Elaben Bhatt, Gandhian, SEWA founder, and women’s empowerment activist, dies

She was globally recognised as a woman leader and was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, Ramon Magsaysay award, and the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, among other accolades.

November 02, 2022 05:33 pm | Updated November 03, 2022 12:24 am IST - AHMEDABAD

File picture of Ela Ramesh Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

File picture of Ela Ramesh Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Elaben Bhatt, 89, noted Gandhian, leading women’s empowerment activist, and renowned founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) passed away on Wednesday in a hospital in Ahmedabad after a brief illness. 

The recipient of national and international awards, including the Padma Bhushan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize and many other accolades, she was globally recognised as a woman leader who founded many institutions and carried out pioneering work in organising the informal sector for self-employment and empowerment of women not only in India but across South Asia. 

Elaben was the Chairperson of Sabarmati Ashram and recently resigned as the Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi-founded Gujarat Vidhyapith. 

In 2007, she became the part of a group of world leaders called the Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and peace across the world. 

She was also a Member of the Rajya Sabha and of the Planning Commission of India in the 1980s. She served in many international organisations, including Women’s World Banking, a global network of microfinance organisations, of which she was co-founder and had served as Chairperson. She also served as an advisor to the World Bank, and addressed the United Nations General Assembly. 

Founded by her in 1972, SEWA is one of the largest cooperatives working for women, with a base of over two million members from around 18 States in the country and in neighbouring nations. 

In 2012, she was praised by then then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I have a lot of heroes and heroines around the world and one of them is Ela Bhatt, who started an organisation called the SEWA in India many years ago,” Ms. Clinton had said. 

Elaben was born on September 7, 1933, in Ahmedabad, in a family that engaged in social causes. Her father, Sumant Bhatt, was a lawyer who served as a district judge and was later appointed the Charity Commissioner for Bombay and then Gujarat, where he supervised the work of all charitable organisations, trusts and NGOs. 

Her mother, Vanalila Vyas, served as secretary of the Gujarat branch of the All India Women’s Conference for some time. The organisation, founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1927, worked for educational and social reforms. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has condoled her death. “Sad to know about the death of Elaben Bhatt. She will be remembered long for her work for the promotion of women’s empowerment, social service and education among the youth. Condolences to her family members and admirers,” Mr. Modi tweeted in Gujarati.

Rahul Gandhi also posted a condolence message on his Twitter handle: “Saddened by the demise of noted activist and Padma Bhushan awardee, Smt. Ela Bhatt. She devoted her life to Gandhian ideals and transformed the lives of millions of women, by empowering them. My heartfelt condolences to her near & dear ones, and her many admirers.” 

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and many other political leaders expressed their condolences over her demise. 

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