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SEWA Founder And Padma Bhushan Recipient Ela Bhatt passes away at the age of 89

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

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. 

Picture: Kumaon Jagran

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. 

Ela Bhatt was born in 1933, became a lawyer, then a social worker and in 1968 was the chief of the women's section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, India. In this position, she witnessed first-hand the conditions suffered by poor self-employed women in the city and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

Picture: Kumaon Jagran

It was to address this situation that in 1972 Bhatt set up the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). Within three years SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government - a formidable hurdle to have surmounted. By December 1995, its members numbered 218,700, making it the largest single union in India.

She also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for a decade and has been recognised in India and internationally for her work. Among those honours and awards are:

  • The Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership

  • The Right Livelihood Award for Changing the Human Environment

  • Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, two of India’s highest civilian honours

  • George Meany-Lane Kirkland Labour Rights Award, AFL-CIO, US

  • Légion d’honneur, France. 

  • Madrid Creatividad Award

  • CGAE Human Rights Award, Spain

  • Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development

  • The Freedom from Want Medal by Roosevelt Institute of Netherlands

In addition, she also received honorary Doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Natal, McMaster, M.S. Baroda and other universities.  

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