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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Self-Employed Women’s Association: ideology in action Appell, Virginia


This dissertation presents an anthropological examination of the efforts of the Self- Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, to effect social change. The study is based on fieldwork carried out in 1993 and 1994. SEWA attempts to improve the situation of economically marginal women in urban and rural Gujarat, by altering the conditions in which they labour. SEWA works from a reformist position, which allows it to (i) criticise existing development practices, (ii) influence government policies concerning the very poor and (iii) assist in the implementation of those government programmes intended to benefit the very poor. I put forth the argument that SEWA's most useful contribution to social change may lie in its efforts to reconceptualise existing relations between labour, gender and poverty. SEWA has attempted to create different, and more "positive", perceptions of the economicallymarginal women, and to bring the issues which concern them to wider public awareness. The dissertation describes SEWA's ideological and practical struggles to effect these changes. The bases of the ideology are the organisation's efforts to define its members and its purpose in the terms it finds appropriate and its insistence that development which is to benefit women must be focussed exclusively on them. The organisation's strategies include the establishment of a powerful organisation which is now linked with national and international agencies committed to improving the economic conditions of the poor. Other strategies include mounting legal challenges to unfair practices, creating employment, regularising relations between employers and employees and working to establish bonds between women of different conimunities and sub-castes, through its efforts to alter women's perceptions of themselves. A number of internal struggles between highly educated middle class activists with global worldviews and the women SEWA designates as self-employed are examined. Two of the organisation's efforts to put ideology into action, and the social factors which impeded those efforts, are described. Some of those impediments are internal to the organisation, such as conflicts between members and organisers about the purpose of the organisation, and their different roles in it. Others are external, and are situated in the domestic domains of the members' lives and in the social and economic context of the city of Ahmedabad. The fact that only women can belong to SEWA is a crucial element in the organisation's construction of a development alternative, but that fact has the paradoxical effect of isolating women conceptually from the social and familial networks in which they live and work. In the future, SEWA may have to decide whether to retain its alternative, women-focussed approach or to integrate its development activities into the wider context of economically marginal women and men.

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