Almost ninety percent of women who work in India are self-employed. Outside the protection of labour laws and the minimum wage, they are subject to exploitation, often by unscrupulous banks and lenders. Ahmedabad, however, has maintained a tradition of self-help since the days of Gandhi, achieving global recognition as the base of the ground-breaking Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA. Founded in the early 1970s, SEWA provides legal advice, training, support and childcare, and runs its own cooperative bank.
Following a major slump in the textile industry in 1984, SEWA set up training centres in weaving, sewing, dyeing and printing, providing efficient machinery. This helped to re-establish many women in the textile labour force, providing an outlet for their products. In 1987, a SEWA protest against sati (widow burning) and a campaign to have verbal divorce and polygamy banned in Gujarat resulted in a change in the law. SEWA also strongly opposes female foeticide, which is particularly widespread in Gujarat. With more than a million members nationwide, more than 600,000 of which are in Gujarat, the organization now tackles projects throughout India and overseas.