Elaben Bhatt, the well-known women’s activist and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), died in a hospital in Ahmedabad in Gujarat on Wednesday after a short illness. She was 89 years old.
Elaben, as she was called, founded SEWA in 1972, one of the largest women’s cooperatives and national unions, which emerged from a textile union. SEWA has a membership base of over 2.1 million poor, self-employed, informal sector workers in 18 states and entities abroad.
A qualified attorney, Bhatt was also Chairman of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT).
Born in 1933, Bhatt attended Sarwajanik Girls High School in Surat, where she was also affiliated, and graduated from MTB Arts College.
In 1955, a year after graduating from law school, Bhatt joined the legal department of the oldest textile workers’ union called the Textile Labor Association (TLA). The labor organization was founded in 1920 after a textile workers’ strike led by Mahatma Gandhi.
Inspired by Gandhiji, Bhatt founded SEWA, which established a credit union in 1974 to provide small loans to women. Bhatt also co-founded Women’s World Banking (WWB), a global network of microfinance organizations, of which she was Chair from 1984-1988.
The social activist was appointed MP for Rajya Sabha, where she served until 1989. She has also been an advisor to organizations such as the World Bank. In 2007 she joined the Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and peace.
She recently resigned as Chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith University founded by Mahatma Gandhi.
Bhatt is survived by her son Mihir, daughter Amimayi, daughter-in-law Reema Nanavaty and grandchildren.