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Ela Bhatt

Elder Emeritus

The ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.
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"When The Elders meet with leaders and other powerful people, it is our job to try to persuade them to lead with their conscience and remind them of their duties to the people they serve – even if that message is not what they want to hear."

Ela Bhatt

Gandhian 'gentle revolutionary'

Poverty is powerlessness. Poverty cannot be removed unless the poor have power to make decisions that affect their lives.


Advocate for women workers

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 a multifunctional worker and the builder of a stable society. The word ‘domestic’ in GDP should not be overlooked.


Holistic vision

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.


Leading voice in grassroots development

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.



Ela Bhatt

The ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.
Founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India
Founder of India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA
Member of the Indian Parliament 1986-89
Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance

"Non-violence is not a passive idea. It is ethical activism at its political best."

Ela Bhatt


Work with The Elders

Ela Bhatt has been a member of The Elders since the group was founded in 2007. Profoundly influenced by Gandhian thinking, she advocates local, grassroots solutions for those who are poor, oppressed or suffering the effects of violent conflict.


She joined her fellow Elders to encourage peaceful Palestinian protest and self-reliance during The Elders’ two delegations to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories .


One of India’s foremost women’s rights activists, Ela Bhatt welcomed the Elders to India in February 2012, where the group lent their support to young people in the state of Bihar campaigning to end child marriage in their own communities.


In November 2016, Ela Bhatt stepped down from her front-line role as a member of The Elders. Praised by Chair Kofi Annan for her "compassion and empathy" and being "an example for us all”, she remains an Elder Emeritus.


“We are poor, but so many”

Ela Bhatt is one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’, she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers.


In 1972 she founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for women workers in India’s huge informal sector, who make up 94 per cent of the female labour force and yet have never enjoyed the same rights and security as those in formal employment. Today SEWA has more than 1.2 million members across nine Indian states.


“We may be poor, but we are so many. Why don’t we start a bank of our own? Our own women’s bank, where we are treated with the respect and service that we deserve.” – Chandaben, SEWA member


The following year, Ela Bhatt founded the Cooperative Bank of SEWA. The bank helps women to gain financial independence and raise their standing in their families and communities - and puts into practice the Gandhian principles of self-reliance and collective action.


Empowering women workers

Among the organisations Ela Bhatt has created and inspired, she founded and chairs:



She has also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for more than ten years.


In recognition of her work to improve the status of women and the working poor in India and elsewhere, Ela Bhatt was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, the first-ever Global Fairness Initiative Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood Award, the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award and the Légion d’honneur from France. She has also received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale and the University of Natal.

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