On 7th September 1933, Ela Bhatt, lawyer, activist and founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) was born in Ahmedabad. Bhatt’s father was a successful lawyer and her mother was a women’s rights activist.
In 1954 Bhatt obtained a degree in law, she also got a gold medal for her work on Hindu Law. Following this, she taught English for a short while at the SNDT Women’s College in Mumbai and in 1955 she joined the textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.
In 1968, Ela Bhatt was asked by the TLA to head its women’s wing. For this purpose Bhatt travelled to Israel to study at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperation in Tel Aviv, from where she received an International Diploma of Labour and Cooperatives in 1971. Bhatt was highly influenced by the fact that there were thousands of women textile workers who even worked for other jobs to add to their family income, but the state laws only protected women who were entirely industrial workers and not the other self-employed women. Along with Arvind Buch, the then President of the TLA, Bhatt organized these self-employed women into a group under the Women’s Wing of the TLA. The Self Employed Women’s Association of India was established in 1972, with Arvind Buch as its President and Ela Bhatt as General Secretary.
SEWA essentially grew out of the TLA, which was the largest union of textile workers founded by Anasuya Sarabhai in 1920. The TLA was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that workers should be aware of their rights and unite against the dictatorship of their employers. Based on this principle of Gandhi and the feminist outlook of Anusuya Sarabhai, the TLA began their women’s wing in 1954. Originally the wing focused on assisting women who were household members of mill workers, but later in 1968 sewing, knitting, embroidery and even typing and stenography classes were started for the wives and daughters of mill workers.
In the early 1970’s, a survey was carried out to study the complaints of women tailors who were being exploited by contractors. The survey further discovered that there was large scale exploitation of female workers and a large number of these cases were not taken up by the government legislation.
In 1971 a small group of women migrant workers in Ahmedabad cloth market came to TLA, represented by their labour contractor. He wanted to know if the TLA could help these women find accommodation since they were then living on the streets. They met Ela Bhatt the head of the Women’s Wing, who went with these women to see where they lived and worked. Following this, Bhatt met with other women who worked as labour and who received low and erratic wages. After meeting with these women, Bhatt wrote a newspaper article highlighting the problems faced by these women. The contractors of these female employees countered these claims by a newspaper article of their own.
The Women’s Wing used this contradictory news article to their advantage by printing them out and distributing them among workers and asking them to enjoy the benefits of the claims the contractors had made by approaching them. Word of this clever ploy spread and more used garments dealers approached the TLA with their concerns. A large meeting of used garments dealers was arranged and over a hundred women attended this. During this meeting a woman suggested that they form an organization of their own and hence SEWA was founded in December 1971 with Ela Bhatt and Arvind Buch, the President of the TLA.
Eventually, the women of SEWA thought that SEWA should be established as a Trade Union. This was a unique idea at that time because of the lack of history behind self-employment. The first challenge for SEWA was getting recognition as a Trade Union. The Labour Department was not keen on registering them as one since it felt that there were no recognized employers in which case, there was no one for workers to struggle against. Finally in 1972, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union and continued growing and adding more members into its folds. By 1975, which was also the beginning of the Women’s Decade, SEWA received an enormous boost and became a part of the women’s movement.
By 1981 relations between TLA and SEWA had begun to grow weak as the TLA did not look favourably at a strong willed women’s group in their midst. Relationships got worse after anti-reservation riots broke out and members of a higher caste attacked members belonging to a lower caste. The TLA remained silent in this regard, whereas, SEWA spoke out against this injustice. Because of this outspokenness, TLA asked SEWA to leave their folds.
After branching out of the TLA, SEWA grew faster and began new initiatives. Over the years SEWA has supported the growth of new co-operatives and other support services which have boosted the image of SEWA considerably. Apart from this, SEWA has many other sister organizations such as SEWA Bank, SEWA Academy, SEWA Research, SEWA Housing and Vimo SEWA, among others.
Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA has received many prestigious awards and honours such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1977), Right Livelihood Award (1984), the Padma Shri (1985), Padma Bhushan (1986), Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters from Harvard University (2001) and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in 2013 by President Pranab Mukherjee for her lifetime commitment to women’s empowerment through her grassroots level work.
Also on This Day:
1947: Mahatma Gandhi leaves Calcutta for Delhi; commences daily visits to riot-affected areas.
1968: Benipuri Sharma, famous Hindi novelist, died.