The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She just finished coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

Our delegation just traveled to India’s western state of Gujarat, where we spent the day on Friday with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.

Though we had read about SEWA’s work empowering some of India’s most impoverished women, nothing could have prepared us for the morning we spent with the rag pickers. We met with these workers in the place they labor each day: the municipal garbage dump of Ahmedabad, where they pick through fresh mounds of trash to glean the scraps of plastic, paper, and cloth that can still be sold for recycling. Standing high atop the literal mountains of garbage that stretched out on every side, we listened to the women talk about their lives and the difference it has made to have a union that helps them fight for their rights.

We heard Jasiben describe the ways she and her coworkers had been preyed upon by people who buy their gleanings — and how that changed when SEWA opened a competing scrap-buying stall that caters only to women. This stall actually paid market rates for their collections and forced others to raise their prices as well. We learned of SEWA’s tireless efforts to press the government to provide an education to the children of the rag pickers so that the next generation can find alternative employment and an easier life. Epitomizing the end of this particular cycle of poverty, Jasiben’s face shone with pride as she told us that her own daughter has just entered her first year of university.

From the municipal dump, we went to a bustling SEWA production complex where women who work as rag pickers were busy learning a variety of paper-production skills — a way to exit their dangerous trade. The union has won a number of bulk contracts, such as production of file folders for the office supply giant Staples; we watched as the women hand-printed a silk-screened stamp bearing both the Staples and SEWA logos. Though such work might seem tedious, to these women it comes as a lifeline that allows them to leave the work of rag picking behind them forever.

For more than 30 years, SEWA’s primary work has been in helping the most impoverished women in India band together and fight for dignity; recognition; and the basic rights of health care, supplementary food for their families, and an education for their children. Women who roll cigarettes for sale on the street, sew piece-work clothing in their homes, or make the ubiquitous thin pancakes known here as papadam have found the strength of a union through SEWA.

In a nation in which women of any class are routinely silenced and abused, it was remarkable to listen to the voices of some of the most marginalized as they stood together and told their stories with an unmistakable air of inner power and self-assurance. We were so proud to learn that SEWA was the first partner of the UU Holdeen India Program, which has supported these women since 1984. We eagerly look forward to the next UUCSJ journey to India in November 2013, when we’ll bring another group to meet these women, document their stories, and be inspired by the depth of their courage.

Cross-posted from UUCSJ’s blog.

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