This year the theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Inspire Inclusion’. The opportunity to write this blog has allowed me to consider what inclusion is and what it could mean. 

We are often confronted by statistics or news stories of issues affecting women globally, such as pay equity, economic disadvantage, lack of representation within institutions, in decision making processes and as victims of violence. All such issues in one form or another speak to how women are included within citizenship, locally and globally. 

But rather than consider how women are included within dominant cultural contexts and structures, such as waged labour, heterosexual family models and welfare systems, or governance structures for example, I would like to give focus to models that include women within their own right and on their own terms. 

One example of this comes from India.  SEWA is a women’s trade union that grew as an arm of the women’s wing of the textile association founded in 1920, by Anasuya Sarabhai and Mahatma Gandhi. Uniquely SEWA offers self-employed women across India support to own their own means of subsistence, whilst keeping traditional craft industries alive within the modern globalised economy.   

Purna Swaraj is the motto of SEWA, ‘Self-Rule or Sovereignty’, meaning, ‘full freedom, enjoying self-reliance both economic and mental in thinking and decision making’. 

Therefore, the support provided by SEWA to women, whilst centred around campaigns and initiatives that enable economic self-reliance, the organisation of women, through unionism or within cooperatives and collectives, incorporates activism and campaigning that makes explicit the state’s role in supporting women to be self-reliant through the provision of social security.  

Alongside this however, the organisation operates a microfinance bank, offering savings and credit facilities, and for some women the opportunity to open their own bank accounts, health and childcare cooperatives and various entrepreneurship initiatives amongst rural artisans, as well as a range of training and development initiatives. These initiatives incorporate both skill development and principles of activism, providing spaces for women to transcend themselves beyond tangible and intangible barriers that inhibit their potential. 

My thesis ‘Unionism, welfare reform and the making of the in-work claimant’, looks at the trade union movement in the UK, and specifically how women’s inclusion or the issues affecting women are represented within the movement’s revitalisation strategies. Whilst set in a markedly different context and political economy, I can’t help but think that there could be lessons learnt from the Indian example and applied to British trade unionism today. 

Inclusion, in its purest sense, is belonging, and therefore what it means for women to feel that they belong. For me personally, it is being seen, respected, and valued, that the personal contributions we make in our home and work lives are validated, not because these contributions can be bought or sold, but because individually and collectively, our lives and how we live them create the society we live in, in work, family and within our broader communities. Therefore, the institutions that support our lives inevitably shape the extent to which we belong across all stages and life transitions. 

Do women feel belonging (respected and valued) if the cultural imagery and narratives that are shared and talk about women’s contributions, devalue, degrade or are absent? Can women only ‘belong’ if they fit into dominant cultural, social, and economic structures? 

I have my own thoughts on these questions, but I hope if nothing else my contribution to the doctoral research blog, offers you the opportunity to think about these questions. International Women’s Day marks one day in a year that gives focus to women, and this year it gives focus to their inclusion. Belonging cannot be reserved for one day; it requires constant processes and collective action.   

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