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Elaben Bhatt Essay Contest

Ela Bhatt

Ela Bhatt, October 2013

Born(1933-09-07) 7 September 1933 (age 84)
Ahmedabad, Bombay Presidency, British Raj
EducationB.A., LL.B.; Diploma of Labor and Cooperatives;
Alma materSarvajanik Girls High School, Surat; M.T.B. College, Surat; Afro-Asian Institute of Labor and Cooperatives, Tel Aviv
OccupationLawyer, philanthropist
OrganizationSEWA, The Elders
Known forfounded SEWA
Spouse(s)Ramesh Bhatt
AwardsPadma Shri 1985; Padma Bhushan 1986; Ramon Magsaysay Award 1977; Right Livelihood Award 1984; Niwano Peace Prize; Doctorate degree in Humane Letters, Harvard University 2001; Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development 2011; NDTV's 25 Greatest Living Indian Legends 2013

Ela Ramesh Bhatt (born 7 September 1933) is an Indian cooperative organiser, activist and Gandhian, who founded the Self-Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA) in 1972, and served as its general secretary from 1972 to 1996. A lawyer by training, Bhatt is a part of the international labour, cooperative, women, and micro-finance movements and has won several national and international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1977), Right Livelihood Award (1984) and the Padma Bhushan (1986).[1]

Early life and background[edit]

Ela Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad in India. Her father, Sumantrai Bhatt, was a successful lawyer, while her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in the women's movement and also remained secretary of All India Women's Conference, which in turn was founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Second of three daughters, her childhood was spent in the city of Surat, where she 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 Surat in 1952. Following graduation Ela entered the Sir 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.[2]


Bhatt started her career teaching English for a short time at SNDT Women's University, better known as SNDT, in Mumbai. In 1955 she joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.

TLA and SEWA[edit]

In 1956, Ela Bhatt married Ramesh Bhatt (now deceased). After working for sometime with the Gujarat government, Ela was asked by the TLA to head its women's wing in 1968. In this connection she went to Israel where she studied at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labor and Cooperatives in Tel Aviv for three months, receiving the International Diploma of Labor and Cooperatives in 1971. She was very much influenced by the fact that thousands of female textile workers worked elsewhere to supplement the family income, but there were state laws protecting only those who were solely industrial workers and not these self-employed women. So with the co-operation of Arvind Buch, the then president of TLA, Ela Bhatt undertook to organise these self-employed women into a union under the auspices of the Women's Wing of the TLA. Then in 1972 the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was established with Buch as president and she served as its general-secretary from 1972 to 1996.[3]

The Elders: 2007–present[edit]

On 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

“This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken," Mandela commented. "Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”

Kofi Annan serves as Chair of The Elders and Gro Harlem Brundtland as Deputy Chair. The other members of the group areMartti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Ernesto Zedillo. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are Honorary Elders.

The Elders work globally, on thematic as well as geographically specific subjects. The Elders' priority issue areas include the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Korean Peninsula, Sudan and South Sudan, sustainable development, and equality for girls and women.[4]

Ela Bhatt is particularly involved in The Elders' initiative on equality for women and girls, including on the issue of child marriage. In February 2012, Bhatt travelled to Bihar, India with fellow Elders Desmond Tutu, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mary Robinson. Together, the Elders visited Jagriti, a youth-led project aimed at preventing child marriage, and encouraged the state government's efforts to tackle the issue.[5][6]

A Gandhian practitioner of non-violence, Bhatt also travelled to the Middle East with Elders delegations in August 2009[7] and October 2010.[8][9] In a blog post written for The Elders' website following the group's visit to Gaza in October 2010, Bhatt stated that non-violent struggle against injustice requires "more hard work than fighting" and that "it is the coward who uses weapons."[10]

The Elders are independently funded by a group of donors: Sir Richard Branson and Jean Oelwang (Virgin Unite), Peter Gabriel (The Peter Gabriel Foundation), Kathy Bushkin Calvin (The United Nations Foundation), Jeremy Coller and Lulit Solomon (J Coller Foundation), Niclas Kjellström-Matseke (Swedish Postcode Lottery), Randy Newcomb and Pam Omidyar (Humanity United), Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg (Skoll Foundation), Jovanka Porsche (HP Capital Partners), Julie Quadrio Curzio (Quadrio Curzio Family Trust), Amy Towers (The Nduna Foundation), Shannon Sedgwick Davis (The Bridgeway Foundation) and Marieke van Schaik (Dutch Postcode Lottery). Mabel van Oranje, former CEO of The Elders, sits on the Advisory Council in her capacity as Advisory Committee Chair of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.[11]

Personal life[edit]

Ela Bhatt married Ramesh Bhatt in 1956, subsequently the couple had two children, Amimayi (b. 1958) and Mihir (b. 1959).[2] She currently lives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat with her family.

Awards and recognition[edit]

She was one of the founders of Women's World Banking in 1979 with Esther Ocloo and Michaela Walsh, and served as its chair from 1980 to 1998. She has served as Chair of the SEWA Cooperative Bank, of HomeNet, of the International Alliance of Street Vendors,[12] and is former a board of directors of WIEGO.[3] She was also a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation.

She was granted an honorary Doctorate degree in Humane Letters by Harvard University in June 2001. In 2012, she received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa from Georgetown University and an honorary doctorate from Université libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium.[13] She also holds honorary doctorates from Yale and University of Natal.

