Mirai Chatterjee

Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA)
Year founded: 

SEWA provides support to poor, self-employed women in countries with large informal economies.

Focus: Enterprise Development, Financial Inclusion, Labour Conditions and Unemployment, Rural Development, Women, Communications/Media, Culture and Handicrafts
Geographic Area of Impact: India
Model: Hybrid Non-Profit
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: 1.3 million (2010)
Annual Budget: US$ 1.38 million (2010)
Recognition: Schwab Fellows of the World Economic Forum

While 94% of working women in India are self-employed, they have historically enjoyed fewer legal protections or workers' rights. Most are illiterate and subject to exploitation and harassment by moneylenders, employers and officials. In 1972, Ela Bhatt, a lawyer and head of the women's section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, observed the horrendous conditions faced by women working as head-loaders, weavers, needlecraft workers, cigarette rollers and waste collectors. As a result, she became committed to helping women organize themselves.

Innovation and Activities
SEWA provides comprehensive support to poor, self-employed women. Its efforts over four decades to increase the bargaining power, economic opportunities, health security, legal representation and organizational abilities of Indian women have brought dramatic improvements to thousands and influenced similar initiatives around the globe. Based in the Indian state of Gujarat, SEWA’s 1.3 million members include 700,000 women within the state, representing +100 informal trades, and an additional 600,000 members in eight other states. It is the largest women’s union in India, offering its members an array of financial, health, childcare, insurance, legal, vocational and education services. Its members have created 103 cooperatives, over 3,000 producers groups, forged market links and enhanced bargaining positions. These successful efforts increased members' employment income by 600% from 1994 to 1998.

SEWA Bank, with 400,000 savers, has issued loans to thousands of members. To provide for members' healthcare, it helped start a health cooperative and developed an insurance programme that provides coverage for hospitalization, accidents and loss of life. A SEWA-affiliated team of 500 midwives and health workers serves the healthcare needs of 300,000 individuals, and the insurance programme has developed into the VimoSEWA cooperative, India’s first such national-level organization.

SEWA also uses video, telephone, computer and satellite communications to provide information technology to the working class. To address legal issues such as housing, wage disputes and other exploitative issues, it offers its members legal aid services. Currently, SEWA leaders dedicate their time to influence national and international policies that offer support to informal and self-employed workers globally.

The Entrepreneurs
Ela Bhatt graduated with a law degree in 1954, and joined the Textile Labour Association, a union founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917. There she observed the conditions of the non-organized sector, primarily comprised of women, and decided to help organize them into unions. She is the recipient of the Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood Award and other national/international honours, and is a current member of the Council of Elders led by Nelson Mandela.

Mirai Chatterjee has a BA in History and Science from Harvard University, and a Master's in Hygiene and Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She is SEWA’s Director for Social Security, responsible for healthcare, childcare and insurance programmes. Chatterjee is on the board of several organizations in India, including the Friends of Women’s World Banking and the Public Health Foundation of India. She is a member of the National Advisory Council, appointed by the Prime Minister of India and chaired by Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance. She is also a member of the Committee to Develop Universal Health Coverage in India.