July 6, 2009
If you are open to it, an offhand comment can shake your entire understanding of something. This happened to me the other morning while I was having breakfast with Binoy, Mirai’s husband. He was telling me not to worry too much about what I could do for SEWA because my learning was enough and would benefit me, and the entire cause, more in the future. I assured him that I understood this and of course I had been learning a lot. To prove that I had been paying attention and had interesting insights I remarked that I found it interesting that SEWA, unlike some other microfinance banks, emphasizes saving first and foremost. He frowned, apparently not impressed. “But SEWA started with the cooperatives,” he said. I backtracked, “right, no of course, I just meant the bank,” I sputtered.
Ok maybe I didn’t understand quite as much about SEWA as I thought I did. I knew SEWA started with cooperatives but I hadn’t appreciated that this was such a defining feature of SEWA until his comment. I had been focused primarily on the daily operations of the bank without even truly understanding its history. Binoy’s comment made me realize I needed to be more open to understanding SEWA and not ask it to fall in the model I had of a microfinance bank. Luckily for me the next few days would be a crash course in the nature of SEWA and its founding.
I got to the bank that morning and, as usual, had some time to sit on the couch before anything actually got started. The good news is I have learned my lesson and I had my book by the founder of SEWA with me. I was up to the chapter on how the bank was started. Primed by Binoy’s comment I took a look at the page number and realized she hadn’t gotten to banking until the 100th page, it was obvious the bank was not where the SEWA story began.
The Sewa Bank did not begin because someone from outside decided that these poor women needed financial services, though they desperately did. The women were in debt to private moneylenders, pawnshops, landlords, and even grocers – all of which charged interest rates from 10 percent per day to 25 percent per month. The women also did not have a place to put their money for safe keeping as their homes did not have much privacy. However traditional banks could not fathom extending their services to such poor women. The idea to create their own bank came from the women themselves. Bhatt (author and founder) writes that Poori, a garment dealer asked, “why can’t we have our own bank?” When Bhatt tried to explain that they did not have the money for such an endeavor another women replied, “Well, we may be poor, but we are so many.” And so with 10 rupees from 6,287 members the SEWA Women’s Cooperative Bank was established. I had known it was not a traditional bank but not that it was the poor women themselves who were responsible for realizing their need and working to fulfill that need. It made me not only rethink SEWA but also the idea of development aid that doesn’t go where it needs to. I started to think about whether aid money does enough to listen to the people it is supposed to target. My mind started to wander and come up with more questions than answers until I finally caught myself and stored those questions away for another time.
I was glad that I had come to a place mentally where I could appreciate Ela’s story of the founding of the bank. However, I could read about it anywhere, given that I am spending my summer in the birthplace of SEWA, it should come as no surprise that the pages of a book were to be only the beginning.
Today I spoke with members who have been with SEWA since its inception in 1972. We went out because Jayshree wants more interviews on some of the older women who did not have the opportunity to save with a pension scheme. Jayshree calls them the lost generation because though she knows that SEWA has done a lot of them she is sad to see that many are not as comfortable as they deserve to be in their old age. Jayshree was sending me out because she wanted more writing and photos, I of course was happy to oblige.
I didn’t have a translator today because I was working with Shashin, a rising sophomore at UChicago who is fluent in Gujarati and another intern for SEWA this summer. This had its benefits – as it helped that he really understood the cause, but also its drawbacks – as sometimes I didn’t know what was being said until later in the rickshaw. Nonetheless working with him went well and he did always remember to ask if I had questions so I can’t complain too much.
The first woman we spoke with came into the bank to speak with us. Her name was Saira and she was well put together in a light pink sari. She told us that many years ago she started out as a block printer. One day when she was going to a mill in Ahmedabad to buy cheap silk she happened upon a gathering of women. She asked what was going on and the women said that they were meeting to change their situations and she could get a loan here. Ela gave her a loan to buy her own block printing apparatus so that she would not have to pay a middleman such high fees to use his. However this only led to a new problem because she did not know how to actually make the ink and the man who sold it to her would not divulge his methods. Ela decided to invest in having someone teach Saira how to make the inks and then in turn had Saira teach other people. Saira held block printing classes to teach 25 women at a time how to make the inks and dyes. Thanks to Ela’s work Saira and the women she taught were able to get out from under the people who had taken the majority of their profits and they were able to start earning for themselves.
Saira became very active in teaching the block printing and then eventually traveling around further and organizing women into cooperatives. Everywhere she went she encouraged women to look at their production strategies and think of ways to get out from under the grips of moneylenders and middlemen that sap profits. In the early days her husband was very controlling and verbally abusive, as he could not stand the idea of her going so far from the home. Ela helped her to build up her self-confidence and stand up to her husband.
Today she looks back happily on nearly 40 years of working closely with SEWA. She has saved over the years and is now retired, even without having had the pension scheme! When we ask her what she would say to a young woman now who says she can’t save she tells us that she would tell them to take just 5 rupees out of every 50 and put it in a savings account. Now that there is an option with the pension account set up for women like her it is obvious that all young women should take advantage. She then tells us that many years ago she joined SEWA with three other women, but of the four of them only she has won. The other women gave their money to a son, husband, or mother-in-law and did not really save for themselves. “I feel empowered that I have my own money today,” Saira tells us, “I have saved enough that I can go out when I want to and I don’t have to ask anyway, I am independent.”
