DOB: September 3, 1933
Occupation: Business Woman & Philanthropist
Before I and many others of my generation were even born, there was a diminutive woman in newly independent India already single handedly paving the way for women’s rights in a time when women were still second class citizens. In addition to working against humanity’s pervasive attitude towards women, Ela Bhatt had another huge obstacle- she was born in India, where the purpose of women’s lives was to serve their husband and bear children.
Going against all the norms of her time and region, Bhatt educated herself and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Gujarat University followed by a degree in law from Sir L.A. Shah Law College. Influenced by Gandhi and likely from a pure desire to help women who were fighting just to survive the day to day, Bhatt went on to found and co-found organizations such as the Women’s Wing of the Textile Labor Association, Women’s World Banking (an organization that counsels numerous micro-lending institutions supporting women) and SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association).
With grace, diplomacy and an at times incomprehensible strength, Ela Bhatt continues her globally changing work to fight for women’s and children’s rights through her various organizations and as one of the highly revered Elders, alongside other world leaders such as President Carter, the late Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. Her lifelong efforts have affected profound changes in India’s treatment of women, sending ripples around the world. She has set the groundwork for much of the rights all of us women enjoy today, most of us not even realizing she has been one of our trailblazing heroes.
The ‘gentle revolutionary’- a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.
- Founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India
- Founder of India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA
- Member of the Indian Parliament 1986-89
- Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance
“There are risks in every action. Every success has the seed of some failure. But it doesn’t matter. It is how you go about it. That is the real challenge.”
Work with The Elders
Ela Bhatt has been a member of The Elders since the group was founded in 2007. Profoundly influenced by Gandhian thinking, she advocates local, grassroots solutions for those who are poor, oppressed or suffering the effects of violent conflict.
She joined her fellow Elders to encourage peaceful Palestinian protest and self-reliance during The Elders’ two delegations to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
One of India’s foremost women’s rights activists, Ela Bhatt welcomed the Elders to India in February 2012, where the group lent their support to young people in the state of Bihar campaigning to end child marriage in their own communities.
“We are poor, but so many.”
Ela Bhatt is one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’, she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers.
In 1972 she founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for women workers in India’s huge informal sector, who make up 94 per cent of the female labour force and yet have never enjoyed the same rights and security as those in formal employment. Today SEWA has more than 1.2 million members across nine Indian states.
“We may be poor, but we are so many. Why don’t we start a bank of our own? Our own women’s bank, where we are treated with the respect and service that we deserve.” – Chandaben, SEWA member
The following year, Ela Bhatt founded the Cooperative Bank of SEWA. The bank helps women to gain financial independence and raise their standing in their families and communities – and puts into practice the Gandhian principles of self-reliance and collective action.
Empowering women workers
Among the organisations Ela Bhatt has created and inspired, she founded and chairs:
- Sa-Dhan (the All India Association of Micro Finance Institutions in India)
- The Indian School of Micro-finance for Women
- Women’s World Banking
- The International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet)
- Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO)
She has also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for more than ten years.
In recognition of her work to improve the status of women and the working poor in India and elsewhere, Ela Bhatt was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, the first-ever Global Fairness Initiative Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood Award, the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award and the Légion d’honneur from France. She has also received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale and the University of Natal.