* What made you choose social work against the safer choice of a career as a lawyer?
My training was when I started working as a lawyer among the textile labourers. When the textile industry became sick I saw how the families were struggling to make ends meet. And I saw that it was the women who supported the families by working in the informal sector. There was a vast labour force in that sector and I thought it needed to be organised. So that was how I started unionising them and SEWA came into being in 1972.
* Can you tell us about the genesis of the SEWA’s co-operative Swashrayi Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank?
In 1974, two years after SEWA was formed, we started the co-operative bank. It was a struggle. But we made it, bit by bit. The bank has been surviving and is quite healthy. We have around 3 lakh depositors and a working capital of about 164 crore. It has also distributed dividends all these years.
* Did the women have the habit of saving or did you have to convince them of the idea?
They did save. They saved with the wholesalers, the contractors; you see, the very people who exploited them. Or they would save by tucking it away under the bed or in the floor. So a place to save their money was important and urgent. But they were also economically active and had the aspiration to better their circumstances by investing more. They needed loans to do that. So the bank was an answer to many issues.
* How important is formal education in empowering women?
I think you need not look at education in a narrow sense. Formal education alone is not what teaches you things. As soon one starts doing things by oneself, it is a learning process. I call it empowerment. As soon as you are in the market, you know how to deal with it. When there is loss, you realise the value of money. When you don’t have enough water or wood or other resources, you want to protect the village forests and you realise how the water tables are going down. When you run a health programme, you know why the mothers and children are so weak and what you can do to help them. Isn’t all this education? That kind of empowerment is something that nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you.
* Are the younger generations better off because of the movement?
Much better. But the change takes time. They are mistrustful, of themselves and others. And they are diffident. But as they realise how things work, where the centres of injustice are, they also learn to handle things. There is a tribal woman I know, Kavitha. When she started going to the government offices to get things done, she was looked upon as too bold. Then people approached her for help. Now she says, people call her ‘Kavitha Behan’.
* How do we involve men in the process of women’s empowerment?
Among the poor it is not much the women vs men kind of scenario. Of course, women are second citizens. But that is more because men just go by what they have seen their fathers and grandfathers do. But I think men are ready to welcome changes. Though the bank is for women, if it helps a family retrieve mortgaged land, then the men see that it is a change for the better. It is more because men get few opportunities to change themselves while women are physically and mentally capable of adapting to changes.
And then, change is not to discard our values. Be Gandhian. Let everyone be at ease. Stick to the truth, but do so politely. And grow by the pace of the people. It is always worthwhile to believe in ‘lok shakthi’, people’s power.