Feature

Spotlight

Ela Bhatt

To the hundreds of millions of impoverished women working in India’s “informal sector,” Ela Bhatt is a hero, said Somini Segupta in The New York Times. Bhatt, 76, is founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, “a new kind of union” for women. The association offers “retirement accounts and health insurance to women who never had a safety net,” lends “working capital to entrepreneurs to open beauty salons in slums,” and even trains women to become gas-station attendants.

Born into a wealthy Brahmin family, Bhatt first worked as a lawyer for an Indian trade union. But she left that post in 1981 to help organize women working as porters, vegetable sellers, and fishmongers, some of them surviving on 20 cents a day. From those beginnings, “she has built a formidable empire of women-run, Gandhian-style cooperatives” selling everything from saris to sesame seeds. And unlike most moguls, the austere Bhatt “is known for having no indulgences.”

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