Self Employed Women’s Association, India
Ela Bhatt is an Indian leader, Gandhian, labor organizer, activist for women’s empowerment, and one of the early leaders of the microfinance movement. She founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) in 1972, co-founded Women’s World Banking in 1979, and among other roles since then serves as an Elder in a group of global leaders convened by Nelson Mandela in 2007.
Her courage is evident in founding the Self Employed Women’s Association after sitting with homeless, migrant women seeking work at textile warehouses. She wrote an article for a local newspaper detailing their problems, which the cloth merchants countered in an article of their own. But publicity from these articles led to calls to organize a labor union for self-employed women. This was a fairly novel idea, because the self-employed had no real history of organizing, and they struggled to become recognized as an official trade union. She also had to struggle with other labor unions to find common cause, and to create space for an assertive women’s group in their midst. Ela’s dynamic and inspiring leadership and courage helped SEWA include and defend the lower-caste untouchables. Because of this outspokenness, SEWA lost some connections with the labor industry, but began to grow even faster and started new initiatives.
SEWA’s main goals are to organize women workers for full employment, meaning they are able to obtain work security, income security, health care, child care, and shelter. They also work for women’s self-reliance, both economically and in decision-making ability. They challenge the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy, while also providing development activities that strengthen women’s bargaining power and offer new alternatives. They also offer supportive services like savings and credit, health care, child care, insurance, legal aid, capacity building, and communication services – many of these were initiated and run by the women members themselves.
Ela’s collaborative leadership was recognized when she was invited to be part of the Elders, a group of world leaders that contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. The Elders work globally on priority issue areas including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Korean Peninsula, Sudan and South Sudan, sustainable development and equality for girls and women. Ela is particularly involved in the Elders’ initiative on equality for women and girls, including the issue of child marriage.