Ela Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad in India. Her childhood was spent in the city of Surat. Her father, Sumantrai Bhatt, had a successful law practice. Her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in the women's movement. Bhatt attended the Sarvajanik Girls High School in Surat from 1940 to 1948. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the M.T.B. College in Surat in 1952. Following graduation Ela entered the Sir L. A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. In 1954 she received her degree in law and a Gold Medal for her work on Hindu Law. She then taught English for a short time at SNDT Women's University, better known as SNDT, in Mumbai. In 1955 she joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad. International Diploma in Labour and Cooperatives, Israel.
Founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, 1972
Founder of India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA, 1974
Member of the Indian Parliament 1986-89
Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance
Member of The Elders since 2009
Profoundly influenced by Gandhian thinking, Bhatt advocates local, grassroots solutions for those who are poor, oppressed or suffering the effects of violent conflict. She is a firm believer in the power of creative, collective non-violent activism.
"We are poor, but so many"
Ela Bhatt, the ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.
Ela Bhatt is one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’, she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers.
In 1972 Bhatt founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for women workers in India’s huge informal sector, who make up 94 per cent of the female labour workforce and yet have never enjoyed the same rights and security as those in formal employment. Today SEWA has more than 1.2 million members across nine Indian states.
In 1974 Ela Bhatt founded the Cooperative Bank of SEWA. The bank helps women to gain financial independence and raise their standing in their families and communities - and puts into practice the Gandhian principles of self-reliance and collective action.
Empowering women workers
Among the organisations Ela Bhatt has created and inspired, she founded and chairs:
Sa-Dhan (the All India Association of Micro Finance Institutions in India)
The Indian School of Micro-finance for Women
Women’s World Banking
The International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet)
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO)
Bhatt has also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for more than ten years. In recognition of her work to improve the status of women and the working poor in India and elsewhere, Ela Bhatt was awarded the first-ever Global Fairness Initiative Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood Award, the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, and the Légion d’honneur from France. She has also received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale and the University of Natal.