits, had to ask the village chief to intervene, which worked. The quarantined workers only agreed to stay at the quarantine centre when urged by the chief.
Pushpaben, Soft-Toy maker
Pushpa behen, 40, was born in Benaras, far away from the city of Dehradun, where she currently lives. She had finished her 10th class in the year 1999, when she was married off. “He was only 8th pass and drove trucks for a living.”, she says. After her marriage, she had to shift to a region completely unfamiliar to her own lived experience.
When her husband’s income began dwindling, she became a member of SEWA Uttarakhand. She began stepping out of her home, to attend SEWA’s gatherings where she met other women. This, she says, breathed new life into her.
She became part of a local handicrafts group, Tantook, thus beginning her entrepreneurial journey. She has been working with wool for many years, making soft toys, shawls, coats and mufflers. Whether it is a ‘Snowman’, ‘Mermaid’, or ‘Santa Claus’, she is a quick learner who instantly picks up any design. “When I look at a design, I feel like taking it up. It boosts my morale when I earn money for a design well-done.” Despite the pandemic dampening livelihoods, Pushpa behen is confident of her own ability to take up any challenge in life.
SEWA Uttarakhand works closely with 24-25 women in Dehradun who do woolwork. Market linkages have been a major struggle for these women. SEWA is helping them tackle the pandemic by training them to embrace digital platforms for marketing their products online.
Pushpa behen is a #MahilaMicropreneur
Rupaliben, Tant Weaver
Phulia, West Bengal
Rupali behen, is a Tant weaver from Phulia, West Bengal, which is known for its high quality sarees throughout Bengal and the world.
A typical day in her life means spending long hours at her loom, sometimes 7-8 hours at a stretch. “The output turns out beautiful only when woven in a single sitting, with patience and concentration”, she says. She likes to draw her designs out, and then recreates the same effect on the loom. This style of weaving is called ‘Jamdani’ in Bengal.
Jamdani sarees used to be a rarity, few weavers and fewer sellers, but the number of people doing this business has mushroomed in recent years. Weavers are now facing tough competition, at times forcing them to part with their goods at measly profits of 10-20 rupees. The pandemic has further added to their woes. With the nationwide lockdown, public transport came to a complete standstill. Both raw materials and finished goods stopped moving efficiently and people stopped ordering sarees. Rupali behen has stocked up unsold sarees worth INR 8-10 lakhs since March. For a micro-enterprise like hers, it’s an unaffordable situation.
SEWA West Bengal has been working closely with her and 4000 other weavers in Phulia, since 2016. “They teach us new things in SEWA, which I share with my neighbors and friends. We talk of positive things such as working together, helping each other, and community participation as a means to success, which I really like.”, says Rupali behen who recently fulfilled an order of 90 sarees from @sewa.ruaab on National Handloom Day.
Rupali behen is a #MahilaMicropreneur.
Traditional lac jewellery is crafted in fire with the original lac extract of a Kusum tree, and is a speciality of Rajasthan. The market share of this artform has shrunk visibly due to the rising demand and supply of chemical lac products. SEWA Rajasthan has been working closely with around 8,000 women since 2001. As home-based workers, women artisans such as Aarifa behen don’t have direct access to markets. They usually end up selling their products to local shopkeepers or vendors, which minimizes their profits.
A typical day in Aarifa behen’s life requires juggling many roles. She is a first-year college student, a lac-artisan, and the eldest of five sisters at home. She also takes tuitions for children of her neighbourhood. As part of the Digital Beti program run by @sewa.rajasthan, Aarifa behen has been developing her craft skills. The workshops at SEWA office have taught her the many know-hows of working with lac. “I can now make products from start to finish all by myself.”, says 19-year-old Aarifa behen.
When business hit an all-time low during the COVID lockdown, Aarifa behen took up orders to produce masks through SEWA. She could stitch masks worth INR 4000 in a month and support her family through the tough times.
“I want to fund my education, I want to be self-reliant, and I want my parents to be proud of me.”
Aarifa behen is a #MahilaMicropreneur.
Sumanben, E-Rickshaw Vahini
Suman behen is a 36-year-old mother of four, wife, and micro-entrepreneur in Jahangir Puri. About 6 months ago, she purchased an e-rickshaw and began a driving service. Being her own employer allows her to earn a living and prioritize her family.
“My only dream is to make my four daughters stand on their own feet. No matter how hard I have to work, I don’t want to be dependent on my husband,” Suman behen says. She is undoubtedly raising her daughters to become trailblazing women by example.
Auto-driving is a male-dominated profession. So, becoming an e-rickshaw driver is not only a personal feat but also a powerful challenge to the social norms. Initially, her family responded with a chorus of: “How can you drive an e-rickshaw being a woman? Do you know the kind of people who roam outside?” Nevertheless, she persisted: “I was prepared to face whatever was bound to happen. I had to think about my kids and their future.” She also began her e-rickshaw business 15 days before the COVID-19 lockdown in March. To feed her family, she made the bold decision to violate regulations and drive early in the morning.
SEWA Delhi has mobilized 6-8 women to become e-rickshaw drivers by teaching them motor skills, helping them apply for a driver’s license, and financing flexible loans for the purchase of e-rickshaws. However, Suman behen does not see the e-rickshaw as the limit. Once her loan is paid, she aspires to expand her business by learning to drive bigger cars.
Reflecting on the freedom her business has given her, Suman behen says: “Most people think women should remain inside the house. […They think] we’re helpless. [But] now, when I step out of the house to do something, I don’t need anybody’s help. […] I can do it on my own.”
Suman behen is a #MahilaMicropreneur.
Ayeshaben, Patchwork Artisan
Ayesha behen, 52, is a patchwork artisan from Kadi district, in Mehsana, Gujarat.
She started perfecting her craft at a young age when she became a member of the local handicrafts cooperative. There, she learned patchwork, stitching, embroidery, and crochet under the guidance of an aagewan, also named Ayesha behen.
“From stitching a small flower on a handkerchief, I had advanced to the stage of making carpets.”
But at the age of 17, Ayesha behen got married into a conservative family. Her in-laws did not support her stepping out for work. Her husband worked abroad, and Ayesha behen had never even seen the local bus stop! The handicrafts cooperative also shut shop around the same time, confining her to her home. A few years later, her husband lost his job and the family’s financial condition began weakening. That is when Ayesha behen decided to give her ambitions another chance.
Between 2005-2007 she took training from SEWA in Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Basic English, Computer Skills, besides other nuances of her craft. She worked on a project with SEWA Federation and SEWA Academy for over five years. Today, Ayesha behen is a Master Trainer who has taught over 1200 women, including students from premium design colleges such as NID and NIFT. She employs about 200 women. From not knowing how to take a bus to now travelling across the country for workshops, her journey has been truly inspiring.
“I aspire to nurture and create women leaders just like me.”
Ayesha behen is a #MahilaMicropreneur.