Free Press Journal

Reemaben Nanavaty – Director, SEWA


Reema Nanavaty

You strongly believe that poverty is violence with the consent of society. Could you elaborate?

We at SEWA believe that poverty is violence. As stated by Elaben this violence is by consensus of society that lets other human beings go without roti, kapada and makan. Poverty is not God given. It is a moral collapse of our society. Poverty strips a person of his or her humanity, and takes away freedom. Poverty is day-to-day violence, no less destructive than war. Poverty is lack of peace and freedom. In fact, removing poverty is essentially building peace.

How do we build the collective strength of the poor?

The surest way to fight poverty is organising. Poor women alone or individually are vulnerable. Once they organise, it brings strength of sisterhood, solidarity. She feels – she is no longer alone in her struggle, but there are thousands of women with her. She also feels if any sister has overcome the struggle, she too can. Organizing helps build the confidence and thus builds the collective strength of women. As our SEWA sisters say – “We are poor, but so many!”

You have equated the fight against poverty to a peace building process. Please comment?

As quoted by Elaben women want roots for her family. You get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker, a forger of bonds. I consider thousands of poor working women’s participation and representation an integral part of the peace and development process. Women bring constructive, creative and sustainable solutions to the table.

SEWA’s experience of over four decades shows that when women organise around work. It leads to holistic development of the family. Women when have economic security then are able to deal with their social issues. Women will invest in nutrition and food security, education of children, health care of the family and water harvesting or solar light on daughter’s reading table. Women will save. Thus women are futuristic – look to long-term development.

Once women have work and income security, they will then look for alternative opportunities for men in the family. It leads to full employment. This we at SEWA call: Interplay of Women, Work and Peace.

SEWA’s experience of over four decades shows that when women organise around work. It leads to holistic development of the family. Women when have economic security then are able to deal with their social issues.

How are women an integral part of this peace process?

SEWA’s experience has been that women are the best peacemakers. It is women and their work, that leads to peace building. SEWA’s experience in riots or earthquake or economic rehabilitation of women in conflicts or war affected regions is that women always want work. For women, work is the best healer.

In the relief camps during the riots – women wanted work, as idle hands and idle minds lead to devils thoughts. The work chain of the informal sector worker is so integrated. The raw material for garments is supplied by Hindu traders and the garments are stitched by Muslim women. The same is in Agarbatti trade, kite making and many many more traditional businesses. At SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, the urban garment making sisters – stitch the garments, while the rural embroidery workers – embroider and do surface embellishment. Thus it is work that integrates caste, communities, religions.

In such situations these integrated trade communities then start building the peace process. They organize around work or trades as women and as workers, no matter what caste or community or religion they belong to.

What are the contradictions you have faced in your quest and how have you resolved them?

Why women work hard but get paid less? Why women’s honest income is less than income from bribe and pay-offs? As Elaben questions, why she is paid less to plan tree but more to cut tree? Why she is paid less to harvest water but more to wash chemicals in a lake or pond?

Why higher studies, even on poverty or gender are removed from people and ground?

One does not overcome these contradictions, but confronts it, individually and collectively; conceptually and through action; with a big push as well as many small nudges. And SEWA sisters give strength, hope, and courage. They do.


Brief Bio: Reema Nanavaty

Reema Nanavaty leads Self Employed Women’s Association’s (SEWA) economic and rural development activities reaching out to seventeen million women and their families across India. Since 1989 she has pioneered revival, restoration and innovation of rural livelihoods from district to global level. Reema is being recognized across India and in the neighbouring countries as a champion of making livelihoods of the poor women reach markets they deserve. As a manager, she developed the regional rural water supply scheme of Government of Gujarat and SEWA into an integrated water project, and made women central to water decisions.