Alfonso Gumucio Dagron
Publication Date
January 1, 2001

Making Waves

Stories of Participatory Communication

for Social Change


1984 India




MAIN FOCUS: Women and community organisation

PLACE: Ahmedabad

BENEFICIARIES: Grassroots women

PARTNERS: Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA)

FUNDING: USAID, John D.and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation

MEDIA: Video


Leelabehn Datania's background is a unique preparation for at least one aspect of film-making: carrying the equipment. She had never switched on a light or watched television before she started to learn her new trade, but these things, along with the fact that she cannot read or write, have not deterred this remarkable former vegetable vendor from the slums of Ahmedabad from becoming one of the leading lights of a remarkable film-making [video-making ] collective.

Video SEWA is a collection of women from varied backgrounds who have produced over one hundred films [videos ], thirty-nine of them complete and available to the public. Because of the extraordinary women who make them, the films [videos ]have a tendency to teach you extraordinary things which you would not learn anywhere else. Where else but on the Video SEWA training video on smokeless stoves, would you find out that women who use ordinary kerosene stoves inhale as much smoke daily as they would if they smoked a packet of cigarettes?

"I know all the symbols", says Leelabehn, who is about 50, fondly touching the buttons as she recites, fast-forward, rewind, pause . . . Since she could not take notes during the workshops, she committed everything to memory before making her first film [video ], Manek Chowk. This is an impassioned documentary about the women like her who sell vegetables and fruit on the pavement, and their harassment at the hands of the police.

SEWA used this film [video ]as part of the campaign for recognition of the vendors' status, and now all the vendors of Manek Chowk have licenses.

Leelabehn punches the Play button and the screen fills with green peas, red tomatoes and purple eggplants. A woman raises her voice and shouts, Vatana Lo! (Buy Peas!) A familiar sight, given new urgency on film [video] aswe are drawn into the problems and triumphs of vegetable sellers. . . .

Written by Sohaila Abdulali, a freelance writer with a special interest in women and development.


In 1984, the late Martha Stuart, an international video communications consultant, came to Gujarat from New York and held a three-week video production workshop at SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association). Twenty women, most of them illiterate, took the workshop and began to make videos. The group included women of all ages, some Muslims and some Hindus, vendors from the market, as well as senior organisers from SEWA.

For three years they had no editing equipment or expertise, so they shot their video productions in sequence. A second installment of equipment and training, including editing equipment and training, was introduced in 1987. A new training was held in 1994; 15 grassroots women were taught to handle the video equipment, in preparation for starting village-level communication centres in the rural areas. By 1999 there were four permanent staff members at Video SEWA but many women take part as they are needed.

Video SEWA has been making simple, appropriate and modern video technology available to SEWA members, SEWA organisers, policymakers and planners at regional, national and international levels and to the public in general. Videos on issues of the self-employed are shot, edited and replayed by workers themselves.

The women who produced these tapes can conceptualise a script, shoot, record sound, and edit, though many of them cannot find the tape on the shelf when they need it, because they cannot read or write.

Screening videos has become an important part of workers' education classes at SEWA. They give new members the opportunity to see and understand issues pertaining to their own and other trade groups. Watching tapes helps new members feel a connection with a larger movement. Video can aid by bridging barriers of distance, class and culture so that people of very different backgrounds can grasp and empathise with each other's concerns. Sometimes video messages can help to make understanding in situations where a face-to-face meeting would not.

The video team members are nonprofessionals who use sophisticated technology effectively. They can make a short documentary edited in camera, as well as a broadcast-quality documentary, depending on the need.

Sometimes their target audience is one person (e.g.,a localauthority) and sometimes the target is hundreds of thousands. For the 1991 census Video SEWA produced My Work, Myself a fifteen minute programme addressed to Gujarati women, which reached an audienceof approximately a half-million women through cassette playbacks and was broadcast on state television.

SEWA videos are used for different purposes. Some, like Manek Chowk was an advocacy tool that helped to raise consciousness. Others are training productions, such as the videos about oral rehydration therapy and building smokeless stoves.

The women record significant events at SEWA, as well as outside, and their news clips have been used nationally and internationally. They hold regular training courses and have an ambitious plan for communication centres all over India.

Video has become an important instrument for SEWA and has contributed to the strengthening of the organisation.


