February 19, 2020
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Ela Bhatt, SEWA

SEWA, which was initially registered as a trade union in 1972, became a confluence of three movements: labour, cooperative and women’s.

Ela Bhatt, SEWA
Photograph by Soumik Kar
Ela Bhatt, SEWA
  • In 2013, SEWA’s membership peaked to cross 19 lakh


Midway an interview some years ago, Ela Bhatt was asked how normal people could contribute to empowering women. Pat came her reply: “Am I not normal?”

It’s only with awe that one can grasp the scale of what the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has achieved in the 45 years since Bhatt decided to work for women workers in the unorganised, informal sector. In 1971, as a 39-year-old lawyer, Bhatt was working with textile workers in Ahmedabad when she realised how many women around her were economically active doing small jobs of various kinds but yet were informal labour. “My legal training was of no use to them because they were not covered by any legislation or entitlement of social security,” was how Bhatt once explained the beginni­ngs of SEWA to an interviewer. The first members were women working as head-­loaders and handcart pullers.

In a few months after it was founded in 1972, SEWA was registered as a trade union—a novel idea then, because its members were self-employed. Within three years, it enlisted over 5,000 members. Next came an answer to the burden of usurious loans: the Mahila SEWA Cooperative Bank. SEWA, in its own words, became a confluence of sorts of three: the labour movement, cooperative movement and the women’s movement. SEWA’s membership has been growing over the years, peaking in 2013 with over 19 lakh members.

As Bhatt put it, in 1979, while accepting the Ramon Magsaysay Award, “from humble experience, I have learned that it is possible to organise, without too much elaborate technique or expense, poor self-employed women workers for self-help.” Three questions, she feels, are at the crossroads of thought and action. ”What impact will my action have on me? What impact will my action have on our planet and the people who live in it? And what impact will my action—or inaction—have on future generations and the human spirit? Whenever I need to get my bearings, and get in partnership with my conscience, I turn to these questions, and the answers I get are always direct, no-nonsense and peaceful.”

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