Women as the Leaders of Development

Linked with Self Employed Women’s Association SEWA.

by Renana Jhabvala, Coordinator and Member, Executive Committee of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, India, October 5, 1998.

The most popular pictures presented about women of South Asia are those of victims. They are the victims of fundamentalist societies, forced into purdah or sati. They are the victims of underdevelopment and poverty-low life expectancy, high illiteracy. They are the victims of violence, of discrimination. These images of the victim, helpless South Asian women are highlighted by the media and reinforced by academia.

There is, however, another side to women in South Asia. Most women in South Asia work. They are producers, workers, entrepreneurs contributing to the family and to the economy. They work in their family farms, as agricultural labor in other people’s farms, in forests collecting minor produce, as construction workers, as street vendors, as artisans, as factory workers, as livestock tenders-the list is endless. In India, 92% of employment is in the informal sector, where there is no fixed employer-employee relationship, and nearly 50% of these workers are women. These workers, both men and women, contribute 64% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and nearly 70% of the country’s savings.

These women are not only active in the economy but they continually try to improve their position. They are not the submissive, silent sufferers projected by the media, but active players, trying to control their own destiny, within the limitations they face.

Radhaben lives in a slum in Ahmedabad. She was born in a village 50 kms away and married at the age of 15. She and her husband worked as agricultural laborers but found it difficult to make ends meet. So, on her initiative, they migrated to Ahmedabad. “I had only Rs. 5 in my pocket,” she recalls. First she worked as a construction worker, then someone taught her how to sew and she would sew and sell old clothes. “We had many struggles, so many obstacles, sometimes I felt like committing suicide. But I kept on trying. I could educate my children and today we have our own house. I believe in hard work, whatever happens I keep on working.”

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) (Read the rest of this very long article on AsiaSociety.org).

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