We have just observed International Women’s Day on Sunday [8th March]. In 1975 the United Nations declared 8th March to be the Women’s Day to commemorate the first ever International Women’s Day gathering in 1911. This year we in India witnessed the usual hype, optics, award distribution and ceremonial messages by dignitaries from home and abroad. Well the intention here is not to deprecate the intentions behind such observances or celebrations. We have made significant progress towards the cause of gender equality and empowerment of women and this is an occasion for acknowledging and celebrating the role played by women. According to un.org the Day “is a time to reflect all progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women, who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities”. UN also admits that “the world has made unprecedented advances, but no country has achieved gender equality”. Though women comprise half of our population, ours is still a male dominated society with leadership in most fields still in the hands of men. It has been a struggle for the lady officers of our armed forces to be considered worthy of senior leadership positions. It is indeed heartening that despite the government stand, our Honourable Supreme Court in a landmark judgment last month [18th February] cleared permanent commission and command roles for women. This, of course, is not the first male bastion to be challenged. Though many Indian women mountaineers have scaled Mount Everest, our airlines have flights fully ‘manned’ by women and our women have won laurels in international sports on par with men, deep rooted prejudices and misogynic attitudes continue to tarnish the image of the country. Though Indira Gandhi did become a powerful Prime Minister and Pratibha Patil, the President of India, the presence of women in the top echelons of political power continues to be miniscule. Let’s hope that sooner than later women would get equal share in political power.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I have chosen to highlight the contribution of one of our outstanding women leaders. It was no easy task to decide on one person, though there are women in almost every field of activity. After considering the life and work of many leading women leaders whose contributions impacted the quality of life of millions of poor and marginalized women, I zeroed in on Ela Bhat. The contribution of the really inspiring Ela Bhat, the octogenarian founder of SEWA [Self-Employed Women’s Association] has been seminal. She mobilized lakhs of women in Ahmedabad and elsewhere to be self reliant and self respecting through cooperative efforts. Born in 1933 in Ahmedabad, a committed Gandhian, Bhat got involved in the labour movement after her university education. After a brief academic career and government positions Bhat joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association [TLA] in Ahmedabad in 1955. In 1968 the Association chose her to head its women’s wing. In that position she was dealing with female textile workers who worked elsewhere to supplement their income. These self-employed women workers did not enjoy any legal protection like other industrial workers.
With the active support and cooperation of Arvind Buch, the president of the Textile Labour Association, Bhat organized self employed women in Ahmedabad into a union under the aegis of the TLA. In 1972 the Self Employed Women’s Association [Its meaningful abbreviation is SEWA [pronounced ‘seva’, which means service]. Buch was the founding president and Ela Bhat, the general secretary, a position she held from 1972 to 1996.
At this point it is worth recalling the strike of the textile workers in Ahmedabad in 1918 during our freedom struggle. Ahmedabad then was a bustling textile city with a huge labor force. There was a major dispute between the textile mill owners and the textile workers. The workers were demanding a 50% increase in bonus and the mill owners were just not willing to accept their demand. The workers went on a prolonged strike and were on the verge of starvation. The sympathy of Gandhi ji was towards the striking workers even as he was a friend of the mill owners, especially their leader Ambalal Sarabhai. For the warring factions to come to a settlement, Gandhi ji started a fast until death, on the third day of which the strike ended. Gandhi ji has written extensively on the strike of the mill workers in his autobiography, ‘My Experiments with Truth’ how he succeeded in motivating the volatile workers to adopt non violent means for their struggle; and it was nonviolent indeed.
Gandhi ji had convinced the disorderly strikers by getting them take a pledge that they would never resort to violence and it had worked like a ‘mantra’. Following the footsteps of the Mahatma Ela Bhat too was a strong believer in nonviolence while mobilizing the vegetable vendors in Ahmedabad. She recalls, "I remember a Satyagraha that we had launched in SEWA against the police authorities in the downtown market of Ahmedabad city. The vegetable vendors, who had plied their trade in that market for three generations were being pushed out by the municipal and police authorities to make room for smooth flow of vehicular traffic. The vendors resisted the police order quietly and firmly. As the police was to physically remove them the next morning, thousands of SEWA women stretched themselves on the open ground of the market squares during the night. No police could touch them to push, nor could the municipal officers pass an order to remove them". Bhat adds, "Our demands were just and minimum, i.e. to allow us to earn our living in this market, as we are an integral part of this market for the last three generations. As vendors we are providing a useful service to the society". (From the Forward of the book, ‘Gandhi on Women’ by Pushpa Joshi).
Again, Bhat had emphasized that the nonviolent resistance had helped the poor women in garnering public support in their just struggle. She also says that SEWA succeeded in establishing their credibility in the hearts of the public and also of their opponents because of their truthfulness, straight- forwardness and nonviolent means.
Bhat also mentions that the tradition-bound SEWA women have been able to "come out of the restrictions based on caste and religion during the times of crisis". For example during one of the riots in Ahmedabad, "local SEWA leaders in their streets actually stopped the men of their own family from doing violence and protected the families of the minority community in the 'mohalla' (neighbourhood) from communal attacks".
Bhat gives another example of Chandaben, a local SEWA leader who often has to go to the police to take up causes of her members. So she is not a popular person in the police department and often she has to face all kinds of humiliations. Chandaben however says, "I enjoy this suffering. These insults do not hurt me, they are my pride! I feel stronger when I suffer for my sisters." Reacting to this statement of Chandaben, Ela Bhat asks," Didn't Gandhi ji speak similar words in relation to the humiliations he faced from the British authorities? Each one of us has experienced that tremendous strength generated from a struggle for justice". Bhat also quotes Karimabibi, SEWA Vice President thus, "By participating in struggles, we have been gradually able to liberate ourselves from ' Purdha' and such social taboos".
SEWA has been built up and its members mentored in true Gandhian values. No wonder the organization founded and nurtured by Ela Bhat in Gandhian ways and that has been its success. If the members of SEWA are shining examples of women who are self reliant, useful to the community and believe in selfless volunteers involved in constructive work, a humble, almost self effacing and dedicated Ela Bhat is the reason.
The book “We Are Poor but So Many: The Story of Self-Employed Women in India” is authored by Ela Bhat. In the Introduction of the book she has written about what she has learned about the combined struggles of SEWA women against poverty and prejudice. It also highlights the role that trade cooperatives play in economic development and to show the impact of the larger economy on the lives of the women. It is the story of how SEWA brought together a sense of sisterhood, women of all castes, classes, trades, tribes and faiths. And together they have achieved much.
Ela Bhat’s leadership qualities and her untiring efforts to empower and transform innumerous hapless women have been acknowledged by the nation and the world. The nation honoured her with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and nominated her to the Rajya Sabha. Ela Bhat has been the second woman Chancellor since 2015, of Gujarat Vidyapith, a deemed university founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920.She is also a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership, The Right Livelihood Award for Changing the Human Environment, to name a few. As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day let me dedicate this column to Ela Bhat! Today, the nation needs more such genuine women leaders.