SEWA Bank exists to reach the maximum number of poor women workers engaged in the informal sector and provide them suitable financial services for socio-economic empowerment and self-development.

Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank, Ltd (SEWA Bank) is a cooperative bank that was founded in 1974 by a collective of poor women to serve the needs of Indian women working in the informal sector. The Bank emerged from the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the women’s branch of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a union organized by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917. SEWA’s mission is to act as a representative for the interests of self-employed women in India, and the idea for the bank came about in response to the financial needs of these women.

Though highly successful today, SEWA (the founding organization) faced challenges in its early years. Initially, the Labor Department refused to register SEWA as a Trade Union, as there was no clear employer against which self-employed people could struggle against. In response, SEWA Founder Ela Bhatt argued that “the purpose of a union is not only to fight, or to be against somebody, you also have to be for something. And SEWA was for changing so many laws and policies. Women may not be able to pinpoint an employer but we have to fight against certain systems.” In the end, SEWA was registered. Years later, SEWA’s efforts to advocate for workers in the informal sector began to conflict with the TLA’s focus on workers in the formal sector. In 1981, it was expelled from the TLA. Undeterred, SEWA continued its work independently.    

CC image courtesy of UN Women/Gaganjit Singh Chandok on Flickr

In the meantime, in 1973, members of a newly formed SEWA branch in Gujarat found themselves in need of a new solution to their vicious cycle of eternal debt. They devised “a bank of their own, where they would be accepted in their own right and not to be made feel inferior.” “We may be poor,” they said, “but we are so many.” Nearly 4,000 women contributed share capital of Rs.10/- each to establish the Bank, and in May 1974, the SEWA Bank was registered as a co-operative bank under the dual control of The Reserve Bank of India and The State Government.

CC image courtesy of Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing

SEWA and its bank grew into influential institutions that have supported millions of India’s working women. At the present time, 96% of working Indian women are self-employed in the informal sector. The Bank’s membership financing model paired with individualized counseling has resulted in increased financial security for thousands of self-employed Indian women.

Beyond its microfinance and financial service activities, SEWA has filed over 100 lawsuits on behalf of working women, organized dozens of protests, developed and disseminated effective strategies for economic resilience, provided the infrastructure and tactics necessary for collective negotiation, and facilitated numerous literacy programs throughout the country.

Moving Forward

SEWA’s vision is to create a society that has overcome poverty. It is a vision that entails facing challenges that seem insurmountable. Nevertheless, SEWA forges ahead. In the spirit of how this project defines “perseverance,” Bhatt reflects: “Life is never without difficulty, without struggles. As we learn, dealing with these difficulties, we manage our own affairs, at the family or at the committee level, or at the organizational level, or at the board level. I firmly believe that that is a process of empowerment. Working yourself, and dealing with your own affairs yourself, that is an empowering process. It is an ongoing process which never ends.”

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