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Ela Bhatt - founder of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA)

Karen Sear ShimaliComment
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Photo credit: Haim Zach, The Elders

In this, the first in a series of short profiles of the extraordinary women of SEWA, we profile it's founder, Ela Bhatt.

Ela Bhatt was born in 1933 in Ahmedabad, India, and grew up in the city of Surat. Her father was a successful lawyer, and her mother was active in the women's movement. She gained her law degree in 1954 from the Sir L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad, and in 1955, joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.

After marriage, and working for some years for the government of Gujarat, she was asked by the TLA to head its women's wing in 1968. During this time, she became acutely aware of the plight of poor self-employed women in India and Asia, and specifically, the fact that there were no state laws protecting self-employed women, only industrial workers. Such women included weavers, embroiderers, stitchers, cigarette rollers, waste-paper pickers and construction workers. Rents for stalls and tools were high, and they were open to exploitation and harassment by officials, employers and money lenders. In Ahmedabad, 97 per cent of these women lived in slums, and most were illiterate and in debt. Ela felt compelled to do something to address the situation, and began organising self-employed women into a union with the support of the TLA. From this, the Self-Employed Women's Association was founded in 1972, with Arvind Buch of the TLA as president, and Ela as general-secretary.

Early on, Ela won higher wages for women porters, and a later landmark victory allowed women to sell fruit and vegetables on the street free from police harassment. In three years SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government. In 1974 SEWA established it's own bank, which now has around 350,000 depositors. The women's wages are paid directly into their own accounts, and they can apply for loans, on which the bank has a very healthy 97 per cent repayment rate. Over 100,000 women are now enrolled in SEWAs health and life insurance plans, offering a safety net to those who previously had none. SEWA has enabled it's members to acquire negotiating power with their employers. They have set up cooperatives of various trade groups who share expertise and skills, develop new tools, designs and techniques, and can organise bulk buying and pool marketing resources.

However, Ela's work doesn't stop here. She has taken the struggle for justice and recognition for self-employed women into the international arena. SEWA is now affiliated to the International Union of Food and Tobacco Workers and to the International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers.

Ela Bhatt was nominated by the President of India to be a member of the Indian parliament (Rajya sabha) from 1986 to 1989. She was a member of the Planning Commission of India (1989-91) and has been chairperson and a founder member of Women's World Banking since 1980. In 2011, Harvard University awarded her the Radcliffe Institute Medal for her life and work, and she was appointed to the Board of the Reserve Bank of India. She was also selected for the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize in 2011, and is a member of "The Elders", a group of powerful and influential peace activists and human rights campaigners, founded in 2007 by Nelson Mandela.

Sources:

Right Livelihood Award Foundation Archive www.rightlivelihood.org