The Gentle Revolutionist’s Quick Profile
In 1973, she also founded the Cooperative Bank of SEWA (sewa means “to serve”). It was built on the principle of Gandhi’s teaching of self-reliance and collective action with the objective to assist women to become financially independent along with improving their own family’s living standard and the communities they live in.
She has been recognized globally for her efforts to improve the lives of impoverished women and the poor in India with accolades, awards, and honorary doctorates, whilst holding prominent positions on social action boards both in India and abroad. Ela was also the recipient of the first ever Global Fairness Initiative Award, and the globally recognized CARE Award.
In 2007 she became a founding member of the Elders, a group of twelve international social activists including past presidents, prime ministers, and Nobel peace prize winners who work together for peace and human rights across the globe.
Ela Bhatt’s association has now surpassed 1,000,000 members through implementing the concept of microfinance to women who otherwise may not be able to escape the vicious circle of poverty. By providing small loans to women, regardless of their educational attainment and ability to pay, she works with them to develop business in an effort to help them solve their financial problems themselves.
Her program today is both benchmark of best programs providing micro finance to women and has been copied many times over by other social cause organizations throughout the world.
In November 2010, Ela Bhatt’s association, SEWA, was visited by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who commented about Ela’s efforts upon presenting her with the First Global Awareness Award:
"Inequality may always be with us. But even in places where it is most stark, people still should be able to develop their ambitions and direct them toward building better lives. And Ela and SEWA have proven that.
...[W]hat Ela has done is to help the poor find freedom, and with freedom they have also found opportunity. And she has helped not only women in India but women in South Africa, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and inspired so many others to find their own way forward to overcome long legacies of inequality and unfairness. She has helped us imagine and then work toward a fairer world."
A Peek at Ela Bhatt’s Biography
Ela was born in Ahmedabad India on September 7, 1933; she was the middle child of three daughters. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was active in the women’s right movements in India.
Ella went to school from 1940 to 1948 at the Sarwajanik Girls High School in Surat before continuing her education at M.T.B. College. She graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She continued her studies at the Sir L.A. Shah Law College, and matriculated in 1954 with a law degree and a Gold medal of highest achiever in Hindu law.
Ela taught English briefly. However, teaching was not a career she found ultimately satisfying. So in 1955, she became a junior lawyer for the Textile Labor Association (TLA) where she would prepare case work for the senior lawyers.
In 1956, Ela married Ramesh Bhatt and left the workforce. In 1961 she returned to the work force, and worked in the Labor Ministry of Gujarat as an Employment Officer; and in 1968, the TLA approached her to lead its Women's Wing. The role gave Ela the opportunity to study abroad and travel to Israel where she studied for three months, earning herself an international diploma of Labour in 1971.
Ela, in her role, was aware that while the male textile workers were covered by workers’ rights, their pay was so low that thousands of textile workers’ wives and daughters have to work to assist supporting the families financially. They, however, had no protection or support. Furthermore, the organizations the women worked in were unorganized, and the self-employed women had no bargaining power or rights.
Ela undertook a survey that identified 97 percent of self employed women lived in slums, 93 percent were illiterate, and their average number of children was four.
With the backing of the TLA, Ela set out to organize these self-employed women into a union with the TLA Women’s Wing, and in 1972 the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was officially founded, under the Indian Trade Union Act of 1926.
As self-employed women, they had to first buy stock before reselling it. The problem for these self-employed women is that they had to borrow money from money lenders that charged very high interest rates. So in an effort to alleviate this issue, SEWA created its first lending arm with the surprising assistance of some of the country’s banking institutions; however, the plan, while initially successful, failed as loans were provide to women who were not financially literate. This led the SEWA Bank in 1973 to form its own bank, and in 1974, was officially recognized as the Shri Mahila SEWA Sahakari Bank Limited (the Mahila SEWA Cooperative Bank, Ltd.).
The bank required a minimum investment of 10 rupees (US$1.40) per member. By 1976, the bank has accumulated over $35,000 USD, qualifying the members for low interest loans of around 250 and 1,000 rupees.
