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By organizing female vendors to fight exploitation and realize their market potential, Sunita Bagal is creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for India's poorest women working in villages at places of worship, historical monuments, and fairs.

This profile below was prepared when Sunita Bagal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


By organizing female vendors to fight exploitation and realize their market potential, Sunita Bagal is creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for India's poorest women working in villages at places of worship, historical monuments, and fairs.


Sunita is the first person in India working to help break the cycle of migration, unemployment, and poverty that traps millions of female vendors who sell perishable goods and small handicrafts outside temples, fairs, and tourist attractions. Illiterate and working alone, these vendors face exploitation at the hands of middlemen, moneylenders, male shop owners, and the civic authorities, allowing them to earn barely enough to survive.

Sunita is organizing these women by introducing to them the self-help groups found among other informal sector trades. While group savings and collective buying increase these women's financial independence and bargaining power, Sunita is also training them to formalize their enterprises by collectively bidding for lucrative shop spaces within temple compounds thereby not only improving their business prospects but also eliminating the threat of eviction and bribery that results from squatting on roadsides to conduct their trade. By turning these women's entrepreneurial skills into financially viable enterprises near their homes, Sunita is also reducing the need for these vendors to engage in dangerous and disruptive seasonal labor migration.


Across India, there are about two million women vendors squatting on sidewalks around places of worship, cultural festivals and fairs, and monuments attracting tourists. These uneducated women–from 15 to 70 years old–are usually the poorest of the poor. They include widows, members of lower castes (Dalits), and religious minority communities, and they are often the main breadwinner in their families. They sell perishable items (fruits, flowers, vegetables, and sweets) along with handicrafts (bead necklaces, bracelets, bags, picture frames, and souvenir items); they produce some of these items themselves, purchasing others from larger markets.

While traditional, these markets where women trade are growing, offering potential to an enterprising entrepreneur. For instance, in 2002 during the nine-day Tulja Bhawani festival in Osmanabad, business worth Rs. 21 million was conducted. With high turnover and profits, even large corporations have begun sponsoring festivals that take place in the open village grounds.

Despite these good prospects, women vendors rarely can capitalize on these market opportunities, making barely enough to feed themselves and their families. Markets are male-dominated, and even today male vendors actively prevent women from joining. Also, because the women have neither licenses nor registrations for their businesses, their roadside vending is seen as encroachment by the civic authorities. While a woman may spend years working from a fixed location–sometimes as small as one square foot–she has no legal ownership of that space. As a result, female vendors are harassed by, and forced to pay bribes to, larger shop owners and the police. Their so-called "rent" can increase precipitously during festivals; for example, shopkeepers regularly charge over Rs. 5,000 to allow a vendor to sit at her regular space during a nine-day festival. While women could formalize their enterprises by acquiring legitimate, fixed-priced shop spaces within temple compounds, the majority lack the capital and the understanding necessary to participate successfully in the auctioning of these stalls.

The same lack of education and funds also results in most women becoming heavily indebted to moneylenders. To procure raw materials they borrow cash at a high rate of interest; after paying bribes, women rarely make enough to repay the loan, let alone save for emergency situations. The moneylenders also take advantage of these women's illiteracy by having them sign contracts (using a thumbprint) for a higher amount than what they actually borrowed.

Because vending does not provide sufficient income, these women usually resort to seasonal labor migration to work in dangerous conditions in agriculture or on construction sites. In addition to damaging their health (further limiting their ability to find employment), migration also uproots their children from schools, condemning the next generation to a similar life of poverty.


Through her work Sunita is trying to eliminate the need for these women to migrate by helping them make their own small enterprises profitable within their villages. Sunita sees organizing these vendors as the necessary first step in helping them take advantage of the existing entrepreneurial opportunities.

Savings groups serve as the foundation of Sunita's strategy. Having realized from her own experience working with these women that there is more cash flow in groups where there are daily earnings, savings, and repayments, Sunita brings vendors together to save and then lend money to members and other groups of women. At present, self-help groups of 100 women are lending money, helping break the dependence on predatory moneylenders.

Beyond building assets, these groups encourage collective action that helps their members run their businesses more efficiently. Together, the women not only increase their bargaining power but also procure goods from wholesalers, thereby reducing, or even eliminating, the exploitation of middlemen. Some groups choose to share a common storage space, so buying in bulk becomes possible.

Sunita anticipates that within the next few years, this combination of savings and collective business dealings will empower the women to take the next important step: jointly competing for the prime retail spaces within compound walls. In India, places of worship and tourist attractions typically have within them large compounds with retail space housing anywhere between 5 to 100 stalls. These shops offer an excellent opportunity: as the spaces are auctioned for a set period of time, there is neither the fear of eviction nor the need to pay bribes. Moreover, with limited competition, vendors can charge more for the same items than they could outside the compound.

In addition to the obvious benefits for those who already have their own businesses, Sunita sees that her work has the potential to enable women who are currently beggars to initiate their own small enterprises and gain a measure of independence. By making vending a viable, income-generating opportunity, she aims to help these women join groups, becoming entrepreneurs by using their skills to produce and market home-based products like snacks and small souvenirs.

To introduce these groups among vendors throughout the country, Sunita has begun involving other organizations to spread her idea. In Maharashtra, she has been working with about 114 organizations. She is also working with organizations in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Chattisgarh, and she has linked up with groups like Rashtriya Mahila Kosh and Friends of Women World Banking to help advance the work of the self-help groups.


Sunita, the seventh child among eight siblings, was born in a conservative peasant family. It was her mother, a primary school teacher, who encouraged her daughters to study and who sent Sunita to study at a boarding school. At the early age of 15, she was inspired by the tenets of socialism and started a group with her friends to read, discuss, and debate current affairs. This group also started a night school for the children of "Wadars"–a poor and disadvantaged caste whose primary occupation is breaking stones for road construction.

Once in college, Sunita became involved with various student groups and made friends from all over Maharashtra. She and her friends established Satyashod, a registered trust working with blind children. Because of financial constraints at home, she worked part-time in the local newspaper and published articles on women's issues. She also excelled in public speaking.

Partly to avoid marriage, Sunita enrolled for postgraduate studies in social work. Her M.A. dissertation on "Street beggars in temple complexes in Osmanabad and Sholapur district" was inspired by her grandmother. Once a beggar outside a temple, Sunita's blind grandmother became a vendor selling flowers–in the process transforming herself from a dependent, submissive woman to an independent, confident person who took care of her own needs and declined help from anyone. With the seed for her ideas, Sunita sought experience after graduation by seeking employment with Manavlok, an organisation working on integrated rural development. She worked it here for about a decade, gaining valuable understanding of a wide range of issues including livelihood, reproductive health, migration, watershed development, and credit. Her time with Manavlok also gave her insight into the effects of exploitation. Having come from a peasant family, she studied her family's farming of sunflowers, realizing that if farmers extracted the oil from the sunflowers themselves after harvesting, they could keep more profits and free themselves from middlemen. With this in mind, she organized collective selling and bought an oil-extracting machine for common use. In another village she designed and implemented alternative livelihoods and started a women's cooperative bank.

Today, Sunita is constantly on the move, spending more than 20 days a month working with women in their villages. In addition to collaborating with more than 100 organisations in Maharashtra alone, Sunita is developing a curriculum for women entrepreneurs at Yeshwantrao Chawan Open University.