The Self Employed Women's Association is a trade union formed in 1972 in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India. Under the auspices of TLA, SEWA began to fight for the rights of the majority of women workers in the city those involved in the self-employed sector of the economy.

SEWA is both an organisation and a movement with each strengthening and carrying forward the other. As a Sangam or confluence of three movements, the labour movement, the cooperative movement and the women's movement, it especially enhances the SEWA movement. Gandhian policy is the inspiration for SEWA. The poor self-employed SEWA members organise for social change through the path of nonviolence and truth. SEWA organises women to enter the mainstream of the economy through the twin strategies of struggle and development. The struggle is against the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy; while development activities strengthen their bargaining power and offer them new alternatives.

The union carries out the struggles on behalf of its members. These struggles are at the level of exploitation faced directly by the members; at the level of implementation of laws and dealings with officials; and at the level of policy and legislation formulation. First development takes the form of helping members to create their own cooperatives and groups. The cooperatives move towards early self reliance, thereby offering an alternative, nonexploitative method of employment to the producer. Social security is another form of development, where the member is able to gain access to such social services and benefits as health care, childcare, savings and insurance.

Any self-employed woman in India can become a member of SEWA by paying a membership fee of 5 Rupees per year. Every three years the members elect their representatives to the Trade Council, who in turn elect the highest decision-making body, the twenty-five member Executive Committee. Four committed and experienced SEWA organisers are also elected to the Executive Committee. This body represents the major trades and occupations of SEWA members.


Over its more than fifteen years of existence Video SEWA has shown that even an apparently sophisticated technology, like video, can be tackled and used effectively by workers. And the power of the medium and its potential for organising the poor by raising awareness and bringing issues to the forefront is beyond doubt.

Besides having been successful in creating visibility for the issues of self-employed women and influencing policymakers, and other than contributing to empower new community leaders, Video SEWA has made important contributions as an internal training and orientation tool. Video activities have been instrumental in supporting SEWA's legal actions, explaining how to build smokeless stoves, how to treat diarrhea, or how to use SEWA's savings and credit services.

When organising in rural villages and urban slums, video productions can act as a magnet for people to meet and start discussions on the issues portrayed.

Thanks to Video SEWA a leader of vegetable vendors can produce a video, which directly affects her constituency and which, is an effective tool encouraging participation and enabling awareness building and empowerment.


After the initial training, the video team practised and experimented with the skills they had learned. SEWA union did not pressure the team to produce results immediately. Video producers were given functional literacy in twenty video words, which has enabled them to operate any piece of equipment. For the first three years they operated without editing equipment, the editing was done "in-camera" by shooting the sequences in order.

SEWA uses video to motivate, mobilise and train their existing members, to organise new trade groups and new members in the existing trade groups. Their productions are used for teaching, informing and orienting. Video SEWA members lead and facilitate group discussions when their programmes are used.

The instant playback feature of video is one of its most empowering qualities; it enables continuous participation and immediate feedback. This aspect allows those who are the subject and those who run the technology to collaborate as equals.


The effects of their new careers on the lives of Video SEWA staff are no less profound. They have had to deal with astonished husbands and neighbours who disapprove of their late hours. "I would get up at three o'clock every morning so I could do all the housework before I went to work, so then my husband could not complain", says Darshana P. Still he used to get angry at me. Now that some of our videos have come on TV, he shows off to people about me: 'my wife uses a camera!'

The group has enough challenges to keep complacency at bay. Technical know-how is at a premium, as it is hard to find people to help them. They recall a time in a remote village where they were shooting a scene when the portable tape deck stopped functioning. Afraid of lost time, money and opportunity, Darshana P. brought out a screwdriver, took everything apart, and put it back together inperfect working order.

They have had to face the prejudices of the local experts on video equipment, who refuse to hold workshops for illiterate people. They have dealt with the vagaries of the national television network, which uses their videotape sometimes, and censors them for bizarre reasons at other times.


The power of video in the hands of grassroots women by Sara Stuart and Renuka Bery.

These women call the shots, by Sohaila Abdulali, in People & the Planet Magazine, Volume 4,N º3,1995. Click here for website.

Click here for SEWA's website.

Click here for a profile of SEWA.

Click here for Communication for Change website. here to return to the Table of Contents.