Ela Bhatt

1933 – 2022

Ela Bhatt

Today (November 2), Coady Institute learned of the passing of Ela Bhatt founder of Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA) of India a longtime Coady partner with more than 2.1 million women members working in the informal sector across 18 states in India.

“This is a tremendous loss to the informal sector of women workers, not just in India but globally. Coady Institute extends our sincere condolences to Elaben’s family and all SEWA sisters,” Interim Executive Director Eileen Alma says.

Bhatt was a lawyer and social activist who dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice and the empowerment of women, helping them to earn a living and making visible their individual labour or small enterprises. She founded SEWA in 1972 and by 1995 the organization had become the largest single trade union in India. SEWA continues to fight poverty and advocate to protect workers from exploitation.

Coady Institute and SEWA have partnered for more than 40 years in the co-creation of knowledge about social enterprises and pioneering the asset-based approach to community development. Bhatt was a member of Coady Institute’s Honourary Patrons’ Council made up of accomplished leaders who support Coady’s mission to build the capacities of community leaders and organizations worldwide. St. Francis Xavier University awarded Bhatt, an honorary doctorate in 1999. In 2012, a Coady Global Change Leaders Case Study profiled Bhatt’s work in India.

Yogesh Ghore, Strategic Partnerships Advisor, Senior Program Teaching Staff Coady Institute, was a friend of Elaben’s and has worked alongside SEWA with many other colleagues over the decades.

“I feel a profound sense of loss today. It’s hard to describe her path-breaking work on women’s empowerment and the kind of influence she had on shaping my thinking and our work at Coady Institute. This is an end of an era but her legacy and the strong movement she created continues,” Ghore says.

Coady is currently a partner to SEWA on several key initiatives including ENGAGE! a five-year project working to advance gender equality and poverty reduction by enhancing women’s capacity to participate in the social and economic life of their communities in India, Haiti, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Bangladesh. The creation of the Livelihoods Recovery and Resilience Fund to support informal economy workers cope up with natural and market shocks is another example of an innovation that is currently being tested together. In partnership with the Gerald Schwartz School of Business, we have also created the Sears Internship in Social Enterprise initiative that helps StFX students learn about Coady and development approaches at SEWA.

Video by Eckova Productions


  1. Aster Tefera Dubale

    We heard the sad news about Elaben Bhalt. Her strength and leadership have been an inspiration to all leaders that work with deprived women. May her soul rest in peace. I wish SEWA friends to bear the burden and be enlightened to sustain her Vision.

  2. Lucia Di Poi

    We are very saddened to hear this news of Elaben’s passing, and recognize the loss to SEWA, and to the world. What an exceptional person she must have been to have built and led SEWA, a singular transformative force in Gujarat, India, and globally. On behalf of all of us at CLE we send our deepest condolences to Elaben’s family, SEWA’s staff and members. We know her legacy will continue in SEWA’s work, and continue to have reverberating impact on women, everywhere and especially those working in informal work in seeking equity and prosperity.
    Warmest regards to all at SEWA.

  3. Yogesh Ghore

    I came to know about Elaben and SEWA’s work way before I got to meet her in 2010. I still remember that meeting: I had very enthusiastically described her my field work with women salt producers in the Little Rann of Kutch, giving her the details of the challenges women faced and ways to address them. She very carefully listened to me and did not say much about the work, but she said Yogesh, I FIND SINCERITY IN YOU. It was huge for me to hear that from her and more importantly it inspired me to do more. That’s how I remember my every interaction with her –full of hope and optimism. She gave hope and faith to those 2 million SEWA sisters in India fighting the good fight every single day, and many more across the world. Her compassionate leadership, simplicity, values and principles will continue to inspire us. Rest well Elaben.

  4. Tsigie Haile

    It is with great sadness that we heard the news on the loss of dear Elaben. On behalf of myself and the staff of WISE, I wish to send our deepest condolences to Elaben’s family, SEWA’s staff and members. The work Elaben started has been an inspiration to the creation of WISE and we treasure our connection which started back in 1996, when I first visited SEWA to learn from their programme . Her legacy will be remembered not only in India but also in other countries where SEWA’s influence has created similar works to support underprivileged women mainly in the informal economy.
    In sisterhood

  5. Edwin Amos Okama

    It is very sad loosing such an Icon. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

  6. Anna Sangai

    It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of this exceptional women’s economic empowerment activist.
    The passing of Ela Bhat will be an enormous loss to her family, her extended family including the Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA), and to the women, she cared so much about.

  7. Gord Cunningham

    The world has lost a giant. Elaben was able to help build and harness the power of three movements (the Women’s Movement, the Trade Union Movement and the Cooperative Movement) in one organization (SEWA) with huge impact across Gujarat State, India and the world. Her legacy will continue in SEWA’s work forever.

  8. Anthony Scoggins

    It is with great sadness that I hear of Elaben’s passing. We first met almost 40 years ago when I was mandated to develop a new set of partnerships for Coady’s Cooperative Development Program, and SEWA was at the top of our list. Ela was wonderful to work with, constantly challenging us to work and think outside the box as we tackled issues of financial services housing, enterprise development, gender and more. Her legacy is there for everyone to see: a growing, innovative and successful organization of the world’s poorest women. We will not see her likes again. My sincere condolences to Ela’s family and colleagues.


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