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 thePadma Bhushan (1986).
Early life and background
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 (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.
TLA and SEWA
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.
The Elders: 2007 – present
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.
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.
A Gandhian practitioner of non-violence, Bhatt also travelled to the Middle East with Elders delegations in August 2009 and October 2010. 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.”
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.
Ela Bhatt married Ramesh Bhatt in 1956, subsequently the couple had two children, Amimayi (b. 1958) and Mihir (b. 1959). Currently lives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat with her family.
Awards and recognition
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, and is former a board of directors of WIEGO. 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. 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.
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”.