Last November 2022, the world lost one of its leading voices in women empowerment and social justice, ELA BHATT. A much revered Indian community organizer and activist, she gained international prominence and recognition for her resolute championing of women’s and laborers’ rights.
In 1977, ELA BHATT received Asia’s premier prize and highest honor, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, for “making a reality of the Gandhian principle of self-help among the depressed work force of self-employed women.”
Here are ten interesting facts about Ramon Magsaysay Awardee ELA BHATT:
Her parents are accomplished individuals.
Both of ELA BHATT’s parents have successful careers that may have influenced her own life’s trajectory. Her father was a successful lawyer while her mother was active in the women’s movement. In fact, ELA BHATT’s mother was the secretary of the All India Women’s Conference. The apple doesn't fall from the tree as they say.
Her educational background is stacked.
ELA BHATT attended the Sarvajanik Girls High School from 1940 to 1948. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the M.T.B. College (South Gujarat University) in 1952. Following graduation, she entered L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. In 1954, she received her degree in law and a Gold Medal for her work on Hindu law.
She was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1955, ELA BHATT joined the legal department of India’s oldest union for textile workers, the Textile Labour Association (TLA), formed in 1920 in the wake of a textile workers’ strike led by Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by Gandhi’s example, she founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972.
SEWA’s origins can be traced to an article written by ELA BHATT.
She wrote an article on women workers’ grievances and their struggles with ruthless contractors, erratic jobs and low wages. Hundreds of women who worked as hard laborers in the public markets were agitated and met with ELA BHATT. ELA BHATT and the women then formed the Self-Employed Women’s Association, an association of poor women workers from the informal economy.
SEWA had a rough start.
Gujarat’s State Labour Department initially refused to register SEWA as a union due to the lack of a formal employment of its members. ELA BHATT and SEWA argued that the purpose of a union is to unify its workers and it does not need an employer to justify its existence. SEWA was finally registered on April 12, 1972, a day members celebrate to this day as “Self-Employed Day.”
SEWA’s goal is towards self-reliance.
SEWA’s primary goals included full employment and self-reliance of its members. The union considered local-level organizing by its members to be the primary means of achieving those goals, which helped alleviate poverty and facilitate development. They also addressed other issues, including education, housing, health care, child care, and violence against women.
ELA BHATT was a leader in microfinance, too.
In 1979, ELA BHATT co-founded Women’s World Banking (WWB), a global network of microfinance organizations that assist poor women. She served as chairperson of WWB from 1984 to 1988. She also served as an adviser to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank on matters relating to microfinance, banking, and antipoverty programs.
She became part of The Elders.
ELA BHATT was a co-founder of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights. She was in good company as some of her co-founders are Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter among esteemed global household names.
She used her global stature even in her old age.
In her work with The Elders, she said, “When The Elders meet with leaders and other powerful people, it is our job to try to persuade them to lead with their conscience and remind them of their duties to the people they serve – even if that message is not what they want to hear.”
She is beloved by millions of people.
It goes without saying that ELA BHATT is respected and revered by millions. Her death spurred a generous outpouring of grief and sadness. SEWA issued a statement upon her death: We, the 2.1 million informal women workers of SEWA are deeply saddened by the sad demise of our beloved founder, Shri Elaben Bhatt. She was a visionary for the informal sector and dedicated her entire life to give voice, visibility and validation to the work of the informal sector workers. Simplicity was her virtue and her soft and living nature remains with us.