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How to form and support women’s groups which are capable of disseminating knowledge about agriculture and enterprise effectively and inclusively: A case study of SEWA (India)

This case study will look at The Self Employed Women’s Association’s (SEWA) approach to rural capacity building and support to women farmers’ community groups in Gujarat (India). The aim of the case study is to highlight the way in which SEWA uses women’s groups to achieve high levels of engagement by women across different castes and social classes, to identify how they form and support these groups, and to understand the conditions in which their approach could be replicated by other extension and advisory services.

Overview of SEWA, India

History and Reach

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was established in 1972 to support self-employed women in Gujarat who were struggling to earn a sufficient and sustainable income. SEWA started its agricultural campaign in 1995 to support agricultural workers, who make up the majority of those that are self-employed in India. SEWA is a registered trade union whose remit is to ‘organise women workers for full employment’. SEWA’s approach to improving women farmers’ access to agricultural markets is built on two pillars. On one side it relies on a thorough understanding of the local necessities and potentialities; on the other it works towards the scalability of this experience, so far involving over 600,000 members in Gujarat alone, and over a million across India.


SEWA’s membership includes marginalised women involved in all aspects of agriculture, including; small and marginal farmers, landless agricultural sharecroppers, and casual labourers working in agriculture-related on-farm activities. SEWA’s agricultural campaigns specifically attempt to mitigate and address the following challenges:

Small-scale producers:
Insecure profits: The increasing cost of inputs has shrunk the profit margin and raised the level of investment required, which in turn has increased the level of risk for smallholders. Outdated practices: Marginal farmers lack technical knowledge, information on new technology and improved agriculture methods. Increased competition: The liberalisation of trade in agriculture commodities forces small farmers to compete with foreign producers in domestic as well as export markets. Environmental degradation: Post-Green Revolution agricultural practices have aggravated environmental deterioration characterized by depleted water tables, increasing salinity and desertification. Lack of Market Access: Small farmers are compelled to sell to traders and middlemen substantially under market rates.

Agricultural Labourers:
Decreasing demand for labour: Changes in cropping patterns and increased mechanization have eliminated many employment options for agriculture workers. Increasing labour supply: For weeding and other activities, often migratory labour is hired on a contract basis for lower wages, thus increasing local unemployment. Health Hazards: Agricultural labourers face several occupational health problems which vary according to the season, equipment and the inputs used.

SEWA’s Approach

SEWA’s agricultural campaign approach has often made use of the following five services/activities:
Organising: usually the first step of SEWA’s campaigns, organizing, primarly through a self-help group approach, has helped the members in developing bargaining power and nurturing collective responsibility. It has also helped to draw out the real socio-economic issues facing the women. The farmers themselves are involved in designing strategies to address these issues

Capacity Building: Educating small farmers about the latest technological developments and helping them acquire the relevant skills, basic methods of cash management and making them aware of global economic changes and how these might affect them.

Financial Services: Through the self-help group approach, SEWA has educated its members on the importance of savings and encouraged savings groups which are an important safety net in times of crisis.

Support Services: These include services like providing healthcare (including water, sanitation services) and childcare. SEWA has also focused on imparting skills for alternate livelihood generation, as well as developing micro-enterprises.

Linkages: The farmer groups have been linked with seed companies, research institutes and marketing organizations, which have helped the farmers on various counts.


SEWA has developed its own smallholder brand, (the Rudi) which its members produce for, providing economies of scale for its members, as well as ensuring quality for consumers, and has been able to train a very large number of women to make effective use of their small production levels. This has resulted in an average income improvement of between 30-40%, as well as greater participation in local government, and far greater access to credit and savings throughout its membership (Nanavaty & Roushan, 2009).

Focus of the case study

CSD proposes to undertake a case study which examines the lessons to be learned from SEWA’s extensive experience in setting up and running self-help groups. Many extension and advisory services have become aware of the potential benefits of delivering training through self-help groups, particularly the potential for these groups to broaden access to extension services, particularly for women, and to provide support for the implementation of new techniques (see for example Mayoux (2001).

However, extension and advisory programmes which have taken a self-help group approach have found that while groups which are working well can increase the impact of the programme, the groups themselves present challenges which need to be understood and managed. The challenges can be grouped into two sets.

Challenge 1: The dynamics of self-help groups often change as the members of the groups deal with changing roles and responsibilities. As groups expand the range and intensity of their activities, and especially as they become responsible for loan management, they make more demands on group members. Many development projects have been unsuccessful because they required more group management skills than the groups had, and these needed to be developed over time if the group was to realise the benefits of cooperation.

To address this first challenge, we propose that the case study examine the mechanisms SEWA has to set up and supports groups which are:

· able to include women across different castes and social classes

· able to function effectively to achieve group objectives, including sharing technical knowledge, securing credit, collectively bargaining for better prices for their goods.

This examination will enable us to draw out lessons for other programmes which are setting up groups.

Challenge 2: The ability of women to achieve their aims through self-help groups is affected by the legitimacy and social power of these groups within their wider communities. ‘Community relationships and macro-level economic, legal, social and political institutions which affect the ability of women’s groups to create changes in their situations (see Mayoux, 2001)’ (Collett, 2010)

To address the second challenge, we propose a study of the impact of SEWA’s approach to building and supporting self-help groups on how self-help group members perceive their influence has changed and why they think this is, as well as how members of the community outside the self-help groups have changed and why they think this is. Again, the aim will be to draw out lessons from these changes for other organisations.

Collection of data and research methods

In 2009, CSD conducted an initial comparative study of good practice approaches to integrating effective agricultural and enterprise training for women smallholders. This study focused specifically on the factors surrounding training that made it easier to access and apply, and it included case study research from SEWA, as well as another organisation in India and two in Ghana. CSD proposes to follow this up with a targeted research which focuses specifically on understanding SEWA’s approach to group building and sharing the lessons they have learned.

The proposed case study will be based on programme reports and field visits, including:

  • Participatory identification of significant changes in inclusion of women across castes and social classes (data collection through workshops, interviews, focus groups). 
  • Participatory analysis of the supportive factors which enabled these changes (data collection through workshops, interviews, focus groups). 
  • Participatory identification of significant changes in the influence of the group within their local community with both group members and members of the wider community (data collection through workshops, interviews, focus groups). 
  • Synthesis of data and identification of transferable lessons for other programmes seeking to work through a self-help group approach. 

Understanding the approaches taken by SEWA could provide invaluable insight into approaches to ensure women benefit from extension services within India and beyond, and into how to support the effective transfer of agricultural knowledge within a self-help group context.