Food security and access to credit are two closely related concepts. Especially if you live in India’s Gujarat region, where the SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) Federation has been active since 1972. This is a combative federation of cooperatives which offers a whole series of integrated services to working women. Today, with 103 member cooperatives, SEWA is the largest women’s federation in India. We asked Lalitha Krishnaswami, President of SEWA – a speaker at the ANCC Coop Conference “We not me-Everyone’s Food” – to tell us the story of this extraordinary organization.
What are the federation’s basic principles?
The most basic of all is this: at a certain point, women, especially poor women, realized that they could give a concrete voice to their problems if they united. If there are many of you, you can get things done. So we try always to increase the number of economically active women. Women have always worked, but previously they had no tools, no access to markets, no training. But where can they get the necessary money? The first problem SEWA had to tackle was access to credit. How can a woman who borrows 100 rupees, but has to pay 10% to the intermediary, sell her products on the market? She’s left with nothing, and she gets sucked into the vicious cycle of debt. So, SEWA contacted national banks, to persuade them to lend money to women for their businesses.
The banks accepted, but the people working in the banks were quite unused to dealing with poor women, who came into the bank straight from working in the fields or in the market-place. So SEWA took on the responsibility of helping them with their bureaucratic procedures. But this wasn’t enough, because the women kept turning up at different branches, and turning up outside opening hours, clutching bawling children with runny noses, reeking of vegetables and fish. So we organized a mass meeting of our members. At that meeting, a woman stood up and said; “We are poor, but we are many.” There were 4,000 women at the meeting, and each one contributed 10 rupees. That made 40,000 rupees. And six months later we had reached 100,000 rupees, the amount we needed.
Then what did you do?
We created SEWA, the bank for women. That was 41 years ago. The official at the Company Register Office said: “You must be mad! Completely crazy! How can poor women run a bank? These women (the promoters of the cooperative) don’t even know how to read or write! They don’t know how to send an e-mail! How can you run a bank in these conditions?” So we gathered all the illiterate women, to teach them how to write their names: they spent a whole night sitting in a room learning how to write their names. The next day we went back to the Registrar and we said: “Now they know how to sign their names, so we can register the bank.” The registrar said “You women will never be able pay back your loans. The bank will go bust: it won’t work!” 41 years later, the bank is working perfectly, and has half a million members! It was a completely new system, at the time: a woman worker could deposit her money in a safe place, and take it out when she needed it. So she could finally administer her own money without having to go through her husband, her brother or her son.
And where did the cooperative go from there?
After we had set up our bank we had to tackle another problem: if a woman fell ill, she could no longer work, and therefore no longer earn, and therefore no longer feed her children. So it was vital to set up some kind of health insurance, to reinforce food security. And so our bank launched its own health insurance system. If a woman is insured, her health improves and she doesn’t have to spend all her savings on treatment. And she can also insure her farm produce or her animals. All the things which provide food. Secure food and better food.
How do your food sector cooperatives work?
We have a lot of cooperatives in rural areas. The women cultivate vegetables and sell them wholesale in our shop… the only one run by women. So not only do they produce, they also pick, sell, distribute, package and check on quality. We have seeds, fertilizers and everything they need to improve their production. We have a collective store where they can buy tools, or rent them… i.e. use them and then return them. The whole productive cycle is run by our cooperatives. And the profits are reinvested within the village: in other words, the profits remain within the rural area and the women eat the food they have produced. Too often the food doesn’t reach the women. But a woman who is pregnant needs plenty of good food, and when her child is born she needs good food too.
What are the next challenges your food cooperatives have to face?
We are working to increase the use of organic and natural production methods which do not impoverish the land. This involves a whole series of different methods and products. But as always, we have to keep on winning the same battles, helping small farms, especially those run by women, through cooperative concepts.