Dear Friend,

Day after day we are hearing about the horrors in Afghanistan. We learn that women and girls are being told their lives will be forever changed — they will no longer work, speak, or go to school. Many are trying to leave to escape to Europe, the UK, the U.S. and even in neighboring countries like India. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that women of means, stature, and voice will be able to leave Afghanistan. But what about the women village leaders, those who are farming, who are craft workers, those providing health care or teaching in village schools. Will they be able to leave? From what we know it is doubtful. What will become of their lives and their children’s lives? I have had the privilege of working with a woman, Reema Nanavaty of SEWA. Reema, for over 3 decades has worked with grassroots, women leaders throughout Asia including Afghanistan and she has agreed to help us understand the plight of grassroots leaders in Afghanistan.

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Reema, first tell us about SEWA, its work and its promise to grassroots women?

Karen, at SEWA we organize the women workers in the informal economy. These are women who earn their living by putting in hard labour, provide services or make products and try to sell them locally on the streets, or work from home as contractors. These women workers include vendors and hawkers, garment workers, artisans, bidi (Indian cigar) rollers, kite makers, construction workers, small farmers and waste collectors.

At SEWA, we come together as poor, as women and as workers no matter what caste, community or religion we belong to. We organize to build collective strength in our fight against poverty. Over 5 decades of experience of organizing these women workers has proved that the issues of poor women are the same, be it anywhere in the world.

SEWA adopts an integrated approach towards its members. This approach has been:

  • Organizing: The poor need to organize for collective strength and bargaining power and to be able to actively participate at various levels in the planning, implementation and monitoring processes of the programmes meant for them.
  • Capacity building: To stand firm in the competitive market, the poor need to build up their skills, through access to market infrastructure, access to technology, information, education, knowledge and relevant training (accountancy, management, planning, designing, etc.)
  • Capital formation: Asset ownership is the surest way to fight the vulnerability of poverty. The poor need to create and build up assets of their own at the household level through access to financial services (savings, insurance and credit).
  • Social security: To combat the chronic risks faced by them and their families, the poor need healthcare, childcare, shelter and relief.

When all these come simultaneously, but at the pace at which the women can take it or need. This in itself becomes an empowering process for the women. She is able to speak up and demand. She has her own identity.

At SEWA, we strongly believe in sister-to-sister learning. Our experience working with these women workers from other states, as well as internationally, have shown that though cultures may be different, the issues of the women are not very different.

The major lesson we have learned is that at SEWA, women across the states understand each other’s problems and work together in support of each other, in solidarity and sisterhood.

Also, from our experience working with informal sector women workers, we realised that national policies get influenced by international trends. Therefore, to make the voice of the informal — the voices of the women — effective, it is necessary to represent them at the international policy forum. Therefore, SEWA is now working internationally.

We also realised that the conditions or the issues of the poor, informal sector women — be it in Gujarat or in India or internationally — are not very different. Their issues are the same. Therefore, internationally, SEWA has worked directly with sisters in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and 5 other countries.

Similarly, in collaboration with SAARC Development Fund, SEWA organised and mobilised over 25,000 home-based workers across the countries of Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives, and helped them register their own not-for-profit company, the SABAH, in each of their countries.

SEWA has also formed network of workers such as network of home-based workers (Homenet), network of street-vendors (Streetnet International), network of domestic workers, network of researchers, policy makers and workers organisations (WEIGO). All of these networks have helped workers organise in their own countries and have helped change policies. But most importantly, it has brought visibility of the informal sector workers.

Reema, you have worked in Afghanistan. Tell us about your experiences there?

It was in 2007–08, that SEWA was invited by the Government of India to work on economic rehabilitation of the war-affected women in Afghanistan. We, at SEWA, considered it as our moral responsibility to work for the sisters in neighbouring Afghanistan.

However, we had to understand the local socio-economic situation, the needs and issues of the local women. SEWA began with a feasibility study. The local women in Afghanistan were hungry to learn and acquire new skills, and look for opportunities that will bring work and income security.

SEWA has helped over 7,000 war-affected women to organise and register their own organisation — Sabah Bagh e Khazana Women’s Association (SBKSA) — in 2010.

SEWA and SBKSA have set up a Trade Facilitation Centre in Kabul city and 6 Training Centres in 4 provinces by providing infrastructure, technology, mentoring and financial support to train grassroots sisters in need. SEWA has trained 450 Afghan women as Master Trainers in India and 5,000 grassroots trainees in Afghanistan by imparting advance training on management, garment making, food processing, gems and jewellery, embroidery and CBO (Community-Based Organization) Management and other skills from Kabul to the provinces of Mazar-e-Sherief, Baghlan, Parwan, Herat and Kandhar.

