The Niwano Peace Foundation presented the twenty-seventh Niwano Peace Prize to Ms. Ela Ramesh Bhatt, the founder and former secretary-general of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, India. Her contribution to the empowerment of socially and economically oppressed women in India and elsewhere through the activities of the SEWA has won her recognition around the world. The prize was presented in Tokyo on May 13. The following is the recipient's acceptance speech.
I am deeply honored to receive the Niwano Peace Prize, which I humbly accept on behalf of my sisters at SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association. I see that this prize has created a bit of a stir among the peace community, as you are redefining peace. Thank you very much for understanding us and our efforts. We have firmly linked peace with nonviolence. Peace is nonviolence, and lasting peace cannot be achieved without it. Peace achieved through war lasts only as long as it takes to start another war. SEWA finds that nonviolence in day-to-day affairs is as good as making peace where it did not exist. Keeping poor people poor is violence, and so it is not peace. Peace and poverty cannot coexist. There may not be a war, but surely there is the possibility of a hidden war where poverty is allowed to continue. SEWA strives for a way to build peace through poverty eradication.
We believe, but have not said in so many words, that peace is not only a matter of state or foreign policy but a day-to-day matter, and women - poor women - do help build peace, piece by piece, through remaining nonviolent. And this can be done at the ground level, through day-to-day processes, though global processes can only help this more. Peace is not external to us 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. This is not new; it is as old as the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi or Christ or the Buddha. This is in our heart. But somehow we forget this, set this aside, when we take up matters of importance.
My own experience in SEWA shows me that peace can be built by work, by having an income and a livelihood. Peace is built by doing what one does on a daily basis, for one's income, for the family. Peace is built from the bottom up, day to day, brick by brick, woman to woman, man to man.
In SEWA we have tried to democratize peace and make it everybody's business, which is what Gandhiji taught us in so many ways.
My story and philosophy can be summed up in three simple words: women, work, and peace. Each represents a biography of the universe.
Let me elaborate on what I mean to say before this august body.
Our world today is in turmoil. There is a widening divide between nations, between peoples, and between governments and their own people. Where there is an unfair distribution of resources, there is unrest. Peace is under threat. When people cannot enjoy the fruits of their labors fairly, we have the basis of an unjust society. Peace needs protection. When governments cannot ensure the happiness of their people, they resort to silencing them in the name of peace. For where there is violence and conflict, a struggle for resources, unemployment, widespread anger against injustice and inequality, and governments that resort to repression, we invariably find poverty. Poverty is peace about to be broken into pieces.
Poverty is a society's disrespect for human labor. Poverty strips people of their humanity, and poverty takes away their freedom. Nothing that compromises a person's humanity is acceptable. Poverty is wrong because it is violence perpetuated with society's consent. Poverty means agreement to dislocate peace.
Violence today is often abstract. It is not the violence of the state or the local bully. Violence is the destruction of ways of life that are at right angles to the official world of bureaucracy. Women's work does not fit official classifications. Women's work is often not legally or officially recognized. The struggle of women's work is against the violence and indifference of official classification. Reworking the official classifications has been one strand of SEWA's work for peace. When the official classifications exclude a vast majority of the country's working poor, it creates marginal worlds in which they seek to survive. Women's work is that guarantee of survival - the survival of women, their families, and the peace they hold dear.
Resorting to violence is immoral. Violence is the least effective means of achieving laudable goals. Peace is natural to humanity. A human begins life seeking love, truth, trust, and kindness, which is natural. Hence peace is a serious force in itself; the fact is that it has never failed us so far. And, of course, it is not a rare or a revolutionary idea. It is not a threat to the established order. Peace is a concept accepted by all religions, every religion.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, the way to liberation is karma. Karma means action; karma means work. Just as love and truth are fundamental to human beings, I believe work is central to human life. I admit, work is too limited a term for all it invokes. By work I do not mean sweatshops and cheap labor, which are another kind of exploitation. Work is better understood as livelihood. Livelihood is always linked to life, the life cycle, lifestyle, and life in the world. Livelihood invokes life values and life vision. Livelihood evokes the language of a biomass and an informal economy, a people's economy. When you erase a livelihood, a memory, a competence, then a community and a culture are destroyed. By work, I mean essentially the production of food and access to water. It means upgrading the existing and traditional occupations, which people have undertaken for thousands of years: agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, forestry, housing, textile making, recycling. Such work feeds people, and it restores their relationship with the self, with fellow human beings, with Mother Earth, and with the Great Spirit that created us all.
Productive work is the thread that weaves a society together. When you have work, you have an incentive to maintain a stable society. You not only think of the future, but you plan for the future. You can build assets that reduce your vulnerability. You can invest in the next generation. Life is no longer just about survival but about investing in a better future. Work builds peace, because work gives people roots, it builds communities, and it gives meaning and dignity to one's life.
In my experience, women are the key to building a community. Focus on a woman, and she will grow roots for her family and work to establish a stable community. In a woman, we get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, and a networker. She is a forger of bonds; she is a creator and a preserver. I consider women's participation and representation an integral part of the development process. Women will bring constructive, creative, and sustainable solutions to the world. I have great faith in the feminine way of transforming the world.
SEWA is a trade union of poor, self-employed women. 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. SEWA is more than a million members strong spread across six states of India and beyond. We come together in support of each other. Our goal is the well-being of the poor woman, her family, her work, her community, and the world we all live in. We are in pursuit of self-reliance and freedom. We realize what Mahatma Gandhi said, that freedom is not given, it is generated within oneself. My experience says that women's work is that guarantee of freedom coming from within.
It is evident that political freedom is incomplete without economic freedom. It is only when people have both political and economic freedom that we will get lasting peace. Civil groups like NGOs, women's groups, trade unions, cooperatives, guilds, and church groups are all essential to building peace. Diplomats and armies can negotiate peace. But can they build peace? Only people can bring peace - without the involvement of the people; without their voices; without their communication, participation, and representation, there can be no peace. Peace is about restoring balance in society. Peace is not a separate way of life. It is intrinsic to life and living. Peace is not the absence of war or a cease-fire or mere conflict resolution, nor is it achieved just by elections. Peace is not made by governments. Peace is a way of life in harmony with our bodies, with nature, and with our selves.
Peace derives from need, not greed. Peace is the sense of limits, the feeling of generosity that shares the last piece of roti, or bread. Peace begins before nation building and continues long after it. I consider, in essence, that to separate peace from work and nature is an act of violence. Peace is the whole that makes life and work life-giving.
This is my philosophy. It can be explained by reciting the story of SEWA. SEWA may be a local story or a South Asian story. It is a local struggle, 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 for SEWA to meet the challenges 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 new commons of peace.
In that sense, accept my speech as a prayer, a woman's work for peace.
We have a long way to go. But the path is clear and liberating at every step. Thank you, Niwano Peace Foundation, for holding our hand on this journey.
Aum Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!
This article was originally published in the July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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