Elaben, who redefined women’s empowerment | Latest India News
Many epithets have been used to celebrate her – the gentle revolutionary, the Mahatma of “shramjeevi” (hardworking) women, and more. To us, her Sewa (Self-Employed Women’s Association) sisters and thousands of people across India and the world, Ela Bhatt was simply “well” (sister).
Born into a family of freedom fighters, the spirit of sacrifice and service was imprinted in her very early on. While at Surat University, she met the student leader and her future husband, Ramesh Bhatt, and together they forged a unique partnership – serving the poorest and most vulnerable, in spirit and the tradition of Gandhiji.
Often described as a Gandhian, Elaben defied labels and categories. She was an extraordinary leader with a unique leadership style – “Jay beeja nay aagad karay te aagewan” (those who put others first are leaders). And she did. She has inspired countless women and many others in all sectors, trade unions, civil society, government, business and academia, in India and beyond. Wherever there are informal workers, she was their guiding light – motivating, inspiring, encouraging, giving women of all castes, creeds, religions and geographies a space to thrive and find their own potential. She didn’t like the word “mentor” very much, but it was that and more for many of us. She believed strongly in Gandhi’s values and favored both decentralized and democratic organizations, but also “anubandh” or the interdependence of human beings with the planet. She lived simply and without clutter, possessions or other baggage.
She was a firm believer in organizing – the act of uniting women, building sisterhood and solidarity. This is the basic building block, she would often tell us, and with her contagious smile she would add: “No shortcuts, we have to do the hard work of organizing and building membership-based organizations like than trade unions and cooperatives, then our Sewa Movement – a “sangam” (confluence) of the labor, cooperative and feminist movement and something more than all of these put together, the movement of informal women workers.
A visionary, she worked around the clock to realize her dream of a movement of self-employed women. There are so many firsts to her name, yet she has taken her accomplishments, and the many awards and recognitions she has earned, lightly. She truly believed that these were small collective victories on the long road to economic empowerment and self-reliance or “swaraj,” as she explained to us. One of his major contributions was to the microfinance movement and the establishment of Sewa Bank, the first of its kind in the world. An early friendship with Michaela Walsh at the United Nations Women’s Conference in Mexico resulted in financial services for women, such as Women’s World Bank, Friends of Women’s World Bank, VimoSewa, Cooperative insurance from Sewa, etc.
An institution builder par excellence, she began organizing workers as a young lawyer in Majoor Mahajan Sabha, the garment workers’ union founded by Anasuyaben Sarabhai and Gandhiji. And this is where the world of informal workers unfolded before her. She often said there was no turning back from that point on and she understood that it had to be her life’s work, to organize a movement of independent women for their rightful place in society. Indian economy and society.
Under the same neem tree in the then Victoria Garden, now Lokmanya Tilak Bagh, she planted a banyan tree a few months ago to mark 50 years of Sewa. The banyan tree was how she liked to see our movement. From a handful of women such as elderly fabric saleswoman Chandaben, garment worker Karimaben and others, she led Sewa to become the movement of 2.1 million workers in 18 states that it is today. . Sewa grew under her able leadership to become the largest movement of informal women workers in the world. There is Sewa, the national union, and thousands of other small, medium and large organizations such as cooperatives and collectives in India and on several continents. One of those she founded is Wiego (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organising), a network of organizers, researchers and policy makers. She often said that the greatest injustice of all was that despite all the work of women, there was no recognition or visibility for them. She helped create Streetnet, an international organization of street vendors that has always been special to her. She began working with street vendors over 50 years ago, and fighting for their rights was a cause close to her heart. She spoke of the injustices they faced in Parliament when she was in the Rajya Sabha, and often laughed at the memory of rather baffled members.
Elaben had a knack for explaining and writing in simple, evocative language, preferably in her mother tongue, Gujarati. Charismatic and modest, she would say that her life’s work could be summed up in that of women, work and peace. She brought her years of wisdom and experience to The Elders, where once again, she stood out for her solid organizational experience and sharp strategic sense. She was embraced by all, but above all she was loved by hundreds of thousands of Sewa “ben”, or sisters, everywhere. She was beset at every Sewa event and her list of admirers was long and varied, from Laxmiben Tetabhai with whom she led a fight for street vendors’ rights to Manek Chowk to Nelson Mandela, with whom she had a warm friendship.
She was also an expert housewife, cook and impeccable hostess and had a beautiful singing voice that was an instant draw. She was a prodigious writer who wrote in Anasuya, our newsletter in Gujarati, a play on street vendors, in addition to many newspapers and several books in English and Gujarati. One of them was his book We are poor but we are many,which describes as his life’s work. Another insightful report she led and edited was Shramshakti, the report of the National Commission for Independent Women and Women in the Informal Sector. Criss-crossing India, she listened to women, recorded their drudgery, their songs and their hopes for a future of equality and justice.
Elaben leaves us with a rich legacy of the many organizations she founded and ably led, to remind us of the unfinished work of our freedom movement and to advance the fight against poverty and for swaraj, secure work and security income, food and social security for all, especially women workers in our country. As we celebrate her life, we, the Sewa sisters, resolve to carry forward her unfinished work and organize ourselves in every corner of our country, to strengthen women’s leadership and their own democratic, inclusive, decentralized and grassroots organizations. membership, to build a strong future for them and their families, for India and for our common global family.
Mirai Chatterjee is the former general secretary of Sewa and the current director of the organization’s social security team. Opinions expressed are personal.