In India, Helping Self-Employed Women Overcome Coronavirus

In honor of World Humanitarian Day, we share the stories of three women who've been helped by JDC's partnership with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation in India.

August 18, 2020

World Humanitarian Day

In India, the coronavirus pandemic has hit informal workers — migrant workers, the self-employed, and daily wage earners  — particularly hard. This population constitutes 90 percent of the country’s labor force, and they lack access to social security and other government benefits. Among these workers, women have suffered the most.

We at JDC are proud of our longstanding partnership with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation. When COVID-19 struck, we worked with SEWA to distribute 2,000 health kits and 169 food kits — reaching 10,845 people — to the most vulnerable households.

This World Humanitarian Day, we want to lift up the stories of the women helped through this partnership.

Bhagwati Ben

Member of Saundarya Mandali cleaning cooperative

I am a rag picker, but I’ve been out of work since the lockdown began in March. My husband works as a driver, but he lost his job, too. When shelter-in-place started, I was completely out of household supplies, and I wasn’t sure how we’d manage.

For three days, we were without proper food and only ate rice with a little oil in it. We are daily wage workers, so how could we manage? We don’t have any savings because whatever we earn each day we use to buy that day’s supplies.

We thought we’d get government support because we have a card proving we are below the poverty line, but when we tried, we were told that our card’s status had been changed and we were now shown as living above the poverty line. We were told we were ineligible to receive grain, and though I tried to negotiate with the authorities, they wouldn’t give it to me.

It was then that we received the food kit from SEWA and JDC. It came as much-needed relief. For now, we’re completely dependent on the kits my husband and I receive, and I hope this support continues until I’m able to return to work.


Member of Saundarya Mandali cleaning cooperative

I work cleaning an office, and we found out about the lockdown in India when the prime minister announced it. Even when cases were lower, our workplace took precautions, giving us masks and asking us to sanitize our hands. When the lockdown began, we were asked not to come to work.

The lockdown was announced toward the end of the month, when we were already running out of our monthly food supply at home. Normally when this happens, we buy what we need in small quantities, on credit, paying the stores back when we’re paid. But now the problem was that the local stores were out of stock. Moreover, many shops nearby were closed, and only ones very far away were open. After standing in long lines, we were able to buy some supplies in small quantities.

The ration kit we received through SEWA and JDC helped us for more than a week. It’s my hope that people throughout India and across the world understand they need to take precautions so we can all overcome this difficult time. It’s only then that we informal workers will be able to return to work, earn money, and feed our families.


Member of Lok Swasthya Mandali health cooperative

My household has five members. Our kids are still in school, and our main source of income is handicrafts work, as my husband and I both do stitching. Before the lockdown began, we were taking orders regularly, but once it started, our main source of income was blocked. We weren’t getting orders anymore, which was a huge blow, especially because it was the festive season — it should have been a time for us to earn well.

With three young children and no income, I was scared.

With the sudden lockdown announcement, we were unable to purchase even essential supplies. That Ramadan, with all its fasting, was coming up made me worry even more. We’d fast every day, and we needed supplies for Iftar, the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan. With three young children and no income, I was scared.

Just then that aagewan (leader) of my cooperative reached out to me, saying that SEWA and JDC were distributing ration and health kits. Receiving the kits not only allowed my husband and I to ensure our children were fed. It was also a great source of moral support and relief.

Through this crisis, SEWA’s strength, which lies in its collective focus and cooperative spirit, has been clearly evident. The solidarity and the sisterhood have become stronger, as people have been forced to come together and support our most vulnerable.

It is my hope that this heartwarming story of resilience emerges even stronger still in the post-COVID world.

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