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Women and poverty: the hidden face of violence with social consent (India)
an article by Ela Bhatt, 2013 Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence at McMaster University in Canada (abridged)

Video: Pride of India - Ela Bhatt

. . . I grew up during a time when my country was fighting for independence, so my generation was greatly influenced by Gandhian ideas and practice. Gandhiji enumerated four basic principles to guide the development of a free India. They were: simplicity, non-violence, dignity of labour, and human values. Apply these measures against not only economic thought, but also to broader thinking today, and I believe we will find them to be powerful and useful in seeking solutions. . . .


Ela Bhatt with members of SEWA, February 2010

click on photo to enlarge

We can agree that where there is poverty there is also exploitation and inequality, injustice and vulnerability, and a constant battle over resources. Add to that: poor governance, and flaws in the distribution of resources and services. But these are human problems arising out of conflicting and dominating self-interests that disregard the interests of others. Poverty is not God-given; it is most definitely man-made. No one is born poor; society makes one poor.

Gandhiji called poverty a moral collapse of society, and he believed its roots lie in what he called the seven social evils. He named them wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principles. Let us keep in mind, Gandhiji wrote this in 1925.

And indeed, what is poverty but a passive form of violence? A chronic abuse of human dignity that strips away a person's humanity, and corrodes the human spirit? When a woman does back-breaking work for ten hours a day but cannot feed her family with her earnings, society has scorned her labour. When construction workers build housing complexes but they remain homeless and migrants, society has snatched away their right to safety and a sense of belonging. When a woman dies in childbirth, society shows no regard for her life. When a farmer grows food for the world, but goes hungry himself, society is callous. Such are the ways in which society gives its social consent to let the situation continue. For this reason, I say that our silence is violent. Our looking the other way is a form of consent. It is our moral failure that we still tolerate poverty. . . .

So let me tell you about our experience at SEWA.

The Self-Employed Women's Association is a trade union of poor, self-employed women in India. We have come together to form a union to stop economic exploitation; we have formed our own cooperative bank to build assets, to tap resources, and to improve the material quality of life. We have built trade cooperatives of women farmers and artisans, and a trade facilitation network connecting local and global markets; we have built a social security network for our maternity needs, health and life insurance. SEWA is more than 1.7 million women strong. We come together not in opposition to anyone, but in support of each other. Our goal is the well-being of the poor woman, her family, her work, her community and the world we all live in. We are in pursuit of self-reliance and freedom, or as Gandhiji called it, swaraj. But Mahatma Gandhi also said swaraj, or freedom, cannot be given; it is generated within one’s self.

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A little ‘irregular’ thinking has allowed us to find an approach that looks at what the poor are rich in: their large numbers. My SEWA sisters invariably remind me: we are poor, but we are so many! Their awareness of a collective strength has allowed us to focus on building with hitherto unrecognised strengths, untapped skills, and with non-monetary assets. Our goal is to use work – meaningful, decent work – to build lives, assets and community

In the formal sector, employment is created through the creation of jobs by firms, and this employment is generally regular, full-time, protected employment, with a clear employer-employee relationship; However, in the informal sector there are no ‘jobs’.  Employment is a combination of self-employment or own-account work, some wage employment, some casual work, or part-time work with a variety of employment relations. At any one time a poor person could be working at a number of different employments : For example, a small or marginal farmer also works as a weaver or basket maker; or an agricultural labourer would also have cattle and be a milk producer; or a construction worker would return home and roll bidis or cigarettes with her family at night. Sometimes the work is seasonal - A salt farmer may be an agricultural worker during the monsoon season, or a rag picker may make kites during the kite festival. Multiple forms of work are the norm among the working poor, and this risk distribution is key to their survival. Though managing many types of work has its own challenges, it reduces risk, and provides opportunity to rearrange work and life as it unfolds

Creating employment is not a matter of creating jobs in the formal sector, but of strengthening the workers and producers who are already working in the informal sector to overcome structural constraints and enter markets to maximise their potential, Needless to say, those constraints and markets are created by society and such constraints and markets let the poor remain poor

As a labour union, our underlying approach is to see the poor as workers and producers rather than just as income-deprived or vulnerable people. . ...more.


This report was posted on October 18, 2013.