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close this bookCERES No. 098 - March - April 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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View the documentFAO in Action
View the documentThe First Person You See Is A Buffalo
View the documentWhere The Desert Stops
View the documentLivestock for the landless
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The First Person You See Is A Buffalo

Ceres: Ms Dholakia, could you explain what SEWA is?

Dholakia: SEWA is a trade union of poor women workers who try to earn money through their skill and physical labour. They often work at home, producing something like carpets or cane and bamboo-work, or just milk production. They may be small or petty vendors, fish vendors; they may be agricultural workers. Similarly, there are many women in India working as agricultural labourers or handcart pullers. They are brick-plant workers; they build houses and roads, etc. So they are not earning their monthly wages in an office or factory. They are earning their livelihood by their own skill or labour; that is why they are self-employed. Now, we began organizing these women to protect them against exploitation, to improve their income and to improve their status in rural society. SEWA is both a trade union and a development organization.

Q: When did you start?

A: We started in 1972 in New Delhi and now we have our own bank of 10 years' standing, because those women are rural, poor, and illiterate and the moneylenders had been exploiting them very badly. So in order to help their economy, what the women needed above all was credit. Our organization is not a governmental organization; of course, there are government institutions that are working to solve the problems of the urban and rural poor. We have found that the Government's programmes do not reach the poorest women. So the purpose of SEWA is not purely economic; we also try to create consciousness among them; we develop leadership among them, and strength, so that gradually they can form pressure groups that can help the Government and us, all of us, to make appropriate policies. These women are not visible and few people know them; what is their life like? Our task is to make them visible. Another problem is that in spite of the fact that they perform three-quarters of the total work, they earn very little of the income. So SEWA is trying to see that their income increases so that it will change the politics of their lives and improve their status in rural society. We also try to bring them into the mainstream of development, and that is why at local level, at national level and at international level, both in government circles and in non-government circles, we are trying to focus everybody's attention on those self-employed, mostly rural, women.

Q.: You have been organizing some of these women into milk cooperatives in the Ahmedabad district. Could you tell us some more about it? What were the greatest difficulties?

A.: Eighty per cent of the nation's population lives in villages. Now, in any village, about 50 per cent of the people are women. They look after the cattle. When a cow or buffalo has a calf, the woman looks after her very well. She will milk it, she will sell the milk, she will go to the bank and to the moneylenders. She will graze the cattle, she will take it to the veterinarian. It is really those women who are the milk producers, and they must be recognized in their own right so that they get the benefits of their work. The dairy development has made a lot of progress in our state, but the women who do 80 per cent of that work do not get the benefit of the income. Another problem is this: 65 per cent of these rural women are landless labourers and they have no other agricultural income.

Q.: How can a landless woman have cattle?

A.: People, even banks, often ask us "How can you ask us for a cattle loan for a woman who does not own land? Where will she get the fodder for the cattle? How will she keep the green grass'?" Our answer was this: the fact that she is landless should not stop the bank giving her a loan, because these women are the poorest. Another thing is that they do not own land, but they are working as agricultural labourers, and the farmers do not pay them agricultural workers' wages in cash; they will pay partly in terms of food grains, partly in terms of fodder, so that the women will be allowed to take a certain amount of fodder and grass from the farmer's plot where she has been working. Also, in this dry area, where the rainfall is hardly four centimetres, grass is not available, and deforestation is a positive harm People should not be encouraged to cut the green trees. The dairies have set up cattle feed factories. Cattle feed is provided at a subsidized rate to cattle owners. It is not necessary for a woman to have a green pasture of her own.

Q.: She still must have some place to house cattle?

A.: No. Very often the bank tries to raise this issue. They want to know where these poor landless women will keep the buffaloes and cows. So I ask the bank officer: "Why don't you come and ask the women themselves?" So the bank officer came and asked Lakshmi and Gooniben, both poor landless labourers who have just one-room clay and mud houses around a small tribal courtyard where they would tie their cattle. So Lakshmi said, "It is the first time in seven generations that we own a buffalo. My father's father's father's grandfather - none of them ever owned a buffalo. So it is like having a son after seven generations." So the buffalo stays inside and Lakshmi sleeps outside the house, in the street.

Q: You mean the woman lives outdoors and gave her house to the buffalo?

A.: Yes. She cooks outside: she has put the stove outside and all the furniture she had. If you go there today on this date, I2 December, to those new cattle-owners, just you knock on the door of the village woman, and she will open the door and the first person you see will be the buffalo. And those poor women will not have a blanket for themselves, but they will wrap the buffalo in the blanket.

Q.: Then finally they get the money to buy the cattle in the first place?

