Gujarat and India lost one of its greatest activists with the passing of Ela Bhatt on November 2 in Ahmedabad. She was 89. Best known as the founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), Bhatt earned universal acclaim for her dedication to the Gandhian way of living. After a seven-year stint as Chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith, she tendered her resignation in May this year, citing health reasons.
A lawyer by training, Bhatt was a part of the international labour, cooperative, women, and micro-finance movements. She won several national and international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977, the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, the Padma Shri in 1985, and the Padma Bhushan in 1986.
Born in Ahmedabad on September 7, 1933 to a successful lawyer father and a women’s rights activist mother, Bhatt obtained a degree in law in 1954. 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, she was asked by the TLA to head its women’s wing.
Bhatt was highly moved 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 organised these self-employed women into a group under the Women’s Wing of the TLA. The Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) was established in 1972, with Arvind Buch as president and 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.
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.
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