Ela Bhatt, founder of India’s largest women’s union, awarded 2010 Niwano Peace Prize.
SEWA is a trade union of poor, self-employed women. Since its founding in Ahmedabad, India, in 1972, the group’s membership has grown to more than 1.2 million women. The Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program has supported Bhatt’s work since the UUHIP’s inception in 1984. And Bhatt has been an advisor to the Holdeen program for 25 years.
Bhatt was heartened that, in awarding SEWA the peace prize, the Niwano Peace Foundation was redefining the definition of peace in many people’s eyes. “We have firmly linked peace with nonviolence. Peace is nonviolence, and lasting peace cannot be achieved without nonviolence,” she wrote in her acceptance message on receiving the prize.
Known as the “gentle revolutionary,” Bhatt, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, has devoted herself to lifting poor working women out of poverty and oppression in India. In addition to founding SEWA, she created the SEWA Cooperative Bank. Owned and operated by SEWA members, the bank makes loans for capital investment to the SEWA community.
Bhatt has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for her work organizing women toward economic independence. In 1984, she received the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” which recognizes “outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people.” Bhatt sits on the Council of Elders, the international peace-building group created by Nelson Mandela, and she is a former member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament.
SEWA members are not paid regular wages, but earn their living through their own labor or small businesses. Members are Muslim and Hindu, urban and rural, and they work in a wide variety of capacities: petty traders, small producers, micro entrepreneurs, domestic workers, home-based workers, and casual laborers. SEWA, which is entirely member-governed, gives them access to loans, insurance, and social services, such as literacy, life-skills, and vocational training.
Said Bhatt, “We have come together to form a union to stop economic exploitation. We have formed our own bank to build assets, to tap resources, to improve the material quality of life. We have built trade cooperatives of women farmers and artisans and a trade facilitation network connecting local and global markets; we have built a social security network for our maternity needs, health and life insurance.”
“Our goal is the well being of the poor woman, her family, her work, her community, and the world we all live in,” Bhatt said. “We are in pursuit of self-reliance and freedom. We realize what Mahatma Gandhi said that freedom is not given. It is generated within one’s self. My experience says that women’s work is that guarantee of freedom coming from within.”
Katharine Sreedhar, director of the Holdeen India Program, first met Bhatt 48 years ago on her first trip to India in 1962. When she joined the Holdeen project at its inception in 1984, Sreedhar immediately sought out Bhatt’s counsel.
Sreedhar followed Bhatt around for a day as Bhatt worked to support the then–10,000-member organization. “Ela was answering her own phone, writing her own mail, taking me around—doing things that assistants should do if you’re running an organization of 10,000 people,” recalled Sreedhar. She suggested that the Holdeen program give her a grant to support the hiring of an assistant. “Anybody else in the world would have said, ‘Sure,’” said Sreedhar. “She did not.” Instead Bhatt told Sreedhar that her philosophy was that the members make all the decisions, and they would have to decide.
At the next SEWA meeting, the members voted to approve a grant that would support an assistant. Since then, the Holdeen program has provided annual grants to SEWA, ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. In the intervening 25 years, SEWA’s membership has grown tenfold and expanded from the state of Gujarat into six other states to become the largest women’s union in India.
The Niwano Peace Prize is awarded annually by the Niwano Peace Foundation. It was established by the lay-Buddhist organization Rissho Kosei-kai, which has been a decades-long interfaith partner of the UUA. In 2000, Sreedhar led a delegation from the Rissho Kosei-kai to India to introduce them to partners in the Holdeen program, including SEWA.
Laxmi Mudaliar, a SEWA spokeswoman, said that SEWA very much appreciated the visit from Rissho Kosei-kai. “This could not have happened without our longtime supportive relationship with the UUA and Katharine Sreedhar.”
The UUA expressed its thanks for the recognition of SEWA in a letter to the Rissho Kossei-kai. The Rev. Eric Cherry, UUA director of International Resources, called the introduction of SEWA to Rissho Kosei-kai a “notable piece of the puzzle” in Bhatt winning the award, which carries a monetary prize of 20 million yen (or $225,000).
In her acceptance message, which she will deliver in Tokyo in May, Bhatt said that she accepts the prize “on behalf of my sisters at SEWA.” She continued, “Peace is not out there, but within us, in us. Any positive, constructive act of love and care builds peace. And when millions take these actions, peace spreads. Prosperity follows. Now this is not new. This is as old as Gandhiji or Christ or Buddha. This is in our heart.”
And Bhatt says that she accepts the award as a challenge. “[SEWA] is a local story, but it has to meet global questions. The local and the global have to combine in new ways and new communities. SEWA or translations or interpretations of SEWA will be invented elsewhere. In that sense I recognize the gift of the Niwano Peace Prize as a challenge for us. The challenge today is to see SEWA as it can meet the challenge of Darfur, Afghanistan, or Sri Lanka. The challenge now is to see how women’s work and women’s idea of community and nature can create the new commons of peace.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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