A.: Our rural development ministries have a programme for the education of the rural poor, and they give credit to the families living below the poverty line. Because the city banks have no faith, thinking that the people will migrate, and that it will be impossible to collect the loan, we certify that he or she is deserving. The bank officer will come and fill in the forms. We just stand as moral guarantors. When we started to give loans for the buffaloes and cows five years ago, the bank said that they would not advance money to the women. Officially on the record it would be in the husband's name. So we had to fight and fight. The husband has got everything under his name, and so just for a change let the woman have something of her own. If her husband kicks her out, turning her out of the family without giving her any legal maintenance, she will have something. Very often he will bring a second woman, a third woman a fourth woman, and in rural life you do not need to go through the legal process; men decide everything even though the woman works for her whole life, she cannot even own her children. She will just be packed off to her father's place.

Q.: And her husband will keep the children?

A.: The husband will keep everything he likes. If he does not like the daughters, they will be sent with the mother. So we say that if a cow or a loan is given to a poor woman it is her own property. That way if her husband migrates, that is, goes to another village or the city to work and does not send money home, these women householders will have some security.

Q.: How do the milk cooperatives work?

A.: First we go to the village and organize a very informal meeting, just under a tree, say. We all gather, and sitting in the dust we begin with a prayer and then an informal chat. We ask, "What is the price you are getting for milk?" A woman will say that is less than a rupee for a litre. So we say that if you get less than a rupee a litre this is exploitation. Why not have a cooperative? But they say, "We don't know, we don't have a truck." I say, "All right, but the dairy will send you a truck." And six or seven women form a management committee. So, every evening and every morning all the women will bring their milk to a designated place. And before each women pours the milk into the general can, a sample will be taken in a test tube and will be measured and analysed and recorded by a dairy employee. Now SEWA places an organizer in that village and trains a local woman, so the team of the local woman and the SEWA organizer will be working together. Then we make an arrangement with the daily bus from Ahmedabad to send the transport to collect the milk. In Ahmedabad, the quality and quantity is checked again. And we see that the milk money goes to the women of the village. Otherwise, their husbands will beat them and make them give em them money, which they will use for gambling. But if you give money to the women themselves, they will spend it on children's clothes, food, repairing the hut or medicines. So that is why we insist that the women get the money.

Q: Are the villages very near the city?

A: The villages are only about two hours away from the city. We have another problem. Because these village women are illiterate, people within the local power structure, like the moneylenders, cheat them. And the women who have already debts with them have to pay them back from their income, and because they are illiterate, they cannot read what is written on their paybook. Because they live very far away from the bank, they cannot go to see that their installments are being paid into the bank and whether they are getting the subsidies. So their illiteracy is a serious problem. We are trying to solve the problem by teaching functional literacy. The woman who is willing to work as the milk cooperative's secretary is taught to sign her name so that she can sign a cheque. But the problem is that men feel bad about it. They say, "Why should you incite women against us? Leave the milk business in our men's hands." And when we want those women to come for training in Ahmedabad or even in the village, the men don't want to send them. "Why should they go?" they ask. And sometimes tile husband just teases me, saying,"! hope you are not going to sell our women in the city."

Q.: Is it possible to train then' in the village?

A.: Yes. We tried both ways. We have another income-generating programme of weaving and spinning, plus creches and support services. We help with pregnancy and post-natal care, providing food for them. We run a vocational training Centre for them in carpentry. Every three months we act grass-roots leadership training. But these are short sessions of three or four days. So we transport them from the village and we take all the responsibility. There is a residential hostel for women in Ahmedabad. In the villages we are setting up a four room building where they will all gather, where there will be low-caste Hindus and high-caste Hindus together. The castes are gradually beginning to associate.

Q: Are all those poor women lowcaste?

A.: Most of them.

Q.: And are there Muslims among them?

A.: Yes, five per cent of them are.

Q.: In how many villages are you active?

A.: Six years ago we started in one village and now we are working in all of the Ahmedabad district. We are present in 24 villages. Our membership is now about 5500.

Q.: Is SEWA active mainly in Gujarat?

A.: Yes, we started in Gujarat, but now we have ventures in nine other states. And our bank is recognized as a model by the Women's World Banking in New York, and we are affiliated with the International Textile Labour Association, and recognized by the International Labour Organisation in Geneva and we are in the Planning Commission in India. The Government has asked us to become consultants on programmes for self-employed women, for rural women, for urban women, for slumdwelers. So we feel we have been making steady progress and SEWA is not just an office or an organization it's a women's movement. It is definitely making a dent in the policies for poor women and their self-image.