Ela Bhatt was also awarded the civilian honour of Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1985, and the Padma Bhushan in 1986. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1977 and the Right Livelihood Award in 1984.

She was chosen for the Niwano Peace Prize for 2010 for her work empowering poor women in India.

On November 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honoured Bhatt with the Global Fairness Initiative Award for helping move more than a million poor women in India to a position of dignity and independence.

Ela Bhatt was honoured with the prestigious Radcliffe Medal on 27 May 2011 on Radcliffe day for her efforts in helping uplift women, which has had a significant impact on society.

In November 2011, Ela Bhatt was selected for the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development 2011 for her lifetime achievements in empowering women through grassroots entrepreneurship.[14]

In June 2012, US Sectretary of State Hillary Clinton identified Ela Bhatt as one of her 'heroine'. She said, "I have a lot of heroes and heroines around the world and one of them is Ela Bhatt, who started an organisation called the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India many years ago".[15]


Bhatt's book has been translated in Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi and is currently being translated in French and Tamil.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ela Bhatt.

On 7th September 1933, Ela Bhatt, lawyer, activist and founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) was born in Ahmedabad. Bhatt’s father was a successful lawyer and her mother was a women’s rights activist.

In 1954 Bhatt obtained a degree in law, she also got a gold medal for her work on Hindu Law. Following this, she taught English for a short while at the SNDT Women’s College in Mumbai and in 1955 she joined the textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.

In 1968, Ela Bhatt was asked by the TLA to head its women’s wing. For this purpose Bhatt travelled to Israel to study at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperation in Tel Aviv, from where she received an International Diploma of Labour and Cooperatives in 1971. Bhatt was highly influenced by the fact that there were thousands of women textile workers who even worked  for other jobs to add to their family income, but the state laws only protected women who were entirely industrial workers and not the other self-employed women. Along with Arvind Buch, the then President of the TLA, Bhatt organized these self-employed women into a group under the Women’s Wing of the TLA. The Self Employed Women’s Association of India was established in 1972, with Arvind Buch as its President and Ela Bhatt as General Secretary.

SEWA essentially grew out of the TLA, which was the largest union of textile workers founded by Anasuya Sarabhai in 1920. The TLA was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that workers should be aware of their rights and unite against the dictatorship of their employers. Based on this principle of Gandhi and the feminist outlook of Anusuya Sarabhai, the TLA began their women’s wing in 1954. Originally the wing focused on assisting women who were household members of mill workers, but later in 1968 sewing, knitting, embroidery and even typing and stenography classes were started for the wives and daughters of mill workers.

In the early 1970’s, a survey was carried out to study the complaints of women tailors who were being exploited by contractors. The survey further discovered that there was large scale exploitation of female workers and a large number of these cases were not taken up by the government legislation.

In 1971 a small group of women migrant workers in Ahmedabad cloth market came to TLA, represented by their labour contractor. He wanted to know if the TLA could help these women find accommodation since they were then living on the streets. They met Ela Bhatt the head of the Women’s Wing, who went with these women to see where they lived and worked. Following this, Bhatt met with other women who worked as labour and who received low and erratic wages. After meeting with these women, Bhatt wrote a newspaper article highlighting the problems faced by these women. The contractors of these female employees countered these claims by a newspaper article of their own.

The Women’s Wing used this contradictory news article to their advantage by printing them out and distributing them among workers and asking them to enjoy the benefits of the claims the contractors had made by approaching them. Word of this clever ploy spread and more used garments dealers approached the TLA with their concerns. A large meeting of used garments dealers was arranged and over a hundred women attended this. During this meeting a woman suggested that they form an organization of their own and hence SEWA was founded in December 1971 with Ela Bhatt and Arvind Buch, the President of the TLA.

Eventually, the women of SEWA thought that SEWA should be established as a Trade Union. This was a unique idea at that time because of the lack of history behind self-employment. The first challenge for SEWA was getting recognition as a Trade Union. The Labour Department was not keen on registering them as one since it felt that there were no recognized employers in which case, there was no one for workers to struggle against. Finally in 1972, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union and continued growing and adding more members into its folds. By 1975, which was also the beginning of the Women’s Decade, SEWA received an enormous boost and became a part of the women’s movement.

By 1981 relations between TLA and SEWA had begun to grow weak as the TLA did not look favourably at a strong willed women’s group in their midst. Relationships got worse after anti-reservation riots broke out and members of a higher caste attacked members belonging to a lower caste. The TLA remained silent in this regard, whereas, SEWA spoke out against this injustice. Because of this outspokenness, TLA asked SEWA to leave their folds.

After branching out of the TLA, SEWA grew faster and began new initiatives. Over the years SEWA has supported the growth of new co-operatives and other support services which have boosted the image of SEWA considerably. Apart from this, SEWA has many other sister organizations such as SEWA Bank, SEWA Academy, SEWA Research, SEWA Housing and Vimo SEWA, among others.

Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA has received many prestigious awards and honours such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1977), Right Livelihood Award (1984), the Padma Shri (1985), Padma Bhushan (1986), Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters from Harvard University (2001) and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in 2013  by President Pranab Mukherjee for her lifetime commitment to women’s empowerment through her grassroots level work.

Also on This Day:

1947: Mahatma Gandhi leaves Calcutta for Delhi; commences daily visits to riot-affected areas.

1968: Benipuri Sharma, famous Hindi novelist, died.