The impact of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is visible in villages across the country. Women who can’t read or write and have basically no real rights learn how to sign their names, read a document, open a bank account, start a business, commit to a loan and secure something quite unthinkable: a home in their names. No sorcery, just empowerment and an infrastructure to support and sustain it. SEWA does it with full permission of the men in the villages. SEWA’s organic, vertically-integrated structure lets it be an academy for teaching, a bank, an insurer, a housing developer and a trade co-operative for hundreds of thousands of women textile workers.
As a Canadian woman entrepreneur, the opportunity to watch SEWA in action and to meet with women participating in SEWA programs in small villages outside of Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, is a privilege with some irony. A 2012 Reuters TrustLaw survey of G20 countries identifies Canada as the best place for a woman and India as the worst.
What makes India the worst? Child marriage, feticide and infanticide, sexual trafficking, domestic slave labour, domestic violence and high maternal mortality are the reasons India wins the title as worst of the G20 countries for women. But another 2012 study, this one conducted by DELL, ranks India as the best place in the world to be a woman entrepreneur. There’s the clash again. That’s the essence of the two-world reality for Indian women.
Forbes recently profiled India’s top 10 women and the role they play in India’s economy, from high-tech and banking to newspapers and hotels. These are Indian women with degrees from Harvard and Yale. SEWA can share the profiles of women who in less than three years go from illiteracy to employing the majority of the women in their village, having hard assets in their own name and starting a pension plan for when they can no longer be self-employed. These are socio-economic bookends from the two extreme ends of the spectrum: extreme wealth and extreme poverty. These are the women who are stopping child marriage. These are the women who are changing the balance of power in their homes and communities. These are the women who will no longer be silent about gender related violence and injustice.
Women’s work as entrepreneurs is a UN-recognized tool for sustainable development. India is at the forefront of this seismic shift. A study of gender-related development (GRD) has created a GRD Index linked to a nation’s Gross Domestic Product. It clearly captures that in nations where women are advancing through entrepreneurship economic growth is steady and in countries without women’s economic participation economic growth is stagnant. India’s prime minister and government will respond swiftly to this latest incident of violence against women because the world demands it, but also because women are no longer invisible since becoming economic drivers, helping drag India into the 21st century.
The magic of women’s work in India is that while it has always involved heavy lifting, it’s been made to look effortless because of women’s resilience, resourcefulness and resolve.