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Ela R. Bhatt
The Lifetime Achievement Award (Business) - India
  
Ela R. Bhatt
Founder - Self-Employed Women's Association - India
 
Ela R. Bhatt is the recipient of TheWIFTS Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for her ground breaking initiative to help women workers at the lowest level of society become empowered to take control of their lives by creating the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

Born in 1933 to a middle class, well-educated family, Ela Bhatt has spent her life fighting for the rights and welfare of India's 'invisible' workers. Her grandparents worked with Mahatma Gandhi in the non-violent struggle for Indian Independence from the British. Deeply influenced by Gandhi, Ela has followed his ideals all her life. She has pioneered the idea that people themselves, no matter how poor or uneducated, are able to solve their own problems if they organize together to do so. To help provide this, she founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association. Called "one of the best - if not the best - grassroots programmes for women on the planet," SEWA proved so successful that it has become a model for micro-finance programs in other parts of the world.

Ela started as a lawyer with the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a union founded by Gandhi, who had deep respect for India's textile producers. Working in the women's division, Ela soon found that women were doing many of the labor-intensive tasks needed in textile production, as well as in other fields of work. However, as workers, they were invisible. Outraged, Ela said: "Personally, I don't think there can be any greater injustice to anybody in the world than to have one's work contribution negated… Who is the backbone of any economy in the country? It's the poor! Yet they are not recorded as workers in the national census. They are described as non-workers!"

"I realized that although eighty percent of women in India are economically active, they are outside the purview of legislation." Ela recognized that these women needed the help that they could get only through organizing together as a large group. To meet that need, she founded SEWA in 1972 to organize for better pay and working conditions. SEWA, which today has 250,000 members, helped workers at the lowest level of society become empowered to take control of their lives.

It soon became apparent that even though many of the women worked twelve hours a day or more, they made little money, had no savings, and never had enough capital to improve their conditions. If a women wanted to borrow money to further her business, she would have to borrow from money lenders at outlandish rates, sometimes 50% per day. In addition, bankers, who had never dealt with illiterate low-income women, treated them badly.

SEWA Bank, which now has over us $3 million in assets, has been so successful that there are now branches in other parts of India, and men have even asked to be included. It is important to realize that all this has been accomplished without any outside financial help whatsoever. The women did it themselves.

Most important, the SEWA Bank model, through its concepts of micro-finance, has been used to empower poor women throughout the world. Towards this end, Ela joined with nine other women at the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975; these women shared the belief that the world's financial institutions must become accessible to low-income women. Incorporated in 1979, Women's World Banking now has 43 affiliates in 35 countries. Ela Bhatt has served as its chair since 1985.

The far-reaching effects of Ela Bhatt's work have been recognized internationally through many awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (the alternate Nobel Prize) for 'Changing the Human Environment' in Stockholm in 1984.

Edited Biography of Ela Bhatt by courtesy of The Tolerance Organization.




 
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