Thursday, September 28, 2023

Ela Bhatt: Why I Feel Robbed

Must read

Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Visionary, Feminist, Gandhian – Elaben dedicated her life to the cause of women’s rights and empowerment

By Jumana Shah: Like a million women across India, I feel bereft. Ela Bhatt’s passing is that moment in life when you stop and consider what the idea of ​​the person means and how it has shaped you.

My first interview with Elaben was about two decades ago at her home in Ahmedabad, interestingly called “Toy House.” I was a young reporter at a local newspaper, and in my mind she was a towering celebrity. Although she was small, she walked with an urgency that conflicted with her soft-spoken demeanor.

What struck me in that first interview was her patience. The passion with which she spoke about her story of fighting the forces, fighting for women’s rights, the path she had taken, the challenges and rationale behind the choices she had made. As fascinating as the story is, she must have repeated it for the umpteenth time for a novice reporter.

Perhaps not consciously, but she was aware that reading facts about her journey would not have transferred her conviction and passion to the reporter. After those two hours I was a changed person. Looking at that simple, determined face, stripped of all make-up, dressed in a simple khadi sari, sitting on a simple sofa also covered in khadi, the magnitude of the word empathy really dawned. The ease with which you could connect with her, and the respect and empathy you would see in her eyes when you talked about the women she worked with, couldn’t have made you the same person you were before you knew her.

I will always remember her as a strong, courageous, kind and empathetic woman. A rare type, especially for her time, when feminism didn’t exist and championing women’s rights was considered blasphemy, especially in the villages.

A trained lawyer, Elaben joined the legal division of Majur Mahajan or the Textile Laborers’ Association (TLA), founded by Anasuya Sarabhai with Mahatma Gandhi to fight for the rights of workers in textile factories. She soon realized that the wives of these workers had no agency and were the most vulnerable. They were exploited for wages in the unorganized sector.

With the simple thought of educating and empowering them financially so that they are not exploited for their lack of education, she founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972. Her roots as a union leader – understanding the needs of others, but above all without the desire for credit or position – made her a catalyst for change.

Making microfinance available to women in the unorganized sector, supported by health care and education for children, was central to her movement. Money in their bank accounts gave women courage, confidence and inspiration. What’s especially admirable is that she didn’t pluck them out of their cultural milieu or the challenging environment. At SEWA, women receive education, skills and resources to be self-reliant and thrive in their own ecosystem. The fight against orthodoxy surrounding women’s financial independence continues through dialogue rather than disagreement.

Elaben’s understanding of women in villages and tireless grassroots work got her international attention. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had great respect for her work, as did former UK First Lady Cherie Blair. Both have visited SEWA facilities and continue to share a warm relationship with the organization. Speaking at the UN in 2011, Elaben was a member of the group The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, made up of well-known statesmen, peace and human rights activists. She has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, Ramon Magsaysay Award and Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, to name a few.

“At SEWA, of any company, we ask the following questions: Will this action increase employment? Will income increase? Will it increase assets? Will it make the individual and the collective more self-reliant? Will there be more access to healthcare, childcare, water and sanitation? Does it provide better housing? Will it bring more food and better nutrition? Will it strengthen the community? And will leadership come from the local community, from the people whose lives it affects? If the answer is yes, we are reassured that we are moving towards inclusiveness and justice,” Elaben said in her speech to the UN, summarizing the ethos of her life’s work.

In 2013, she walked the ramp in Ahmedabad at a SEWA event to showcase handicrafts on contemporary garments by artisan women. She was very reserved and extremely shy of attention, not judgment. But when I saw her onstage, the grace and panache of the lady, whose simple, low-slung bun hadn’t changed since she was 20, was breathtaking.

Another aspect of her life was her choice to live as a Gandhian. She spoke to me at length about what it meant to her to be a Gandhian. That it went far beyond the material aspect of wearing khadi, although she only wore khadi. Internalizing Gandhi’s values ​​and mustering the courage to put them into practice day after day was what made a Gandhian real. She was the chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, until last month, an institution founded by Mahatma Gandhi, and the chairman of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust.

Minutes before she breathed her last at a hospital in Ahmedabad, Elaben asked her daughter-in-law Reema Nanavaty to discuss her vision for a new SEWA initiative they were working on. And she conveyed her vision – one of her last words. She was 89. She led an inspiring life. Loved, respected and admired.

Subscribe to India Today Magazine

More articles

Latest article