Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ela Bhatt - An Empire for Poor Working Women

The Saturday Profile - An Empire for Poor Working Women, Guided by a Gandhian Approach
BORN to a privileged Brahmin family, Mrs. Bhatt charted an unusual path for a woman of her time. She earned a law degree and chose the man she would marry. She began her career as a lawyer for the city’s main union for textile workers, the vast majority of them men, and broke away in 1981 to create a new kind of union for women.

Early on, she won higher rates for women porters, then a landmark legal victory that allowed women to sell fruits and vegetables on the street without harassment from the police. The fishmongers and quilt-makers who were SEWA Bank’s earliest customers sometimes stashed their checkbooks in the bank’s steel cabinets, she recalled, lest their husbands discover they had money of their own.

At first, the women’s ambitions were limited, she said. They wanted toilets, hair shears or sewing machines for work and money to pay for their children’s school fees. Slowly, she noticed, they began to dream big. Mothers now want their daughters to learn to ride a scooter and work on a computer.

“They didn’t see the future at that time,” she said. “Expectations have gone very high.”

Not long ago, Mrs. Bhatt recalled, she 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 every day.”

Then she told of her favorite. Freedom, one woman said, was “looking a policeman in the eye.”

Here's her biography page at Wikipedia: Ela Bhatt. I may never have heard of her before, but she sure travels in exalted company -- from Nelson Mandela, to Jimmy Carter, to the trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation.

1 comment:

  1. Then she told of her favorite. Freedom, one woman said, was “looking a policeman in the eye.”

    What a great and poignant comment!