Ela Bhatt / Self-Employed Women’s Association

Awarded 1984

India

For helping home-based producers to organise for their welfare and self-respect.

Ela Bhatt is an Indian lawyer and social worker who has fought for self-employed women’s labour rights for decades. After seeing the conditions suffered by poor self-employed women in the city and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, she set up the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972.

Within three years, SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government – a formidable hurdle to have surmounted. By December 1995, its members numbered almost 220,000, making it the largest single union in India.

Through their organisation and solidarity, SEWA members have acquired new negotiating power with their employers. They have established health, death and maternity benefit schemes to give them security. They have set up dozens of cooperatives of various trade groups to share skills and expertise, develop new tools, designs and techniques, and engage in bulk buying and joint marketing. The cooperatives have an average of over 1,000 members each.

There is no development without self-reliance. But there is no route to self-reliance except by organisation.

Ela Bhatt, 1984 Laureate

Founding SEWA

Ela Bhatt was born in 1933, became a lawyer, then a social worker and in 1968 was the chief of the women's section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, India. In this position, she witnessed first-hand the conditions suffered by poor self-employed women in the city and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

These women included weavers, stitchers, cigarette rollers, vendors of fruit, fish and vegetables, firewood and wastepaper pickers and road construction workers. Most were subject to high rents for stalls or the tools of their trade and also to routine exploitation or harassment by money-lenders, employers and officials. In Ahmedabad, 97 per cent of these women lived in slums, 93 per cent were illiterate, most were in debt and had to take with them to work some or all of their children (an average of four each).

It was to address this situation that in 1972 Bhatt set up the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). Within three years SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government - a formidable hurdle to have surmounted. By December 1995, its members numbered 218,700, making it the largest single union in India.

More negotiating power for women workers

Through their organisation and solidarity, SEWA members acquired a new negotiating power with their employers. They established health, death and maternity benefit schemes to give them security. They set up 71 cooperatives of various trade groups to share skills and expertise, to develop new tools, designs and techniques and to engage in bulk buying and joint marketing. The cooperatives have an average of over 1,000 members each.

Most importantly, perhaps, SEWA established its own bank in 1974, which today has over 70,000 accounts. This has rescued thousands of women from moneylenders and their personal possessions from pawnbrokers, allowing them to accumulate land, small assets and means of production. Its repayment rate on loans is a very impressive 96 per cent.

Bhatt has also taken the struggle for justice and recognition for self-employed women into the national and international areas. SEWA is affiliated with the International Union of Food and Tobacco Workers and the International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers. The Association has also campaigned for a convention on Home-based Workers' Recognition and Protection for the International Labour Office (ILO).

Bhatt herself was nominated by the President of India to be a member of the Indian parliament (Rajya sabha) from 1986 to 1989. She was a member of the Planning Commission of India (1989-1991) and has been chairperson and a founder member of Women's World Banking since 1980. She is a member of "The Elders," a group of global leaders founded by late South African President Nelson Mandela. In 2010, Bhatt was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize and the first-ever Global Fairness Award. In 2011, Harvard University awarded her the Radcliffe Institute Medal for her life and work. Also in 2011, Ela Bhatt was appointed to the Board of the Reserve Bank of India. The same year, she was selected for the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize.

SEWA's several decades of relentless advocacy contributed to the passage of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill in the Indian Parliament in September 2013. This law regulates street vending and provides the vendors with licenses to operate. It also prevents vendors' arbitrary eviction and regulates fines, lessening the possibility of them being harassed by corrupt officials. The Act is a landmark step towards securing the livelihoods of India's urban poor.

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