Ela Bhatt – India

Linked with our presentation of Self Employed Women’s Association SEWA.

She says: “The poor mostly work on manual job for lack of education and modern skills, have to work using the strength of their body. Therefore, we see them suffer from many occupational health hazards. Also the women start aging at an early age; childbirth and maternity are a health hazard for her. Since her work is manual, her most important asset is her own body. This body needs to be protected, maintained, and enhanced through adequate healthcare and nutrition. Moreover, a woman worker is also a mother, a builder of the future generation. Therefore, women’s health is most crucial to the development of our nation”. (Read this whole interview on sewa.org).

Ela Bhatt – India

True to the spirit of her country and her inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi, Ela Bhatt is a gentle revolutionary. Gentle but tough. For decades, she has quietly gone about the business of kicking ass on behalf of some of India’s most disenfranchised — women working in the “informal sector.” A former lawyer and social worker from a well-to-do family, she launched the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972. As chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, she had witnessed the crappy conditions confronting women in the garment industry and resolved to organize self-employed women to help them develop a bit of collective clout … … She says also: “Gandhi tried to find out that what kind of employment opportunity can be given to even the most illiterate woman in the village,” she says, “so that each family has economic strength.” (Read the rest of this article on adventure divas.com).

In recognition of her courage, innovation and leadership, we are honored to present the 2005 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to Sister Ela Bhatt, on behalf of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a 700,000-member union of women workers in India. Sister Bhatt and SEWA are committed advocates for the rights of poor, women workers in the unorganized, informal sectors of the economy.

Through their work, hundreds of thousands of street vendors, rag pickers, incense rollers and other self-employed workers have overcome political, social and economic oppression. (Read the whole article on America’s Union Mouvment).

She says: “I realized was that when we talk of women and the women’s movement – who are the women of India? They are rural, poor, illiterate or semi-literate, and economically very active. The (self-employed women workers) are 80% of the women of the country. It is these women who should be playing a leading role in the women’s movement. These two things were getting more and more clear and confirmed in my mind. It is still the same. It has stayed with me to show me the direction” …
… and she tells further: “Some time back (1989) we had a satyagraha of street vendors. We have a downtown market were the women and men sit with baskets of vegetables, fruits, and utility items. The market runs from the beginning of the day until late night and they are all our members, the women. The municipal corporation wanted to drive them out. We said that we have been here for the last three generations. It is our natural right to be here. Historically, we have been here. And it is true, they are the third or fourth generation that has been sitting there. But in the meantime, many new buildings have come up. And the shops have come up. And these vendors have literally been thrown to the street. They were being removed because they wanted to make a space for a parking lot. So, where was this taken? The police clamped on a curfew – a five days, six days curfew. The vendors started starving. They had nothing to fall back on. In the meantime, we had tried everything to explain our situation to the municipal corporation, to the police, everybody. But they didn’t listen to us. So, we said, in the most Gandhian way, that, “From tomorrow, 8 o’clock morning, we are going to sit here. Even if you don’t allow that, we are going to sit here” … Already two policemen were standing there, early in the morning when we arrived and, of course, we had certain tactics, we started doing business. The police had a long argument with me and I kept them engaged in argument so when the women were ready they could bring their baskets. And as soon as the baskets were there the customers were ready to buy and the market started. The police didn’t know what to do. At about ten o’clock, they just withdrew and said, “You do whatever you want to do, but we are here”. For about three days it went on like this. It was such good business because the vendors, they didn’t have to pay any fine to any inspector, or to the police — fine or bribe, whatever you say. And in those three days, they didn’t have to have any stick beaten to them or their stuff thrown out on the ground. We managed ourselves. I was acting like a traffic police superintendent, managing the traffic. (Read the whole long Interview on In Motion Magazine).

her book: ‘we are poor but so many‘.


on the book: We Are Poor but So Many;

making planners listen to women’s needs;

the South Asian.com;


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