In India, 72 percent of women are involved in agriculture. But often, these small-scale farmers confront numerous economic barriers, including lack of access to training, markets and productive inputs. In a society where gender biases are deeply ingrained, women farmers also lack access to bank accounts and land tenure. And, women are also underrepresented in farmers groups and associations, making it harder for their voices to be heard.

Through self-help groups, capacity building workshops, and programs that link farmers to inputs and markets, SEWA’s innovative model is empowering small-scale women farmers across India. (Photo credit: McKay Savage)

The Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a member-based Indian trade union, whose philosophy is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of self-reliance. The organization is helping empower women to achieve full employment, providing them with much-needed work, income, food and social security.

SEWA is a country-wide network of cooperatives, self-help groups (SHGs), banks and training centers that help address the multiple constraints that women face. Together this support system helps to end exclusion, and foster social, economic and political empowerment.

Since SEWA was founded in 1972, its membership has grown to include 1.3 million women. While 54 percent of its members are small and marginal farmers based in rural areas, SEWA’s members also include street vendors, construction workers, embroiderers, and textile workers.

SEWA has over 2100 SHGs that meet monthly to identify challenges and discuss potential solutions. In Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, a dry region where soil erosion is a big problem, the SEWA-supported Sabarkantha Women Farmer’s Association conducted a watershed conservation campaign. Meetings with the local government and the Gujarat Land Development Corporation gave these women farmers the opportunity to share their concerns, and created a platform for collective problem solving.

SEWA also helps women farmers build their own productive capacity. The SEWA Academy, SEWA Manager’s School, and “life schools” conduct workshops that improve literacy and leadership skills. And, SEWA’s Village Resource Centers connect farmers with research organizations, allowing women to evaluate new technologies.

These resource centers provide access to agricultural inputs, such as improved seedlings and organic fertilizers. Furthermore, through its Rural Distribution Network (RUDI), SEWA is linking farmers to vendors and creating employment opportunities for saleswomen. SEWA also provides a wide range of financial services, such as the SEWA bank, which enables women to open their own bank accounts, save money and take out loans.

Through cooperatives, SHGs, capacity building workshops, and programs that link farmers to inputs and markets, SEWA’s innovative model is empowering small-scale women farmers across India.

In Vadodara village in Gujarat, SEWA introduced women to forestry and vermi‐composting. “We now earn over Rs. 15,000 ($350) per season, an amount we had never dreamed of earning in a lifetime,” says Surajben Shankasbhai Rathwa, who has been a member of SEWA since 2003.

Given the movement’s success, SEWA has expanded to other South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. USAID sees an important role for SEWA in helping to organize Afghan women for employment and providing much-needed literacy skills in the war-torn country.

SEWA’s work offers a model for the world. As its membership grows and it expands its reach, this grassroots movement is empowering women to take the lead in combating hunger and poverty.

To learn more about women’s cooperatives and initiatives that empower women farmers, see: Empowering the Women of India’s Poorest Region, Forming Groups and Transforming Livelihoods, Empowering Women to Take Back the Land, Innovation of the Week: Banking on the Harvest, Innovation of the Week: Feeding Communities by Focusing on Women, Strengthening Rural Women’s Leadership in Farming and Producer Organization, Improving African Women’s Access to Agriculture Training Programs, Women Farmers: An ‘Untapped Solution’ to Global Hunger and Women Entrepreneurs: Adding Value.

Successful innovations that empower women farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa will also be featured in “Chapter 11: Harnessing the Knowledge and Skills of Women Farmers” in the forthcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.