Over 30 years of working with informal women workers, the importance of capacity-building and leadership development has been clear in the experience of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation. This perspective note draws out the what, whys and hows of this learning journey, through the example of Megha Indigenous Women Farmers’ Cooperative in south Gujarat. 

How to use this note

If you work with women’s collectives, whether cooperatives, self-help groups, FPOs, and others that are autonomous and managed, governed, and owned completely by members – i.e. informal women workers – you may have found that building the capacities, and importantly sustaining the capacities to govern is often the most difficult task. This note is a reflection of how SEWA Cooperative Federation builds sustainable women’s collective enterprises. It includes ideas on methodologies, channels of capacity-building and potential stumbling blocks – things that perhaps you have encountered already, or may do so in the future. This note could help you think through these challenges as a member of such a collective, or as part of asupport system for such a collective/s. 


Coming from the labour movement, with the objective of enabling informal women workers to take rightful ownership of their means of production and sustenance, SEWA identified the cooperative model as a route to economic empowerment of the worker-members. Building and running cooperatives is full-time work, requiring time, skills, and other resources, which are often denied to informal women workers in India. Subsequently, building their capacities to do so became an integral part of SEWA Cooperative Federation’s work as an Enterprise Support System for these member cooperatives. 

Delineating capacity building into two categories – skills development and governance-linked capacities – we employed various methodologies to reach members. 

  • Skills development: technical skills (whether is making organic pesticide, methods of production and processing, packaging, etc.); skills on leadership (how to run a meeting, how to speak in public, speaking to public officials) 
  • Governance-linked capacity building: a cooperative is a member-centric entity, where each is a owner and a decision maker of the entity. Building up these members, then, becomes the first point of entry for capacity building work. Here, capacity building begins with enabling women to self-recognise as productive workers, and building their agency as individuals; demonstrating the power of the social and solidarity economy; setting up and running cooperative; building collective identities and vision among the members, who often belong to different social groups


Sustainable, women-owned and women-run cooperatives are our answer to reach equitable and just economic participation of women workers. These provide them not just work and income security, social security and food security, but also voice and representation at various levels: locally, nationally and globally.

Through capacity-building, women members are able to unlock their potential, access resources and make claims on their economic and socio-political rights and entitlements. 


Informal women workers do not have the luxury of time, as they are burdened with unpaid care work responsibilities within their household and communities while also engaging with paid work to contribute towards household income. Given their lived reality, capacity building needed to be done in a way that responded to these challenges – in their own community to reduce/eliminate travel, as well as ensure their households did not object to their participation; through local community leaders who were known to the women and their households, at times that did not hinder their participation.

Local community-leaders, or aagewans, are critical bridges between individuals and communities, and the cooperative and cooperative federation. Information and resources reach the last-user through these aagewans, including focused and continuous capacity building. Since they hold trust and respect in their respective communities, they are best placed to undertake capacity building work, with the support of their cooperative and the cooperative federation.

Cooperatives are not just economic tools, but can also be powerful vehicles for socio-political change. Using locally-rooted cultural means of engaging with capacity-building has been extremely effective in our experience. Whether this is through song and poetry, or celebrating/subverting festivals and traditions through the women leaders and members, to deliver important messages and ideas on women’s roles and rights. 

Finally, cooperatives are importantly a solidarity network, and linking these various networks together through exposure visits further builds and strengthens solidarity. Farmers meeting artisans meeting domestic workers, give women the ways and means to connect with other, similar workers, and to find commonalities in their struggles and their victories. This in turn cements collective identity, which is a crucial lever in sustaining cooperatives and other forms of collective enterprises. 

If you’d like to learn more about our work on capacity building, please contact:

Salonieben: [email protected] 

Veenaben: [email protected] 


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