A hand that lifts India's downtrodden women

Ahmedabad, India. Thirty-five years ago in this once-thriving textile town, Ela Bhatt fought for higher wages for women who ferried bolts of cloth on their heads. Then, she created India's first women's bank.

20 March 2009

Excerpts from an article by Somini Sengupta, published on 6 March 2009 in the International Herald Tribune

Since then, her Self-Employed Women’s Association, or Sewa, has offered retirement accounts and health insurance to women who never had a safety net, lent working capital to entrepreneurs to open beauty salons in the slums, helped artisans sell their handiwork to new urban department stores, and trained its members to become gasoline station attendants - an audacious job for women on the bottom of the social ladder.

Small, soft-spoken and usually dressed in a grandmotherly hand-spun cotton sari, Bhatt, 76, is a Gandhian pragmatist for the new India.

She is a critic of some aspects of India’s embrace of market reforms. But she wants to see the poorest of Indian workers get a stake in the country’s swelling and swiftly globalizing economy.

She has built a formidable empire of women-run cooperatives - 100, at last count - some providing child care for working mothers, others selling sesame seeds to Indian food processing firms, and they are all modeled on the Gandhian ideal of self-sufficiency, while also advancing modern ambitions.
(…) Tinsmiths or pickle-makers, embroiderers or vendors of onions, Sewa’s members are mostly employed in the informal sector. They get no regular paychecks, sick leave or holidays. (…) Without Sewa, they would be hard-pressed to have health benefits or access to credit.

With 500,000 members in the western state of Gujarat alone, the Sewa empire also includes two profit-making firms that stitch and embroider women’s clothing sold by an upscale department store chain. More than 100,000 women are enrolled in its health and life insurance plans. Its bank has 350,000 depositors and a very high repayment rate - as much as 97 percent. Loans range from around $100 to $1,100, with a steep interest rate of 15 percent. "We don’t have a liquidity problem," its manager, Jayshree Vyas, pointed out merrily. "Women save."

On a recent morning, Behrampura buzzed with work and hustle. Men dissembled old television sets and filled new sofas. A woman pushed a hand cart loaded with used suitcases. Another herded a half-dozen donkeys piled with construction debris.

(…) Bhatt’s Gandhian approach is evident in the way she lives. Her two-bedroom bungalow is small and spare. The one bit of whimsy is a white swing that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the living room. She uses her bed as a desk chair. Her grandson has painted a child’s pastoral mural on the bedroom wall. She is known for having no indulgences.

"Above all, you should emphasize her simplicity," said Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management here who has followed Sewa’s work for over a decade, sometimes critically. "In her personal life, there is not the slightest tinge of hypocrisy."

(…) Not long ago, Bhatt asked Sewa members what freedom meant to them. Some said it was the ability to step out of the house. Others said it was having a door to the bathroom. Some said it meant having their own money, a cellphone or "fresh clothes everyday." Then she told of her favorite. Freedom, one woman said, was "looking a policeman in the eye."


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