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Leaders for Education Series - Ela Bhatt

©The Elders Foundation
Ela Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), is widely recognized as one of the world's most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. Known as the "gentle revolutionary," and a follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India's poorest and most oppressed citizens and here she talks to us about girls' education.

You charted a unique path for yourself.  What role did education play in finding your own voice and life path?

My formal education was taking place in a vibrant town of Surat in Gujarat when India had just gained freedom from the British Rule. The education helped us understand our immediate surroundings better: the masses of poor and the political possibilities offered by democracy. Education opened our minds to new ideas of respect for all religions and sealed our commitment to work for building what we called Second Freedom—freedom from poverty—as freedom from foreign rule was already achieved.  Education did not fill in a void but watered the seeds of ideas and imagination of life ahead.

Your work has single-handedly revolutionized the lives of women who work in the informal sector, and provided them the opportunity for decent work.  You have also seen first hand what the lack of an education costs women and children.  In your experience, what happens to a boy or girl who is denied an education?

Education is essential, not to conform and set in the circumstances and move on with life, but to confront social oppression, to stand up and stand out, and to shape what one wants to do in life. It is not me but the women in India, now over one million as member of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), who are eager to come out of poverty on their own and education offers one of the two poles of a ladder to climb out of the pit of long standing poverty. Mahatma Gandhi said that one that liberates is knowledge and we at SEWA found that one that liberates from poverty is knowledge. Education offers this knowledge.

You have argued that the work of women must be recognized, recorded and enhanced if poverty is ever to be tackled effectively.  How central is education to this attain this goal?

We are not educated about our own reality of the fact that most poor women work, and that their work adds to the national GDP.  If ever education is to be available to all, it will not be due to public action or private investments alone but by the free choice of millions of mothers who are poor but strive to push their children out of poverty. When we will recognize the work of working poor with decent returns and safer working environment they will make a choice in favour of educating their children, their girls, I have found world wide.

As the one of the world’s leading voices in the international development arena, what message would you send to policy makers and governments about the right to education and gender equality?

Let women, poor women as mothers, as I said above, have more say in what and who and how we educate.  Let us not only have right to education as a product or as a service, but education as one’s own choice.  Poor women shape education,  not only want access to education but also want to shape what and how and who of education.  And when women do, they value education better. Education of the poor women can not be left to the educationists alone. If we are to reach more women, more girls, we must give working mothers a chance to shape education.  I have found these poor mothers shape education in favour of peace in conflict areas, in favour of rebuilding in disaster areas, in favour of markets in vibrant economies and in favour of social security in unprotected labour markets.

Is there anything else about education and your work that you would like to add?

Work is Education.  That is, earlier I mentioned education as one of the two poles of a ladder out of poverty, and the other pole is work. When we work we educate us, our family, our customers and our suppliers, our bosses.  We seldom realize this power of work.  Karma, as Bhagvad Gita says, Work is not separate from education, can not be.  Work shapes us, our thinking, our values, and our skills and the world view.  Work and Education for poor and women, are not separate but often one.  By selling vegetables on the city street she learns about markets, laws, and banking and while in school she uses her mathematics to count her credit and language to market her vegetables.
In SEWA, we learn to think, to think in anubandh i.e. co-relation. We practice to think how each of my activities relates at three levels – to myself, the society and the universe. This way, we learn to realize that we all are bound together. We learn that my deeds impact you and yours impact me even though we are far from each other. Thinking and acting in correlation make us responsible citizens and leaders. I believe Education must help us understand such co-relation better and deeper.

Click here for Ela Bhatt's biography.

Click here for more on the upcoming E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality Conference



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Click here to learn more about the Self-Employed Women's Association


The Elders: Ela Bhatt


Click here to read the biography of Ela Bhatt

E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality Conference