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Women, work and peace

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“Poverty is day-to-day violence, no less destructive than war.” Receiving the 2011 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, Ela Bhatt re-examines our idea of peace, arguing that equity, local economies and the empowerment of women through work are central to supporting economic freedoms, and therefore peace.

Honourable President of India, Honourable Shrimati Sonia Gandhi, Honourable Prime Minister of India, and distinguished dignitaries and friends:

Thank you for this singular honour. I humbly accept the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development on behalf of the self-employed women of SEWA. This year, SEWA is 40 years old; I turn 80. We are a sisterhood of 17 lakh [1.7 million]. Our journey is long and perhaps endless.

This prize has given honour to all working poor women and their leadership worldwide, who hold peace, disarm violence and reduce poverty with their honest work. And therefore, it gives me deep contentment to be here today. I still hope some day they will hold a central place in our economy.

Ela Bhatt

This peace prize gives us an opportunity to re-examine our ideas of what constitutes peace. Certainly, absence of war is not peace. Peace is what keeps war away, but it is more than that; peace disarms and renders war useless. Peace is a condition enjoyed by a fair and fertile society. Peace is about restoring balance in society; only then is it lasting peace. In my view, restoration and reconstruction of a society are essential and key components of the peace process worldwide.

If we look carefully at our world, we find that where there is unfair distribution of resources, there is unrest. When people cannot enjoy the fruits of their labours fairly, when they are forced off their land and homestead and forest, we have the basis of an unjust society. Where there is violence and conflict, we invariably find poverty. And where there is poverty, we find anger and acute struggles for justice and equity. And we see governments resorting to repression for ensuring ‘law and order’.

I have often stated that poverty is violence. This violence is by consensus of society that lets other human beings go without roti and kapada and makan. Poverty is not God-given. It is a moral collapse of our society. Poverty strips a person of his or her humanity and takes away freedom. Poverty is day-to-day violence, no less destructive than war. Poverty is lack of peace and freedom. In fact, removing poverty is essentially building peace. I know I am not saying anything new. Garibi Hatao to me also meant indeed Shanti Banao. Garibi Hatao is a peace song.

In India, we are proud of our multicultural society. Bahudha is at the heart of what makes us who we are: social diversity, political diversity, religious diversity, biological diversity. But in our rush to modernise let us not forget one of our greatest assets: our economic diversity. In our markets, we have the street vendor, the cart seller, the kiosk owner, the shop owner, and the supermarket owner, all plying their trades at the same time. Let them cater to different strata of society, co-existing and competing in a natural, organic way. Let our planning include ample room for the millions of small entrepreneurs and self-employed, who cater to the widest strata of society, to flourish and grow. They are the agents of an economic development that reaches the grassroots; they weave the living web of social and economic relationships that will bind our nations together.

Gandhiji talked about swaraj; he talked about economic decentralisation. I would urge us to ensure that six basic primary needs are met from resources within 100 miles around us. I call it the "100 mile principle". If food, shelter, clothing, primary education, primary healthcare and primary banking are locally produced and consumed, we will have the growth of a new holistic economy, that the world will sit up and take note of. And it is possible in and around India – in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan – women have done it.

Catching up with western economic models will turn us into incompetent followers, not leaders. But if we address the realities of our own countries, we can create a development that makes us leaders of our destiny. Let me make clear, however, that the 100 mile principle is not a recipe for isolation. I am not asking at all that we go back but move forward with heightened awareness about how and where we spend our money and what our work is doing to us and those around us. In fact, technologies can help to share knowledge and ideas across countries.

However, we do need to get away from a world where people grow what they do not eat, and eat what they do not grow; where they have lost control over their basic production and daily consumption; where they have become part of a system whose outcomes are determined by people far away, in a manner not in their interest and outside their control. This awareness is already growing among the younger generation the world over. In India, we have a running start because our local economies are still alive. Let us give them the respect they deserve by investing in people who survive despite our neglect.

And where do we start? I have faith in women. Women have shown, if we care to observe, that disarmament in the end is not a treaty by two nations to render arms useless, though such treaties are much-needed in this world. In my experience, as I have seen within India and in other countries, women are the key to rebuilding a community. Why? Focus on women and you will find an ally who wants a stable community. She wants roots for her family. You get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker, a forger of bonds. I consider thousands of poor working women’s participation and representation an integral part of the peace and development process. Women bring constructive, creative and sustainable solutions to the table.

Also, in my experience, productive work is the thread that weaves a society together. When you have work, you have an incentive to maintain a stable society. You cannot only see the future, but you can plan for the future. You can build assets and invest in the next generation. Life is no longer just about survival. Work builds peace because work gives people roots, as well as allowing them to flower; it builds communities and it gives meaning and dignity to one’s life. Work restores man’s relationships with himself, with fellow human beings, with the earth and the environment, and with the great spirit that created us all.

Being one of The Elders, I listen to Nelson Mandela, dear Madiba, telling us frequently that “money won’t create success, but the freedom to make it, will.”

True, in Gaza, the men and women said to me, "Without work we can neither forgive nor forget, because what have we to look forward to?" In a Sudanese camp, I heard refugees crying for work, not charity. After the earthquake in Kutch, when I visited the area, everywhere I went the women, who had lost everything, said to me, "Ben, have you brought work?"

By work, I do not mean sweatshops and cheap labour in factories that leave a person a slave to yet another kind of exploitation. Treating land and forests and people and even work as a commodity cannot build a fuller human being, nor a holistic society. Such work strips them of the multifunctional, multicultural character of work that fosters a dynamic and organic growth in society.

A woman who tends a small plot of land, grows vegetables, weaves cloth, and provides for the family and the market, while caring for the financial, social, educational and emotional needs of her family is multifunctional worker and the builder of a stable society. One who labours long hours at a factory where he has no control of his work or his skills, contributes one product to society whose work is ‘measured’ and therefore given greater credence by us, while her work is unaccounted and ignored. It is the GDP at the household level that matters. The use of word ‘domestic’ in GDP should not be overlooked. Peace and development cannot be measured in numbers.

I do hope that one day peace and development will shine on the face of our land and the people, and the world will enjoy the wisdom of my India.

Thank you very much.

Ela Bhatt delivered this speech upon accepting the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, on 18 February 2013 in New Delhi.

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