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In memory of Ela Ramesh Bhatt — The gentle revolutionary

by Martha Alter Chen

Ela Ramesh Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India, passed away on 2 November 2022. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’, Ela-ben (as she is affectionately known) is recognized around the world for her Gandhian values, visionary ideals, pioneering work, and quiet, centered humanity.

Established in 1972, SEWA is the largest trade union in India, and the largest union of informal workers in the world, with over two million women members from multiple trades. It is also a sisterhood of institutions including a cooperative bank, an insurance cooperative, and over 100 producer and service cooperatives. It is world-renowned for its unique and effective blend of trade union activism and development interventions, with —as its core function— the building of institutions owned and managed by working poor women.

Ela Bhatt was a member of the Indian Parliament and subsequently the Indian Planning Commission. She was a Member of the Elders and served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. She co-founded and served as chair of two global networks: Women’s World Banking and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). She was a pioneering leader of —and abiding inspiration to— four global movements: the women’s movement, the micro-finance movement, the labour movement, and the movement of informal workers. She received many awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Right Livelihoods Award, as well as honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of KwaZulu Natal, Yale University, and other academic institutions. 

Ela Bhatt (left) with Marty Chen (right) at the WIEGO General Assembly in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 2010.


I had the deep privilege and joy of working closely with Ela-ben for 46 years. She was my mentor, intellectual companion, and comrade sister in the struggle for economic justice for the working poor and in the informal economy —and the dearest of friends. She was the moral compass —the North Star— of the global network WIEGO that we co-founded in 1997. I cannot imagine SEWA, WIEGO, my life, or the world without her gentle, moral presence.

Marty Chen
Senior Advisor, WIEGO
Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Marty Chen is also the Chair of the WIDER Board


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

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