Lead Story

Sista Power

With empathetic policies and a familial environment, SEWA Rural is truly an ideal workplace for women

Photographs by Faisal Magray

Thirty years ago, Manju Vasava had haltingly read out names of medicines in English when she was being tested for a nursing-assistant’s training programme. It was her father, a farmer in Jhagadia, a tribal area about 20 km away from Bharuch in south Gujarat, who had heard about the course run by the Society for Education Welfare and Action Rural (SEWA Rural) centre and sent Manju for training. She cleared the exam, became a staff nurse at the centre after a year and a half of training, and today, the 59-year-old manages 71 nurses. 

Manju remembers her diffidence when she was being offered the senior managerial role. “I am only a tenth pass,” she had said. But Dr Anil Desai, the late founder of the voluntary service organisation, gave her confidence and made her realise that she was a perfect fit for the role. “It must have been because I was hardworking, loyal and willing to learn,” she says. These are values deeply cherished at this non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been certified as one of India’s Best Workplaces for Women in 2019, by Great Place to Work Institute, India. This is SEWA’s second consecutive win.

Manju believes that she has evolved as a person here. “I used to be short-tempered, but managing all the nurses today has made me a calmer person. I have become better at managing people and solving their problems. I try to keep them all together as one happy family,” she says.

This four-decade-old organisation, guided by the ideals set by Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, believes in constant development of each karyakar (employee), both professionally and spiritually. 

SEWA Rural is not connected to the Self-Employed Women’s Association promoted by Ela Bhatt. 

Dr Gayatri Desai, gynaecologist and trustee at the organisation, adds that they are “very pro women”. “Our pro-women policies are a way to overcorrect a broken society and fix the gender imbalance,” she says.

Women can use all the help they can get. According to the latest International Labour Organization (ILO) report, only 48% of women in the world are in the labour force, compared to 75% of men. Kamla Bhasin, developmental feminist activist and South Asia Coordinator of One Billion Rising (a global feminist campaign against sexual violence), believes there are various economic and sociocultural factors that keep women away. But this can be countered by giving women a conducive work environment, like SEWA has. 

Any work towards a diverse workforce would also be an investment wisely made. As per a recent study by JustJobs Network, complete gender parity could add nearly $2.9 trillion to India’s GDP by 2025 — a massive 60% increase over what is possible sans any gender policy intervention. 

SEWA Rural has 54% women in its workforce and its top managerial layer is composed of 30% women. It gives vocational training  to rural, tribal women and hires them for their various projects, and the management hopes that they will soon occupy higher positions. Dr Lata Desai, co-founder and trustee, says, “Women have the potential to learn and it is important to encourage them, especially in rural areas, where they don’t even talk in the presence of men.” 

Believing in women and cheering them on can lead to innovative solutions, such as SEWA’s mobile tutorials — a project that sends fully-equipped vans into villages to teach children who cannot come to the centre. Jagruti Shah, who started working at SEWA Rural as a teacher for Class III, 16 years ago, had ideated the project with the senior management. She is the coordinator of Sharda Mahila Vikas Society, or SMVS, which is SEWA’s sister concern for training women in activities such as garment making, papad making and for managing tutorials. Jagruti even convinced corporate executives to part with their CSR funds to support the tutorials project. 

She had come to SEWA Rural accompanying her husband, who had been offered a job at the centre after 14 years in the Middle East. The organisation tries to absorb spouses of employees into its fold, and Jagruti’s work experience as a teacher led her to a job here. “I was really impressed by the spiritual values of the place. Every employee is respected equally,” she says. 

At SEWA, women are encouraged to take up non-traditional roles. At its garment-making unit, they are responsible for supply chain management — procuring raw materials, getting orders, negotiation and distribution. They also carry out the master cutting of garments, a job typically done by men. Lata Patel, a 42-year-old employee in the department, carries out field work that involves meeting clients, who are mostly men, in the neighbouring areas of Jhagadia. Coming from a family where daughters do not speak in front of fathers, Patel was not confident about making a pitch, even in front of two male colleagues. “In the beginning, my boss would stand beside me while I talked to clients on phone. After I did this two or three times, I started getting comfortable,” she says, adding, “I learnt to talk to people, use a calculator and generate bills using a computer, none of which I knew when I’d joined here.”

She is particularly proud of winning back a client who had pulled out of a bulk order. It had been left as a lost cause for two years before she stepped in. With the help of one of the trustees, she contacted the owner of the company and set up meetings with him to understand his company’s requirements. The client was unhappy with the price quoted by SEWA, since it was higher than the market price. It seemed like a dead end, but Patel helped him see the benefits of associating with an organisation that has such goodwill. The client stayed and at the same price.

Dr Pankaj Shah, managing trustee, says, “We strive to have women placed at every level. Women should feel that they own the organisation, and that they too can manage and run it.” Jagruti says, “I feel a sense of responsibility towards my work because of the faith the management has placed in me.” She adds that the management is “immensely supportive” in allowing her to work according to her convenience.

