Indien: Runa Banerjee

Runa believes that to empower women, it is necessary to work toward the holistic development of their families and community. Empowerment must be social, economic, and political rolled into one.

— Runa Banerjee

Runa Banerjee (born 1950) set up the Self-Employed Women's Association (Sewa) in Lucknow in 1984 after she realized that self-employment was the only real answer to the plight of women chikankari (traditional embroidery of Uttar Pradesh) artisans. Her work has since reached out to more than 10,000 women; another 8000 women have been trained in the intricate craft of chikankari. Not only are many previously desperately poor women now living comfortably on their earnings, it has also revived the ancient and comatose craft of chikankari.

Runa Banerjee's involvement with chikankari handicraft artists began with a Unicef-supported study on the lives of artisans in India. Discovering that the chikankari craft in Lucknow was highly exploitative, especially for women and children, she decided to remain and work for them. Her interaction with the women convinced her that self-reliance was the only real solution to the privations. So, in 1984, she set up the Sewa in Lucknow, setting about obtaining training in the craft and then extending the expertise to other women. Runa, who works in Lucknow and ten other districts of Uttar Pradesh, focuses on the social and economic empowerment of deprived and exploited women. Over the years, Runa's work has reached out directly to over 10,000 women. About 8000 women have been trained in the difficult craft of chikankari, which is today a nationwide fashion rage and has spawned thousands of imitations. Chikankari had gone into sharp decline after independence, but Sewa's efforts revived it. Now many previously very poor women are able to live from their earnings. Initially, there was such dogged resistance from their families that a number of the women were physically assaulted when they joined Sewa. Contractors, business houses, and middlepersons saw Sewa activities in Lucknow as a trade threat. Runa, who has been consistently devoted to the cause of secularism, harmony, sisterhood, and peace, has also undertaken some interstate interventions in this context, most recently in Gujarat, where the victims of the 2002 pogrom are being rehabilitated under her guidance.

Self-Employed Women's Association (Sewa)-Lucknow