Ela Bhatt is widely recognised as one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. She is a founding member of The Elders, a group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, convened to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’ she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers, with Gandhian thinking as her source of guidance. In her own words: ‘Poverty can only be removed with the participation of women.’
You are a recent laureate of the Freedom from Want, one of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedom Awards. What does Freedom from Want represent to you?
‘For me it relates to what has been my focus for so many decades: to get recognition for the women workers in India’s huge informal sector. They make up more than 90% of the female labour force. They work as street vendors, in-home seamstresses, weavers, construction workers or as farmers, yet they are excluded despite their contribution to the country’s national income. Excluded from access to finance, healthcare, education and social security. Economists call them the informal sector but I call them self-employed. These women don’t need charity. What they need is productive work to focus on, work security and a regular income for themselves and their families. Full-employment and self-reliance are key in achieving this.’
For this reason you founded the trade union Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972 which has now more than a million members across nine Indian states. This was followed by the start of SEWA Bank in 1974. Why did you start a bank?
‘Because there was a pressing need among the women. First of all, a pressing need for a safe place to save money. They no longer wanted to hide their earned money under the mattress or in their clothing. The cooperative SEWA Bank was founded by a few thousand women who put their savings with us. They provided the capital base for the start of the bank and have so done since. And also because of their need for credit facilities. Women were used to paying 10% interest per day to their middlemen. Access to credit from SEWA Bank freed them from the cycle of eternal debt. Credit means trust in Latin. We see it as a continued relationship based on trust, with the clients and their livelihoods.’
And have you expanded services since?
‘Yes, because I believe in joint action. It is not only the trade union but also the cooperatives, the bank and through financial services such as insurance, pension schemes and financial literacy programs that women are empowered. In these financial literacy programs we teach women that it is okay to get a loan for their business but that for expenses like school fees and weddings they need to save first.’
Looking back on the 40 years since the start of SEWA, what strikes you most?
‘Women’s resilience. Their courage, their enthusiasm and their capacity to think fresh. Women work together naturally, they are ready to compromise and are open to change because they see the impact it has on their families. Contrary to men they don’t go for quick results but focus on the future. They also think ecologically: they are in tune with the rhythm of nature; because of the water they need to collect daily and the land they work on. I strongly believe that poverty can only be removed with the help of women. But in order to fight poverty these women need to have assets. And let me tell you, assets are safest in the hands of women. One of the things that we achieved through our activities is that the woman’s name is mentioned first on the property title, e.g. of land. This was legally accepted but not socially. We have changed that. And contrary to men, women don’t mortgage that property. They see it as a safe, secure and solid asset.’
Your activities are not limited to India. You are among the founding members of New York-based Women’s World Banking, an organisation that works globally to economically empower poor women and their families. How did you become involved?
‘It all started at the world conference of the international women’s year in Mexico City in 1975. There I met with Esther Afua Ocloo from Ghana. She shared her stories about the position of market women in the capital city Accra and their need for economic empowerment. I could share my experiences with SEWA and SEWA Bank. We both acknowledged the women’s need for access to financial services and decided we must have a world bank for women. Thanks to Michaela Walsh from the US, a Wall Street banker, Friends of Women’s World Banking was founded which provided the capital for the foundation of Women’s World Banking in 1979. An organisation still very much alive and active across 27 countries worldwide focused on microfinance institutions led by women and aimed at women.’
Based upon your long involvement with Women’s World Banking, do you feel that the challenges faced by women in India are different from those faced in Latin America, Africa and other Asian countries?
‘It is difficult to generalise but what I see as a common denominator is their inaccessibility. With regard to financial services, to insurance, pensions and social security. Another thing is the way they are perceived. Policymakers see women as beneficiaries while the big companies see them as a new consumer market. They are, however, not recognised as producers, as entrepreneurs who contribute to economic activity and to the GDP. And this perception must change!’
You are seen as a ‘gentle revolutionary’ profoundly influenced by Gandhian thinking. Can you elaborate on that?
‘With SEWA we put into practice the Gandhian principles of self-reliance and collective action. And Gandhi saw the importance of developing rural India. And I too firmly believe that local is the answer. Local is green, sustainable. Local production, local consumption and local renewal leads to strong local economies with access to healthcare and education. Impulsive migration to cities, which have become monstrous, takes people away from their homeland, their families, their roots and their skills and knowledge. Urbanisation is not a necessity for the development of a country.
Gandhi didn’t say anything new. The values he advocated and represented are universal and of all times. Truth, peace, non-violence, self-reliance and simplicity. And we all carry these values in us. Think holistically and simultaneously. In your personal life, but also in your public, economic and political life. Whatever activity you do, think how it relates to you, to the community, to society and ultimately to the universe.’