The great power of Ela Bhatt’s gentle revolution

Gera van Wijk – Upsides – Friday, 18 May 2012 (originally published 15 May)

Ela Bhatt speaking at the United Nations
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.’ Image: Upsides

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’ . . .

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