This is a story of how Reemaben Nanavati devised a way to cut across caste, community and faith lines to bring stunning Indian crafts to the market. Shivli Tyagi met the force at the helm of SEWA, one of the biggest and oldest trade unions of its kind in the world
It was a day-trip to a village in Gujarat that led Reemaben Nanavati to a decision that not only changed her own life but also help women across India lead a life of dignity and freedom. “I was an IAS officer and had to visit a village to organise landless agricultural workers in a drought year. When I saw women working in the heat all day, digging to collect tubers of grass weeds to feed their families, it stirred something within me. The reason they were living such difficult lives was because they had not been exposed to better opportunities. It affected me so deeply that I decided to quit my job and work towards creating better opportunities for these women,” says the impassioned 52-year-old.
Reemaben joined the Self Employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) in 1986 and has since equipped thousands of women with the right tools to become modern entrepreneurs. In a TEDx talk last year, she pointed out that SEWA’s economic and rural development activities have reached out to 17 million women and their families.
“When I joined, I knew that if I wanted to work for them and with them, I had to experience their life,” says Reemaben, who lived in a small desert town, Radhanpur, in the Patan district in Gujarat for eight years. Here, she stumbled upon their beautiful handicrafts. “I procured their traditional skirts, cradle covers, etc and market-tested them. I realised that these had a huge market potential.” In 1987, Reemaben organised these women artisans; she started with 50 women from five villages, and today, the numbers have swelled to around 15,000 women artisans from over 60 villages. “Today at the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, the urban garment making sisters (as we call them), stitch the clothes, while the rural embroidery workers do surface embellishments. Thus, it is work that integrates caste, communities and religion,” she says.
SEWA is present in states like J&K, Assam and Meghalaya, and was also invited by the government to help in the rehabilitation of war affected women in conflict zones in South Asia. Till now, SEWA has managed to organise over 3,000 war-affected women. Reemaben narrates a fatal attack on their centre in Kabul in 2006. “We were recruiting new trainees. There were about 500 women there. Suddenly we started getting frantic calls from the internal ministry to evacuate the place.
We later got to know that there were three suicide bombers among the crowd. One of them blew herself up, but thankfully, by that time, most of the women had been evacuated.”
Reemaben was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 for her contributions in the field of social service. “In the coming decades, SEWA has to focus on scaling up the business enterprise skills of our members. It has to work on skill upgradation, enhancement and diversification for the young members to make them see new opportunities.”
PHOTOGRAPH: VINAY PANJWANI