Ela Bhatt, renowned Gandhian and founder of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), passed away in Ahmedabad on November 2 following a brief illness. She was 89. A board member of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ela Bhatt was a receipient of the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shree and was also a Rajya Sabha member. She will be best remembered for her pioneering work in the women’s empowerment movement and the legacy she leaves in the form of creating India’s first cooperative bank for women—SEWA Bank.
Ela Bhatt was known as a “gentle revolutionary” whose vision and leadership saw lakhs of women find financial inclusion across the country. Her microfinance model for women has been replicated in different States in India and used as a framework in other parts of the world.
A highly-respected citizen, she had recently resigned as chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a university founded by Mahatma Gandhi, citing age and deteriorating health as the reason.
Born and raised in Surat, Ela Bhatt completed her education to qualify as a lawyer. She joined the Textile Labour Association in 1955, a union that emerged after a textile strike led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1918. According to material available from SEWA, Ela Bhatt’s work at the women’s wing of the union and continuous interaction with women migrants in the textile sector led her to conceptualise the self-help group.
Ela Bhatt founded SEWA in 1972. Over five decades it has grown into an organisation with a membership of approximately 20 lakh women spread over 125 vocational and trade groups. SEWA Bank was started in 1974, leading the way for microfinance movements across the world. Ela Bhatt also founded and chaired Women’s World Banking (WWB), a global network of microfinance organisations.
Recognised globally for her work, she served as an advisor to the World Bank and was a key participant of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by former South African president Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and peace. She won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977.