THE cheeks of the children in Culli Culli Alto, Bolivia, are chapped by biting winds. A burning sun pierces the thin, cold air of the village, which dots a barren plain 14,000 feet above sea level. The Aymar'a Indians here raise potatoes and sheep, but the land is infertile, and often there is not enough to eat. One woman weeps as we sit on a rocky hillside talking about the hardships of life in Culli Culli Alto. With tiny babies slung over their backs in brightly striped wool shawls, several of the women are knitting busily.
``We must improve our needlework,'' says Dora, looking solemn in the stiff black bowler hat that is a hallmark of these women. ``We need materials, and we need a `promotora' who can show us how to improve the quality of our work. We must produce goods that we can sell, otherwise how will we survive? We don't have enough food to feed our children.''
Even in a lonely village in one of the least developed countries in the world -- the poorest in the Western Hemisphere -- women today know that they cannot survive without money. Food in the local market town costs money. So do utensils, clothing, and books for those children fortunate enough to go to school.
The women of Culli Culli Alto are desperate. Their only asset is their skill in needlework -- mainly knitting and weaving. But they lack sufficient materials, organization, quality control, and especially access to markets where their products might be in demand. At 6.2 million people, Bolivia's population is not large enough to absorb the handicrafts the women produce. The shops of La Paz and other cities and towns are already overflowing with knitted goods. To sell their products, access to other mar kets must be found.
Until recently, women in the village of Dev-Dholera, in the Indian state of Gujarat on the other side of the world, were desperate, too. A serious drought had caused widespread hunger in the area, and local agriculture was no longer sufficient to feed the community. Men were increasingly traveling to the nearby city of Ahmedabad in search of work they seldom found.
The women of Dev-Dholera had the same basic problem as the women of Culli Culli Alto: how to make enough money to support their families. They also had another thing in common -- a few of the women had traditional skills in weaving. A labor union for the `self-employed'
But the parallels end there -- because the women of Dev-Dholera are members of SEWA, northern India's 50,000-strong Self-Employed Women's Association. SEWA is a trade union for female workers in the ``informal sector,'' a term that encompasses 94 percent of all women in India who earn money.
In India, a country of more than 760 million people, 50,000 is a very small group. But this growing number is a testament to what innovative thinking, determination, careful planning, and intelligent organization can accomplish.
Today, 30 illiterate women and girls aged 16 to 30 work from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the weaving and caning cooperative that SEWA built in Dev-Dholera two years ago. Before the cooperative started, Dev-Dholera had two or three traditional weavers. Now, thanks to SEWA's training program, there are 10 trained weavers in the village.
Girls in training earn a stipend of 11 rupees per month. Though this translates to about 93 cents, it goes a lot further in a Gujarati village than in the United States. Once trained, the girls receive 14 rupees for each small dhurrie carpet they produce, and they can usually make three carpets a week.
SEWA sells the carpets in nearby Ahmedabad for 55 rupees ($4.50) each, and most of the profits go toward buying more looms, cotton, and dyes for the Dev-Dholera cooperative.
Other women and girls at Dev-Dholera have been taught caning and potterymaking. In addition, a tailoring class, a dairy cooperative, and a revolving fund for milch cattle have been started. The time the girls spend at the cooperative is purposely limited, so that they can continue to do chores at home, such as helping their parents or husbands with agricultural labor.
SEWA has started income-generating projects in other villages in the vicinity of Dev-Dholera as well. The projects often include day-care centers where children are bathed, fed a midday meal, and provided with medical care, supervision at play, and ``cosy comfort,'' as the organization's brochure puts it. SEWA has set up nighttime literacy classes for women, conducted outdoors by the soft light of kerosene lamps hung from village trees. It provides maternal and health-care education, and a childbirth st ipend of 100 rupees ($9) allows a mother to rest for a few days after delivery -- heretofore an unheard-of luxury for many.
The projects around Dev-Dholera are part of the activities of SEWA's Rural Wing, which was established in 1977 to identify income-generating opportunities for rural women and provide the training, management, and financial input they need.
