Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association, was presented with the first Global Fairness Initiative Award by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “for her contribution to India and particularly the women of India, and to the global community.”

Speaking at the awards ceremony held at the Kennedy Center here, Ms. Clinton said Ms. Bhatt had spent nearly every day of the past four decades helping move more than a million poor women in India to a position of dignity and independence.

On her path-breaking work through SEWA, Ms. Clinton said Ms. Bhatt had helped provide women with access to opportunities they did not have before, including a chance to start a business, send their children to school, open their own bank accounts, or simply be treated with respect by their husbands, families and authorities.

Although she had known Ms. Bhatt for 15 years she had heard about Ms. Bhatt even before they met in 1995 when, as First Lady, she travelled to SEWA's Ahmedabad headquarters, Ms. Clinton recalled.

During that visit, she did not know what to expect but was overwhelmed when she was greeted by a “huge group of women, wearing saris that were all the colours of the rainbow,” many of whom were ragpickers who had walked 12-18 hours to get to the meeting.

“We sat together under a sweltering tent and I listened as, one by one, they told me about how SEWA had changed their lives and how they now had a belief in themselves that was absolutely unthinkable before they became involved,” Ms. Clinton said.

Further outlining some of Ms. Bhatt's key contributions to women's rights in India, Ms. Clinton commented on her ideas of investing in women as “one of the most powerful ways to fight poverty,” and the innovative programmes that Ms. Bhatt pioneered, providing the poor with access to services such as credit, banking, sick leave and child care.

SEWA, with a membership of over 1.2 million, works towards “strengthening women's leadership, their confidence, their bargaining power within and outside their homes and their representation on policy-making and decision-making fora,” according to Reema Nanavaty, a director, who was in Washington a few months ago.