Help us to understand the grassroots women leaders in Afghanistan; what has been their work? And how has their role been accepted in their villages?

It was with the same values and approach that SEWA began working with the war-affected women, in particular the thousands of widows in Afghanistan. SEWA did not want the sisters of Afghanistan to feel helpless, but instead identify, recognize, realize and experience their own skills, resources and strengths. We did not see any difference between widows in Ahmedabad or in Kabul, widows of war or riots: they were poor, marginalized, and without a voice in what was being decided for their future. After many discussions among various SEWA women leaders, we decided that we would go to Kabul to build a better future, not to provide relief. So we decided to call the work in Afghanistan Baugh-e-Khazana — the garden of wealth .

Baugh-e-Khazana is proving that given an enabling environment and opportunity, women work towards economic security even in conflict situations. Ten women trained at Baugh-e-Khazana have now become trainers at the India Training Centre run by the Confederation of Indian Industry in Kabul. Similarly, 40 women trained at Baugh-e-Khazana by master trainers are now working at the training centre opened by Wise Group in Kabul. This small effort by SEWA is now spreading with a few more partners. It is a slow and difficult process. But as our sisters say, ‘Who said building peace is easy and fast?’ Again, what puzzles me is why such sister-to-sister capacity building is not at the core of any nation building initiative?

Baugh-e-Khazana was twice targeted by extremist elements. In the end, all violence targets women, economically or physically. On 18 February 2009, three women suicide bombers entered Baugh-e-Khazana at 9:15 a.m. where around 500 women were busy at work. But again, Baugh-e-Khazana showed that this is a place where women come and work together for peace, economic security and building solidarity and sisterhood. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Government of Afghanistan along with the National Security Guard and intelligence agency, immediately moved in to support the women, evacuated them and even succeeded in arresting two suicide bombers.

This incident exposed the ugly reality of terror, the damage it can cause, mental or physical, and made us all realize that women, work and peace is not that easy an approach. Even the smallest achievement by the weakest can threaten the biggest war machine of the strongest. A moment of terror can shatter years of confidence and peace, and faith in each other.

The women in Kabul were all stunned. Why us? Why kill anybody? These were the two questions repeatedly asked. No one had any answers. Everyone knew that in the end, it is the women who suffer the most, be it poverty or be it war. Two days later, Baugh-e-Khazana was back in action — all 300 women at work — reassuring solidarity. ‘Khala’ embraced me and said, ‘We are all one, no one can separate us. Hum ek hai, sub ek hai. We will protect each other and Baugh-e-Khazana will grow stronger. We are doing God’s work.’

At SEWA in Ahmedabad, our sisters prayed and realized that we were practising Gandhiji’s idea of appealing to the goodness in each human being in our own way. I was thinking whether Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, known in Gujarat as Sarhadna, Gandhi, would see our sisters as Khudai Khidmatgars or God’s servants? And together we all sang, ‘We shall overcome one day’ in Hindi and chanted, ‘Mohamaye eaki haste’, ‘Hum sab ek hain’.

Overall, my experience at SEWA makes me believe that women are the key to rebuilding a community. And communities build a nation. Women want a stable community; roots for their family. They are there as workers, caretakers, as educators and networkers. Women become an integral part of the peace-building process if peace is to be built bottom-up. This is a slow process and we want, like fast-food, fast peace.

As Elaben says, ‘If women are at the centre, their productive work is the thread that weaves a society together. When you have work, you have an incentive to maintain a stable society. You can not only see the future, but you can plan for the future. Work builds peace, because work gives people roots, it builds communities and it gives meaning and dignity to one’s life.’

Of the women you know, how do you see their future? Would a SEWA-like organization be able to survive in Afghanistan?

I want to state that every time we talk to our sisters in Afghanistan, be it in Kabul or Herat or Baghlan, they have never asked for relief. All they want is safety and security so that they can continue their work, productive work, to earn a decent and dignified living.

Whether they will be able to continue to live and work peacefully, only time will tell. They are currently living under fear. All work since 15th August has come to grinding halt.

Yet the women have started coming to the Production Centre since Sunday. They want to start working, otherwise their livelihood is at stake. How will they feed their families? No one wants to leave their land or home or country and flee if they are able to work and earn peacefully.

On the one hand SEWA feels very sad that the last 12 to 15 years of hard work of around 7,000 Afghan sisters now has uncertain future! Will their local enterprise survive and continue? Will the women be allowed to work?

On the other hand, it is satisfying to see how investing in women-to-women capacity and skill building, and building women’s local organisation helps in building the self-confidence of women. It builds hope in women to change their lives.

Thank you Reema.

Karen Tramontano
President and Founder

The Global Fairness Initiative promotes a more equitable, sustainable approach to economic development for the world’s working poor.