Women Builders Drive Innovation
             Posted on:09-02-2012 10:20:35

Women Builders Drive Innovation

In an Indian state that survived a major earthquake at the turn of the millennium, the women have come together for mutual empowerment to address their communities’ needs. In Gujarat, the people had a need for reliable, disaster-safe housing. The women needed stable sources of income that would not force them to migrate; they also needed to gain a sense of respect in the community, to gain a sense of professional confidence, and to have their voices heard. Through a confluence of three streams for change, the women’s movement, the labour movement and the cooperative movement, women are offering innovative solutions to provide for immediate necessities. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a builders’ trade union heading the forefront of social innovation. 

Uncompromising when it comes to gender equality, the SEWA trade union includes a 50-50 mix of men and women as shareholders, and a mix of seven women to four men on the ruling committees, elected by villagers to address the local people’s needs when it comes to housing design and construction. Women work alongside men as skilled and semi-skilled masons. Over time, the men of the rural communities in Gujarat have come to recognise women as their equals. Now, some men even claim that women can surpass their male counterparts in their performance: “The work that we do, they can do, but a lot of the work that they do, we cannot.” Such sentiments are proof of truly effective cultural innovation taking place in the region. 

An additional innovative aspect of SEWA’s work is their success in having made available a local production base in the villages—a source of livelihood for women that allows them to earn without migrating long distances away from their homes, but also gives them the opportunity to work outside their villages if they wish to do so, and if the income is satisfactory. The women are involved in productive labour, such as the construction of door and window frames, and the production of building materials such as bricks. Away from home, women are involved in the construction of water harvesting structures and toilet blocks.

Another major innovation achieved by SEWA is the tools and equipment bank, which ensures that skilled workers within the company do not have to turn down job opportunities just because they do not have the necessary instruments. By paying nominal usage fees, all members can solicit work on their own, by posting their own tenders. The tools and equipment bank provided by SEWA allows workers to respond to incoming orders and begin projects without delay.

SEWA’s women participants are independent, and can sustain themselves without the support of their husbands. Their self-sufficiency has helped to elevate their confidence levels. These women have now travelled to different villages for work, and they now command a new sort of respect. On being asked about how their lives have changed since they have become part of SEWA, one woman says: “We used to stay quiet, but not anymore.” Her fellow SEWA member adds: “We have become strong.”

Contributed by:

Development Alternatives Group

  Self-employed women of Gujarat, India  
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