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“Because where there is poverty, there is injustice”

May 19, 2011

I thought it a masterpiece of moral truth, clearly and simply stated, when I first  heard it,  six months ago.  I still do.  Here it is–the response of Ela Bhatt upon receiving “The First Global Awareness Award” last November 15, 2010.  Nothing is more timely or pressing than poverty and what my teacher Richard R. Niebuhr called “the global struggle for justice.”

We were surprised to find airport-style security check lines forming in the vast Kennedy Center lobby, where the “Global Fairness” program was held.  How come? we asked.  You’ll find out, we were told.  We found out when Hillary Clinton came on stage to make the presentation to Ms.  Bhatt, adding her own words of praise for her long-time friend.

Ms. Bhatt’s acceptance speech began with words of gratitude to Ms. Clinton and to the organizers and sponsors of the event, including  Andrea Mitchell of NBC and Prince Charles, who provided a film (but was not present in person) about his vision for environmental care.   I was especially struck by the way she spoke personally and prophetially to all of us:

” The vision we all share, of a fairer, and more equitable world, encompasses the hopes and aspirations of so many people on earth who need our support.  Because where there is poverty, there is injustice.  There is exploitation–of the individual, of the community and of the environment.  Where there is poverty, there is discrimination. Where there is poverty, there is fear and intimidation in the community, in the familiy, in the work environment.  Where there is poverty, we can assume rigid hierarchy and inequality.  Consequently, where there is poverty, there is also enormous vulnerabilty.  Poverty is a form of violence; it does not respect human labor, it strips a person of humanity, and it takes away their freedom.

“In the early 1970’s I began working with women who were vegetable vendors, rag pickers, cart-pullers, and cigarette rollers in India.  We formed the Self-Employed Women’s Association, which is a trade union of poor, self-employed women in India.  Our fight is for fairness through self-reliance.  We have come togetehr to form a union to stop economic exploitation; we have formed our own bank to build assets, to save, to borrow, to improve the material quality of life.  We have built trade cooperatives of women farmers, crafts workers 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.  Today SEWA is more than a million members strong.  We have sister SEWAs in South Africa, in Afghanistan, and in Sri Lanka.

“Every action of ours not only has an impact on our own self, but also on the world around us.  It is time to consider: What impact will my actioin have on me?  What impact will my action have on the environment and the people who live in it?  And how will it affect future generations and the human spirit?

“For example, as urban consumers, when we buy local handicrafts, or agricultural produce, we are making a clear statement with our money.  We are sying we support the poor village crastswoman and her empowerment.  We are saying we support non-polluting, environmentally friendly, local, sustainable development.  We are saying we value the rich cultural heritage of our country.  We are saying we see alternatives to the current industrial modes of production.  Our view of what constitutes economic success, sustainable development, poverty removal, and empowerment changes.  The removal of poverty through fair and sustainable means is the way of the future.  Thank you.”

Information about SEWA is available from thier web site,  –GKB

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