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#50over50: Ela Bhatt and Reema Nanavati

The Person(s) Behind Personality in my #50over50 list today are a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo who smartly scaled the movement for women empowerment. Meet Ela Bhatt and Reema Nanavati! It seems unacceptable to post anything unrelated to COVID-19 in these times but here is an inspiring piece in case you're looking to distract yourself from the gloom for a bit.


In a country filled with stereotypical saas-bahu stories where the mother-in-law is the tormentor of the pushover daughter-in-law, it is refreshing to meet one of the most powerful saas-bahu pairs who stand behind scenes of supporting over two million women in the unorganised sector. Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was founded in 1972 by Ela (Ben: an endearing salutation for a woman in Gujarat) Bhatt to address the needs of women in the unorganized sector. Today, her daughter-in-law Reema Nanavati leads the initiative and continues to grow it at an exponential pace.


SEWA has some staggering statistics. Today, the largest consulting firm in India is Tata Consulting Services (TCS) that was started in 1968 and has over 450,000 employees as of Dec 2019. SEWA was started in 1972 and has over 2 million members as of 2018 or so, most of who are low-income independently employed women. It started as a Trade Union and has emerged to be an organisation focused on every aspect of empowerment – providing economic tools, representing the interests at the government and policy level, publishing research papers, bringing international support, creating sustainable employment through a platform for marketing products, making provisions for food, nutrition, health, child care, housing, literacy and whatever it takes to make its women members self-reliant. 

There are some lessons to be learnt from the way this organisation was formed, grew and makes a difference:


The first one is about being smart in fighting the system. Ela Ben is a trained lawyer who was working at Textile Labor Union (TLU) that was set up with inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. She was leading the women’s wing of TLU when a lot of issues of all the women who were working in the informal sector, came to light. When I interviewed her almost two decades ago, she spoke about how she used to go door to door, meet these women and see how they are working and decided to establish a Trade Union. I also read about something very smart that they did to be noticed. Ela Ben published an article in the local newspaper about the condition of women who were doing odd jobs like being carriers of clothing between shops and being exploited of wages. The merchants reacted by getting their own article published talking about the fair wages and benefits they were giving the workers. The women’s wing reprinted the claims on the cards and distributed across the textile district holding the merchants to their promises. The ploy worked and women started gathering to form a group and decided that they should be a Labour Union. 


The second lesson is about learning what your audience wants and having the courage and patience to fight for it. The labour department did not want to give SEWA a Trade Union status because there was no recognised employer that the women were fighting against. The first major victory was to convince the government that a Union does not form to fight against a company but to bring benefits to a class of employees and the second major victory was to ensure that the unorganised sector was seen as a legitimate group. 


The third lesson is about telling your story beyond the boundaries of your operation. After it received the Labor Union status in April 1972, SEWA grew as a cooperative and ensured that their work got public recognition. The team ensured that their story was heard across the globe even though their operations were only in Gujarat. And they did not make attempts to apply their model globally. They simply ensured that global funds came to India to support their work. They stayed focused and made the organization a great success. This earned the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award in 1977 catapulting them onto a global platform. 



The fourth lesson is about not being afraid to change status quo. In 1981, SEWA had a difference of opinion with its parent organisation (TLU) that led to the separation of the two organisations. After that, SEWA grew at an even faster pace than ever before. Sometimes the confines of the parent organisation could hold you back and separation, while painful initially, could be a point of take off. From the time it took its steps as an independent organisation, SEWA grew by leaps and bounds: ~ 30K members by 1996 to 320K in 2000 to over 2 million today. And they brought in young blood to continuosly grow the organisation.

Enter Reema Nanavati. She was practicing as an IAS officer when she decided to leave her post and join the social sector at SEWA in 1986. Under her leadership, they started retail distribution of their products, brought more focus to work by artisans and expanded the organisation across India and even to Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and more.

When you visit any center, there is a camaraderie as well as ownership. While there is a respect for its leaders – be it Ela Ben or Reema Ben, the organisation does not look to them for all decisions. They have developed their urban and rural women into great leaders and gave them the stage to take the limelight. Often a speaking request to either of the leaders results in them sending an empowered woman from their fold to be a speaker. 

The prestigious Padma Bhushan to Ela Ben and Padma Shri to Reema Ben have still kept their humility intact. When I visited them a few years ago at their home, we had a chance to just chill and catch up and I told them about my decision to declare “WAR on sarees” (Wear and Return). Ela Ben promptly offered me to loan her saree provided I was ok with khadi sarees. The true Gandhian still wears only khadi and lives a simple life. For the next event, I plan to host in Ahmedabad, I look forward to showing up in one of her sarees.

And I look forward to witnessing the new generation of leaders Reema Ben is creating to carry the torch to make the most powerful platform for women.

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