From roadside stalls to presidential mansions, people remember Ela Bhatt

Ela Bhatt, dressed in a sari, with Nelson Mandela, seated,, and fellow Elders such as former UN secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Reverend Desmond Tutu among others, in a May 2010 photo. Photo: used with permission from The Elders. (

A pioneer in the world of trade unions dedicated to empowering women, Ela Bhatt who died November 2, at the age of 89, is being remembered as the ‘gentle’ revolutionary whose petite presence belied her giant personality and enormous impact.

A mentor to women from every economic strata, Bhatt’s soft demeanor combined with a steely resolve, stood as an example of what women can achieve with seemingly simple but visionary goals that helped millions of poor women to seek their potential. Starting way back in 1972, Bhatt predated the efforts of Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh who initiated microcredit financing.

Her long arms and influence reached as much inside a village hut as a presidential mansion, roadside sellers and corporate boardrooms.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Saddened by the death of Elaben Bhatt. She will long be remembered for her efforts to promote women’s empowerment, social service and education among the youth. Condolences to her family and fans. Om Shanti…” Numerous other leaders from various political parties echoed the sentiments.

Hillary Clinton posted this photo taken during her 1995 visit to Ahmedabad on Facebook Dec. 14, 2018, recalling her visit to India and her meeting with Ela Bhatt Photo: Facebook @hillaryclinton

Among the first to outside India to tweet about her death was Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and former Secretary of State who met Bhatt more than once over the decades.

“Ela Bhatt passed away today. For 50 years, she helped women in India lift themselves out of poverty by granting them microloans,” Clinton tweeted, and recalled what she wrote after her last meeting with Bhatt in 2018. She met the Indian activist first in 1995, the year after the Fourth World Women’s Conference, where the First Lady declared “Women’s rights are human rights.”

Ela Bhatt receiving the Padma Bhushan award from the President of India Pranab Mukherjee. Photo Twitter @kharge

Bhatt, who had formed the Self Employed Women’s Association in 1972, already had 20 years of experience under her belt, experimenting with offering small loans to women for and seeing them grow in confidence and financial stability before she met Clinton.

Writing in 2018, Clinton said, “We now think of this model as “microloans.” Ela and SEWA have always been ahead of their time.”

“We, the 2.1 million informal women workers of SEWA, a National Trade Union and representative members from 18 states of India are deeply saddened by the sad demise of our beloved founder Shri Elaben Bhatt,” the SEWA website says. “She was a visionary for the informal sector and dedicated her entire life to give the voice, visibility and validation to the work of the informal sector workers. Simplicity was her virtue and her soft and loving nature still remains with us,” the organization added. “We will remain committed to follow and achieve her vision which will be our true tribute to her.”

Starting from a few thousand members in 1972, to a million members in 2009, SEWA had grown to 2 million members by 2018.

“Ela’s work is fundamentally about fairness. Every person should have the hance to achieve his or her dreams and make the most of their God-given potential,” no matter where they are in life. “I am so inspired by these women and I can’t wait to see all they continue to overcome and achieve,” Clinton added.

Bhatt was part of The Elders group founded by Nelson Mandela, and boasting the likes of Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu, people whose ideas and example inspired people around the world.

Upon her death, the United Nations In India office tweeted, “We deeply mourn the passing of Ela Bhatt, a global icon, a Gandhian, an inspirational leader & relentless advocate of women workers’ rights. Recognised for her contribution to peace, justice & human rights, her legacy lives on in @SEWABharat & will inspire…”

The UN Resident Coordinator in India Shombi Sharp said he was “deeply saddened” and described Bhatt as the person “who transformed millions of lives here in India & across the world. A global icon, she is the fourth member of The Elders to have left us, along with Mandela, Annan & Tutu. A true honor to have been a guest of Elaben earlier this year.”

Women’s World Banking described Bhatt as “a gentle revolutionary who is one of the pioneers in women empowerment and financial inclusion in India and abroad,” with a “humble yet bold” approach, a person who was “constantly inspiring us to challenge our limitations.”

Working with vegetable vendors and cigarette rollers, and forming SEWA was followed by the founding of the first-ever bank for women, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA.

“Many of these ideas were considered challenging and impossible earlier. But with efforts pioneered by Elaben, a lot of it is being accepted and embraced,” notes But SEWA was just one of many groups and organizations Bhatt helped established globally. Some that she inspired are Sa-Dhan (All India Association of Micro Finance Institutions in India), The International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet), and Women’s World Banking (WWB).

A memory shared by Ujjivan CEO Samit Ghosh, brings to light Elaben’s personality and her influence in people’s lives. Ghosh recalls how after a meeting at the World Trade Center, she coaxed him into taking a rickshaw at rush hour in Manhattan. “My heart was in the mouth but she was cool as a cucumber merrily enjoying the ride.” They reached their destination and tipped the driver generously. “This was the most memorable rickshaw ride in my life!” says Ghosh who found out later that one of the biggest entrepreneurs of India, Rahul Bajaj, had gifted Bhatt an autorickshaw which was the official vehicle for Elaben for many years!

In 2016, when Bhatt stepped down from The Elders Group established by Nelson Mandela in 2007, to continue with the title of ‘Elder Emeritus’, the then Chair of the organization Kofi Annan said about her, “Elaben has always kept us anchored in the real world. …”



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