Although SEWA's rural projects have yielded improvements in the lives of the village women they reach, such projects are only an adjunct to SEWA's primary mission: to help the poor women of the teeming slums of India -- women who barely eke out a living doing work that has always been unrecognized, uncounted, and unprotected from exploitation of various kinds. Employment benefits for the `informal sector'
Work in India is seldom done by machines: It is usually done by people. People in India are much cheaper, much more numerous, and much easier to replace than machines. Foundations are dug, buildings are constructed, roads are built, goods and materials are hauled, not by engine-propelled equipment, but by men or, just as frequently, by women.
Along roadsides in Indian cities one often sees women in delicate saris swinging pickaxes to break up stones for road construction. At building sites it is women who carry heavy loads of excavated earth up rickety, swinging ladders in wide cane baskets on their heads.
Eighty-nine percent of the total Indian labor force consists of unsalaried workers -- men and women -- who earn their livelihood piecemeal, hiring themselves out for odd jobs whenever they can find them. Only 11 percent work in factories, government, offices -- the organized sector. Female vendors and hawkers, rag and paper pickers, junksmiths, handcart pullers, cotton-pod shellers, handloom weavers, block printers, used garment dealers, incense stick rollers -- the list of occupations of Indian women w ho are classed as ``marginal,'' ``informal,'' or ``unorganized'' workers is endless.
To serve this vast, unrepresented sector, SEWA was founded in 1972 in the Gujarati capital of Ahmedabad by a keenly intelligent, surprisingly forceful, yet eminently ladylike woman named Ela Bhatt. A graduate in law from Gujarat University, Mrs. Bhatt also studied labor welfare at Cornell University in the United States and development studies at Sussex University, England. From her position as director of the women's wing of India's national textile union, she took a radical, unprecedented stand on beh alf of the ``informal sector:'' the 94 percent of female Indian workers whose very existence the official union did not acknowledge.
``From the beginning my objection was this,'' says Ela Bhatt. ``How can you have a labor movement in a country where 89 percent of the total work force is outside of the labor movement, outside of the economy, and just lumped together as unorganized labor? So I started calling them ``self-employed.'' Often they are traders, they are entrepreneurs, they are producers. But their factory is their own home, which happens to be in a slum.''
The designation ``self-employed'' gives the women a positive status, Mrs. Bhatt explained. As soon as it was formed, SEWA began conducting surveys of the activities of the self-employed sector, as part of a campaign to give visibility to this major component of the economy.
SEWA faced quite a challenge when it set out to convince institutions such as insurance companies, the police, training institutes, and government agencies that the poor are a real part of their clientele. It went to considerable lengths to influence policy and legislation, and to establish a new legal definition of the word ``worker'' so that it includes the self-employed. In 1980 the Gujarat government finally responded to a five-year SEWA campaign and established an Unorganized Labor Boar d. A bank for -- and of -- `marginal workers'
In 1974, SEWA opened its own bank, which has since become a viable financial institution with share capital and deposits from its members. With a remarkable record of loan repayment, the SEWA bank shattered the myth that poor, illiterate, self-employed women were poor loan risks. Eighty-seven percent of SEWA's clients pay their loan installments on time. The remaining 13 percent are usually only one or two months in arrears -- a much better record than that in many Indian commercial banks.
By providing credit to its members, the SEWA bank has rescued them from the grip of money-lenders -- often their only source of day-to-day working capital -- who formerly held them in a perpetual cycle of debt, dependence, and hand-to-mouth subsistence. This may be the bank's most important contribution, providing, as it has, a measure of freedom for women who were once virtual slaves.
When the SEWA bank was first formed, it was objected that illiterate women who could not even sign their names would be unable to have a bank account. This objection was overruled when it was decided that the bank's clients would carry identity cards with their picture on them instead of their signature.
Still, the SEWA group leaders who were applying for the bank's formal registration were also incapable of signing their names, and this procedure could not be circumvented. The solution was for the 11 promoters to sit up all one night until each had learned to sign her name without a mistake.
Reviewing the wide range of SEWA's activities, Ela Bhatt is especially impressed by some unexpected byproducts of its programs.
``Since they have become active in SEWA,'' she notes, ``some of our group leaders, most of whom are illiterate, have been expressing a desire for education for the first time.
``When our members are more successful at their trades, their self-esteem improves. They begin to be respected by their families and their communities. Wife beating has even fallen off. We have seen that a change in her self-image can produce positive changes in a woman's social environment.''