New age Gandhi leads women from front
By Smitha Rajan & Jumana Shah
Ahemdabad: Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a train in South Africa after he refused to move from the first class to the third class compartment. This injustice reinforced Bapu's determination to fight for his rights, eventually leading to India's struggle for freedom.
Rosa Parks, an African American, refused to give up her seat in a bus to a white passenger. Her civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an important landmark in the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
Sometime in the early '70s, a pushcart vendor broke her leg. The local labour union refused to take up her case for compensation from her employer claiming she belonged to the unorganised sector and she was a woman. A young lawyer at the time, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, decided to take up the cause of women workers in unorganised sector leading to the revolution we now know as Sewa - the Self Employed Women's Association, Ahmedabad.
A single incident of injustice has often been the catalyst for major revolutions, which go on to touch the lives of millions. Witnessing several such incidents through the years, it was this pushcart vendor's plight that spurred Ela Bhatt to decide in 1971 that women workers in the unorganised sector need to come together to form a formal trade union so that their work for their livelihood be recognised as 'work'. Four decades later, when Ben (as Bhatt is popularly called by Sewa members) recounts those times to us, we raise our eyebrows in astonishment that such times could have existed where women workers were not even formally recognised. In our surprise, lies her success of forty years.
On April 12, 1972, with a membership of around 1,035 women, Sewa was registered as a trade union. Spread over 13 states, Sewa today has 13 lakh members, multiplying every day. While the celebrations of Sewa's four decades of celebrations are going on, Elaben now wants to sit back and allow the young generation to steer the organisation forward. Modesty sits easily on this international figure for poverty alleviation and women empowerment; often called upon by the United Nations. Dressed in a mellow Khadi saree, she goes about with an unassuming air in her simple yet tastefully done up home in Navrangpura, Ahmedabad. Keen to promote the second generation of Sewa's leaders, Elaben is reluctant to talk about herself. "My story has been written about many times over. Talk to the incumbent leaders, they are doing a great job," she says.