The SEWA Way


The SEWA Way

By Reema Nanavaty

The author presents three examples of engaging women in entrepreneurial ventures that drive their transformation and, in turn, the communities they live in. 

“By enhancing and building on the skills and knowledge a woman already has, she gains confidence in her abilities.”

The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must strengthen local learning among and across women farmers.”

COP21 Paris Agreement is historic. Whether it is as-it-is ratified or with changes by the nations in April 2016 makes little difference to the fact that it must be implemented, and implemented well. And sooner implementation is better. So let me enlist what poor working sisters of SEWA are already implementing from what is agreed in Paris and how the proposed funding from climate finance can help expand this local implementation by more women in many areas in India.

The acute challenge for SEWA’s poor female members is to innovate to survive – so that the sisters have regular employment, increased incomes, assets, nutrition, and shelter. At SEWA, the sisters call it full employment. SEWA tries to generate livelihood opportunities based on available local skills or resources. SEWA also seeks to address the immediate needs or issues that make the poor women vulnerable. This, therefore, inculcates a sense of ownership from the very start. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must generate full employment for poor women.

When as an SEWA field organizer I visited the arid villages of Banaskantha in North Gujarat in the early 80s’. I saw that every household had a woman who embroidered. They were all digging earth on relief sites. They earned only Rs. 75 a month. Here was a skill, which had the potential to turn into livelihoods. Then I met Puriben Aahir, a natural leader and a fearless pioneer. I told her that if she could find women willing to embroider for a fair pay, SEWA would bring them work and pay cash on the spot. Puriben and four other women took on the job of embroidering kurtas, and in the very first week earned Rs. 150 in cash. The women earned around Rs. 500 a month, sitting right at home. Sure enough, word got around and the next time round, more women joined. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must bring cash payment to poor women.

Puriben started organizing more and more women with embroidery and other craft skills in the village after village, and in two year’s time, she had organized more than 15,000 women artisans. The women’s embroidery is now the major source of income and livelihood in the area. Almost all the 15,000 women artisans, all illiterate. Today, a skilled embroiderer can earn up to Rs. 10,000 per month. Earlier the women earned only Rs. 75 whereas now the families have assets – land, water pump, tractor, house, savings, and insurance. Children attend school. Migration has stopped. Women’s employment has brought about a change in the family dynamics as well as in the community. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must organize women and increase their income.

By enhancing and building on the skills and knowledge, a woman already has, she gains confidence in her abilities. She also gains strength from the camaraderie of other women. So coming together by work allows women to set in motion a transformation of herself, and of her community. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must enhance and build on the skills and knowledge women already has.

Given the perpetual struggle for water in the area, Puriben took on the challenge of building rainwater harvesting structures like village ponds, roof water tanks and recharging wells. For this, she needed the support of the men of the village, especially the village council and the bureaucrats at the Water Board. It was not easy. The women were dismissed, scorned and turned down. But you all know – when we women organize, we are a persistent and resilient force. Their goal was to bring water to their village and into their homes, for drinking, as well as for agriculture. Because where there is water, there is agriculture; and where there is agriculture, there is work for the men. So in a way, the women began the process of empowering the men. Today the villages in the area have clean water to drink, crops in their fields, and flowers and fruits growing in their yards. It has taken more than a decade, but the women and their collective have changed the land and its people.  The climate change mitigation and adaptation measures must lead to clean water to drink, water to irrigate crops, and grow flowers and fruits in the backyard.

The challenge is “Why does Farmer remain hungry” in our country? SEWA initiated a campaign to address this larger challenge. In order to strengthen the farmer – small farmers, women farmers. The first challenge is to sustain family farming. This ensures food security and livelihood security of the rural households. Family farming is mainly practiced by small farm holders and mainly women. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must protect small farm holders’ income and land.

To make farming viable, the need was for an integrated package of financial services, technical services and marketing services. Having organized small farmers into their groups develop seed banks, promoting vermin compost. Develop technology enabled weather, rainfall, price, diseases related advisory and information strengthen local, decentralised Farmers Field Schools that provide concurrent farm planning and management services. The climate change mitigation and adaptation implementation measures must strengthen local learning among and across women farmers.

Let us take the second example. One of SEWA’s pioneering initiatives is RUDI or the Rural Distribution Network: a rural supply chain that procures agricultural produce from marginal farmers at fair prices, processes and packages the produce through trained grassroots women in various rural processing centers, and takes the affordable and unadulterated branded products to remote households via a large team of trained saleswomen drawn from vulnerable households.  In a way, RUDI reduces the distance between producer and consumer leading to fewer miles to move products by burning fossil fuel.

RUDI positively impacts marginalized households at several points: Approximately 15,000 small and marginal farmers sell their produce to RUDI every year, at their doorsteps for rates that are 20% to 30% better than those offered by traders; Over 300 marginalized women are employed at RUDI processing centers, earning between INR 5000 to INR 8000 per month; Over 3000 saleswomen take RUDI products to rural households, earning a monthly income between INR 2000 to INR 10,000. RUDI reduces poverty and reduces emission.

RUDI also helps farmers adopt modern agricultural practices, and links them with various other initiatives of SEWA that help farmers practice sustainable cultivation and realize better yields. RUDI sells over 131 products, and its annual turnover is currently INR 10 crores. RUDI promotes sustainable cultivation and co-creates local simple technological solutions that are climate smarts. Yes, India needs techno-scientific turbines and technology to address climate change challenge. India also needs different ways of doing existing activities to address climate change challenge.

Let us take the third example. The challenge was a poor household has to spend 40% of their income to access energy needs for cooking, lighting and mechanical needs. SEWA was compelled to evolve a strategy that enables the rural poor women access to energy. We at SEWA call it “Hariyali” – green livelihoods. SEWA promotes solar lamps, efficient stoves, and solar pumps. How much ever small the carbon footprints may be – but collectively we can contribute significantly to reduce carbon emissions. RUDI moves towards fulfilling Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).

Hariyali field tested the renewable energy tools – solar lights, lanterns, solar pumps, Cookstoves. Our approach is integrated energy access. The village does its energy planning and budgeting and then generates their energy in a decentralized manner. Thus, the villages become energy self-sufficient and food self-sufficient.

This is how SEWA sisters already implement what is negotiated at COP21 in Paris. This is what we at SEWA call – “Being Climate Smart”.

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