Supportive space

SEWA is exemplary in the way it accommodates women’s needs and responsibilities through its policies. Sumitra Vasava, a mother of two, is a beneficiary. The 31-year-old delivered both her babies in the organisation’s hospital and availed paid maternity leave after their birth. “My husband had to go for work when I was in labour, but I was at ease since I knew the hospital staff, who are like my extended family. I never felt alone,” she says. As a gynaecologist, Dr Gayatri personally ensures that pregnant women are treated with utmost care and respect. “SEWA Rural’s women-friendly policies enable its female employees to meet household responsibilities within the current social framework,” says Ernesto Noronha, organisational behaviour professor at IIM Ahmedabad. “It is important for organisations to have a culture that is inclusive and sensitive to women,” he adds.

Research shows that mothers are typically viewed as less competent and committed to their jobs, despite there being evidence to the contrary. Sasmita Palo, professor and dean at the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says, “The ‘maternal body’ is often unsought within professional and managerial circumstances.” Attrition rate in women is higher usually around the maternity phase of their lives. “Many mothers leave their jobs because they have no one at home to take care of the newborn child, or they can’t find proper childcare facilities at reasonable prices. The problem is all the more critical in rural areas,” she adds. 

At SEWA Rural, all women employees, spouses of male employees as well as daughters of all employees are entitled to free medical care for pregnancy, including ante- and post-natal care. While women employees get the government-mandated 26 weeks of paid leave post delivery, the organisation also offers paid paternity leave for one week. Kapil Dave, a hospital management staff, availed this leave three years ago. “It was quite useful. I could look after my newborn daughter and my wife could rest,” he says. Female employees are permitted to work part-time or change the nature of their job temporarily, while they are raising their infants. 

Besides paid leaves and healthcare facilities, the organisation also started a crèche, Killol, three years ago for employees’ children. Trained attendants watch over infants and toddlers (three month to three-year-olds) while their mothers are on duty. The colourful nursery is full of soft toys, wall graffiti and artwork. Around five employees avail the facility as of now and Sumitra is one of them. “The caretaker is very considerate. I am able to work without any worry,” she says. She is also permitted to check on her two-year-old son twice during her duty hours. Employees can also take a break from duty hours to breastfeed their children. 

Women can avail leave or work part-time to take care of sick parents or children and to support their wards during Board exams. Garment-making unit’s Lata worked part-time for one month when her son was appearing for his Class XII exams. “The management here understands that women have responsibilities towards their kids as well,” she says. In order to sustain the leave and part-time work mechanism, SEWA Rural always has two to three extra staffers on the payroll. 

Safety and sanitation

Just as SEWA is accommodating of its staff’s needs, it is uncompromising when it comes to safety and sanitation standards in the workplace. “We simply do not tolerate sexual harassment,” says Dr Lata. The organisation has an active Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) constituted of nine female and two male members, with a representative from every department and every employee category. The ICC meets at least twice every year to discuss the past events and ideate for the future. Nimisha Desai, global gender trainer and founder of Olakh, a feminist organisation, takes workshops for SEWA employees regularly to help them understand what constitutes sexual harassment. 

Another taboo subject crucial to women’s well-being that SEWA openly addresses is menstrual hygiene. SEWA Rural started a programme last year to spread awareness, through videos and posters, on sanitation and environmental benefits of using menstrual cups. In fact, SEWA’s campus stores sell menstrual cups at a marked down price and stitched falalen cloth pads (which are absorbent and stain-free) at token prices.

The organisation, with a liberal and radical outlook, makes an extra effort to support widows, divorcees and old unmarried women. Besides regular facilities meant for all female employees, SEWA Rural gives special support to these women. “We participate in the legal battle of our employees undergoing divorce and provide them with mental support,” says Dr Gayatri. “People often tell us ‘Tamme toh lokona ghar bhangavocho! (You destroy people’s homes)’, but we are okay with it as long as our female employees want us to help them,” says Dr Lata. 

With its child adoption support, SEWA Rural has helped two of its employees so far. “One of our nurses could not conceive. We helped her with the legal procedure to adopt a newborn that an unmarried mother had abandoned inside our premises,” says Dr Gayatri.

The NGO encourages families to be inclusive. Its annual Nav Dampati Mela for newly married couples organises discussions on various aspects of domestic life including saving, family planning and caring for each other. The session, which lays stress on the needs of female employees and the spouses of male employees, includes games that help the couples understand each other better. “The most important lesson in these sessions is ‘no female foeticide or sex determination’,” says Dr Gayatri. 

To help employees maintain their work-life balance, last year, SEWA began offering the option of flexible work timings and work from home option. “The new generation wants to experience new things and has a different set of expectations from the workplace. We are trying to meet that,” says Dr Gayatri. 

At SEWA Rural, the workplace is like a ‘maika’ (maiden home) to its female employees. Dr Pankaj says, “Many of our employees decided to stay even when they were offered better opportunities elsewhere. Our policy of making them feel they are an important part of the organisation is the key. Like a family, we share joys and sorrows collectively.” The organisation has managed to retain members of its female workforce for an average of 10 to 15 years, when the best corporates in the US could only average four years! Dr Gayatri says that the magic lies in their longstanding belief that an employee who is spending his or her own life to achieve the organisation’s objective is of the highest value.