Saira’s story reminds me that SEWA is not just about reducing poverty but also about enabling these women to come together and stand up for themselves. The next two women we speak to bring me back to this question but from another angle.
After we talk to Saira we leave the bank in a rickshaw to meet two other women who have been with SEWA since the beginning. I quickly realize that the fact Saira came to us is telling in and of itself – it means that she has both the time and the money to not work and to travel to us. Our rickshaw driver takes us away from the center of the city into a poorer area. Eventually he stops the rickshaw and gets out but tells us to wait inside. Shashin explains to me that because there are no house numbers our driver has gotten out to ask around for the woman we are supposed to see. While we are waiting in the rickshaw five young children come around, a couple climb in the front seat to sit and talk to us. When our driver comes back and leads us through the small concrete homes the group of children follow us. By the time we get to the SEWA woman’s home, ten children are behind us and follow us into the house.
The home belongs to Suraj, an old woman of about 75. Her face is etched with deep lines and when she smiles she reveals a few back molars and a long stretch of gum. She moves around well for an old woman and her voice is lively. For over 50 years she has earned an income by trading old cloth for old stainless steel kitchen utensils and dishes. She then fixes up the kitchen pieces and sells them in the market. She got in touch with Ela through her son-in-law who happened to be working as a telephone operator. Ela said she wanted to bring women together and Suraj got on board. Suraj, who used to have to deal with a lot of police troubles, is thankful for the way SEWA helped to organize women to stand up for themselves. She was one of the original members who put 10 rupees into the bank and over the years she has brought thousands of poor women into the SEWA family.
Unfortunately, as much as SEWA has been a positive influence in her life, Suraj has found it hard to save over the years. Her earnings are not steady but she earns an average of 50 rupees a day (a dollar). She cannot think of not working because to do so would mean to not eat. Her husband, who is lying on a cot with a pained expression on his face in the front of the house, can no longer work. This means that he eats very little because the family needs the sustenance to go to people who can work.
The conversation turns from all the work Suraj has done for SEWA to the fact that she does not think SEWA has done enough for her in the way of financial support. I again must take note of the fact that SEWA is not an organization that gives handouts of any sort. Inevitably I question whether this is for the best or a tragic flaw. If SEWA is about primarily organizing women to fight for themselves then Suraj should have been more active to achieve her own financial security. However even as I tell myself this, my heart aches for the old, animated woman who will never know a day of rest and comfort. After we have heard Suraj’s story and we have a very clear example of the negative consequences of not saving, we head out for our final home of the day.
The final woman is also in her 70s, her name is Malakshmi. She is very slight with thick glasses that make seeing her eyes near impossible. Her sari is worn thin and faded from years of use and washing. She begins to tell us about her years of stitching work before SEWA. Then she met Ela and was swept up into the SEWA cause. She worked as an organizer in various villages for SEWA.
When I asked her why she dedicated so much time to SEWA she said, “I did it for the women,” and followed up by explaining that she was able to devote more time to SEWA because her husband died early. This comment confused me because it seemed to me that not having a husband meant not having another source of income in the family and this would make it harder to travel and do organizing work. When I asked how it was that she had more time without a husband she explained that it meant she did not have to worry about what he wanted and she did not have to devote large portions of her day to looking after him.
As SEWA became more established she left embroidery work and became a full time worker for SEWA. She worked for Sewa Bank until 2002 and then had to stop because her eyesight had gotten so bad she could not longer read the passbooks and do the necessary tasks. She was paid by Sewa Bank, but unlike the first woman we spoke with today, Malakshmi did not save regularly. She now lives with her niece’s family in their home. After decades of working closely with SEWA she has not managed to end up independent in her old age. When we ask her what her thoughts on the new pension scheme are she responds somewhat sadly, “it is very good for people when they get to old age, when you are older you shouldn’t have to be dependent on other people.”
Throughout the interview Malakshmi’s niece and grandniece have come in and out of the room. The niece looks to be in her early 40s, while the grandniece is probably in her early 20s. I ask if they are SEWA members, I expect the answer to be yes after all the work Malakshmi has done with the bank but to my surprise they say no, neither of them are. They explain that their husbands want them to stay in the home and not have their own bank accounts. I am surprised at how much say their husbands have, especially in the house of a woman who has spent the better part of her life working with SEWA, a women’s self-empowerment organization. It is obvious that in many homes in India the man of the house still has an egregiously large say in the affairs of the women.
Upon leaving Malakshmi I am acutely aware that I have received several very different perspectives of the bank’s history – from Ela Bhatt’s book to the three women I spoke with today. While I respect and appreciate that SEWA was able to have a major impact in Saira’s life, I wonder how many women around India still need to be reached. The size of the problem leaves me feeling helpless. Shashin and I talk this over in the rickshaw back to SEWA. “The only way I don’t get sick to my stomach when I see this kind of poverty is by telling myself that I am dedicating myself to helping these people,” he tells me. It still doesn’t feel like enough but I can’t believe that anything ever will; for now I will take Shashin’s statement and hold on to it.