A tribute: Ela Ramesh Bhatt, the gentle revolutionary

November 9, 2022

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This tribute comes with the passing of Ela Bhatt, whose work created an employment support programme in India for women who live in poverty. Ela started a trade union Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was established in 1972, the same year as BRAC. 

Ela Ramesh Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India, passed away on 2 November, 2022. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’, Ela-ben, as she is affectionately known, is recognised around the world for her Gandhian values, visionary ideals, pioneering work and quiet-centered humanity.

Ela Bhatt at a WIEGO Annual Meeting and Public Seminar Hosted by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) at Ottawa, Ontario in April 1999.

Established in 1972, SEWA is the largest trade union in India and the largest union of informal workers in the world, with over two million women members from multiple trades.

It is also a sisterhood of institutions, including a cooperative bank, an insurance cooperative, and over 100 producer and service cooperatives. SWEA is world-renowned for its unique and effective blend of trade union activism and development interventions with, as its core function, the building of institutions owned and managed by working women living in poverty.

Ela Bhatt with Maureen O’Neil, President of International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in 1999.

Ela Bhatt was a member of the Indian Parliament and subsequently the Indian Planning Commission. She was a Member of the Elders and served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. She co-founded and served as chair of two global networks: Women’s World Banking, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

She was a pioneering leader of – and abiding inspiration to – four global movements: the women’s movement, the microfinance movement, the labour movement and the movement of informal workers. She received many awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Right Livelihoods Award, as well as honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of KwaZulu Natal, Yale University and other academic institutions.

Pat Horn, Ela Bhatt and Andrea Singh in Ottawa, Ontario in 1999.

I had the deep privilege and joy of working closely with Ela-ben for 46 years.

She was my mentor, intellectual companion and comrade sister in the struggle for economic justice for the working poor in the informal economy – and the dearest of friends.

She was the moral compass – the North Star – of the global network WIEGO that we co-founded in 1997. I cannot imagine SEWA, WIEGO, my life – or the world – without her gentle moral presence.

Dr Martha Chen is Senior Advisor, Women’s World Banking, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Chair of BRAC’s Global Board.

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