Ela Bhatt was the epitome of compassion and pragmatism propelled by Gandhian ideals

Ela Bhatt, founder, Self-Employed Women’s Association, at a news conference in Madrid, November 22, 2006. Photograph: Sergio Perez/Reuters

In the passing of Ela Bhatt at age 89, India and the world have lost one of the most consequential campaigners for women’s empowerment in the last half a century.

Her death on November 2, 2022, in the 50th anniversary year of the founding of her globally celebrated Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a glorious reminder of what a combination of pure compassion and pragmatism propelled by Gandhian ideals can achieve.

Soft-spoken in her tone but unshakably firm in her convictions, Bhatt once said, “Absence of war is not peace. Peace is what keeps war away, but it is more than that; peace disarms and renders war useless. Peace is a condition enjoyed by a fair and fertile society. Peace is about restoring balance in society; only then is it lasting peace.”

Born on September 7, 1933, Bhatt became a lawyer who joined as the chief of the women’s section of her hometown’s Textile Labour Association. That perch gave her a greatly eye-opening vantage point on how badly poor self-employed women in the city, India and across South Asia and Southeast Asia suffered on account of having next to no access to even the smallest amounts of institutionalized capital.

The women that Bhatt became so acutely aware of were those subsisting on the margins of Ahmedabad’s economic mainstream working as weavers, vegetable sellers, ragpickers, cigarette and beedi rollers and daily wage earners on various government construction sites such as roads. Those women, who wanted to be financially self-sufficient, had next to no prospects since there was no institutionalized lending available to them. As Bhatt pointed out to this writer in the early 1990s during an interview in Ahmedabad, 97 percent of these women lived in slums, over 90 percent of them were illiterate. Most of them were in debt.

Founding SEWA

With that as the backdrop Bhatt founded SEWA in 1972. “It was heartening to see the early response to this initiative. In about three years we had some 7,000 members,” she said. Soon SEWA was registered as a trade union.  Today SEWA has some 2.1 million members making it the single largest trade union of its kind in India serving and representing self-employed women workers in 18 states.

Because of SEWA’s ability to leverage its membership,  it has helped millions of women gain a measure of economic independence which otherwise would not have been possible.

“I have always viewed Gandhi in practical, pragmatic terms and not with a saintly halo. When you study Gandhi’s ideas for the creation of a peaceful society, women empowerment at the most marginalized level is a key one,” Bhatt had told this writer.

The fact that over 60 percent of the country’s GDP is accounted for by the self-employed is a factor that Bhatt’s SEWA always keeps in its focus. The idea being that if their lot improves, the country improves. Within that Bhatt’s rationale was always that economically empowering women at lower levels of society would have a transformational impact.

Mircofinancing women

Bhatt made it a point to highlight that microfinancing women was a winning proposition since “they are always diligent in repaying loans.” She used to point out that loan recovery was exceptionally high among women borrowers at the lowest levels of society. “There is certain honesty and gratitude in their hearts about having received financial help when most needed,” she said.

It was that lifelong conviction that established Ela Bhatt as one of India’s most consequential champions of women’s rights and also earned her major honors, including India’s third highest civilian Padma Bhushan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Right Livelihood Award. “These honors matter only in so much as they help advance the cause of marginalized women. For me personally as a lifelong believer of Gandhi’s ideas, by themselves these honors do not mean much,” Bhatt had said.

Not known to be an in-your-face activist, Bhatt packed a great deal of quiet self-assurance that helped her never to give up her positions on various social ills, challenges and failings.

Hillary a great admirer

Bhatt also saw SEWA as a powerful platform for societal harmony particularly because it served women, whom she considered the “shapers of our civilization.”

“A society where women are happy and successful is a society that is happy and successful,” she had said.

(The author is a Chicago-based Indian journalist, author and filmmaker. Views are personal. He can be reached at mcsix@outlook.com)

(By special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)



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