Due to the illiteracy of the self-employed customers, the SEWA bank introduced a simple identification procedure requiring each member to have a photograph identification which matched one held on file. In the beginning, the bank made its loans through the established nationalized banks; today the bank makes its own loans, issuing micro loans to the self-employed women.
It was established that the purpose of the bank is to be more than only a place where women could attain low interest loans, it would also teach their members how to become better business women, make their money more dynamic and invest back into their businesses, encourage them to save more and develop a sense of financial independence. To do this, the women were discouraged from bringing their husbands along when either depositing or applying for loans.
Ela Bhatt, with her compassionate spirit and her guidance behind SEWA, has shown that it is possible to help the most vulnerable and weak often overlooked by combining and focusing their efforts and use their collective strength to overcome financial hardships and economic oppression. She became a nurturer of self-empowerment to women.
Her vision and confidence in the ability of self-employed women has witnessed both the structure of SEWA and its members, starting from the grassroots movement to cause change for greater good, not only for women, but for the betterment of society as a whole.
One observer recounting her work saying:
"She is an extraordinarily calm, strong person whose gentleness and patience with the women is certainly one of the most important reasons for the success of SEWA."
Controversial News Made by Narendra Modi
When Gujarat was hit by a 7.6 to 7.7 magnitude earthquake in January of 2001, SEWA was one of the organizations which ran to the victims' rescue. However, Narendra Modi, Gujarat's Chief Minister, accused Ela's SEWA of misappropriating financial help supposed to be used for the rehabilitation fo the area. Ela did not allow Narendra to discredit SEWA and denied the allegations. In order to put a stop to the controversial news altogether, she opted to pull SEWA out of the project.
Quotes from Ela Bhatt
Learn more and be inspired by Ela Bhatt's endeavors with this interview.
- 1979: Awarded the Ramon Magsaysay “Community Leadership,” Manila
- 1982: Awarded for National Integration, the Susan B. Anthony Award, India, 1982.
- 1984: Awarded for “Changing the Human Environment” Right Livelihood Award (The Alternative Nobel Prize) Stockholm.
- 1985: Received A Padmashree from the Government of India.
- 1990: Awarded the Women in Creation Award by Alliance de Femme. Paris
- 1994: CARE Humanitarian Award, Washington, USA.
- 1995: Received Vishwa Gurjari, India
- 1999: Awarded the National Integration Yashwantrao Chavan Award
- 2000: Received Humanitarian Award, Inter Action, Washington USA, Asia Society Award: Builder of Bridges between Asians and Americans, FICCI’s Millennium Life-time Achievement Award, Delhi
- 2002: Awarded for Rural Upliftment, the Diwaliben Mehta Award
- 2003: Received the Economic Times Award, Business Woman of the Year, Dr. V. Krishnamurthy Award for Excellence, Centre for Organisation Development, Hyderabad
- 2004: Received for Excellence in Public Administration, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award, Academics and Management, Lakshmipat Singhania - IIML National Leadership Awards
- 2005: Received the Global Women's Leadership Award at the Global Summit of Women in Mexico
- 2006: Awarded by Foundation Forum and Women Together Award, Madrid Spain and the Global fairness Initiative Award, Légion d’honneur by France,
- 2011: Receives Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace Award, Disarmament and Development 2011 for lifetime achievements in empowering women. And the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award
- 2012: Receives the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Medal
- 1991: Doctor of Letters, SNDT University, Bombay, India
- 1993: Doctor of Humanities, Haverford College, USA
- 1994: Doctor of Humanities, Temple University, USA
- 1999: Doctor of Literature, MS University of Baroda, India, Doctor of Humanities, St. Francis Xavier University, Canada
- 2001: Doctor of Humane Letters, Harvard University, USA
- 2002: Honorary Doctorate in Social Sciences, Yale University, USA
- 2003: Honorary Heroes of Health, Berkeley School of Health, University of California, USA
- 2003: Honorary Doctorate in Social Sciences, University of Natal, Durban, South Africa
- 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)
- Self-Employed Women’s Association
- Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO)