Picture of Ila Pathak

Ila Pathak, a crusader and activist for women’s rights in India and abroad, died last Thursday due to breast cancer. She was 80.

A Pioneer for Women’s Rights In India

Ila Pathak was not just a professor with a PhD in Indo-English Literature and a Bachelors in Law, she was also a pioneer: a pioneer for women’s rights. For over three decades, Ila Pathak campaigned and fought against issues plaguing women in India including honour killings, dowry, rape, and female foeticide. Cofounder of Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) in 1981, former President of WILPF India and Vice-President of WILPF International, Ila worked tirelessly to forge paths for the discriminated, the poor, and the suffering.

Ila Pathak arrested and put into bus.

A photo showing Ila Pathak arrested during a demonstration in India.

Reema K Jadeja, an activist and member of WILPF who worked with Ila captures her fierce determination and gentle spirit. Jadeja writes, “All of 4 foot 11 inches, Ilaben was a petite lady with the heart and courage of a lion. In protecting others, Ilaben had guns held to her head on numerous occasions and regional governments perturbed. Was she fazed? Not at all.  ‘Go on, shoot me if it will make you feel better dear was her reply on one such dangerous occasion.”’

Ila, also known affectionately to her friends as Ilaben, approached her activism and responsibility to her leadership with a doggedness that often managed to surprise even her colleagues and friends of many years. Nancy Ramsden, a member of the WILPF Executive Committee, writes that one day she received a phone call that Ila had been arrested and would be unable to attend that day’s ExCom meeting. Nancy writes, “She had expected the demo would be over before the excom meeting that day but she got arrested. She was anxious for us to know why she couldn’t be at the excom meeting so she had someone call me by phone to let us know.”

Ila Pathak not only knew how to make a scene for women’s rights, she also knew how to get things done. Due to her longstanding work with AWAG, women in the state of Gujarat now have access to a 24-hour helpline and counseling services in connection and collaboration with the District Superintendent of Police. AWAG provides women who call in with legal services to ensure her complaint is registered. Now, due to the work of Ila and AWAG, the police are required by law to file a First Information Report (FIR).

Activist at the Local and International Level

Ila also fought for the rights of the disenfranchised at the local and international level. In Ahmedabad, she formed an activist group to research and document the plight of displaced, tribal migrant workers who lived near the railroads and helped establish means of income for them. She went into battle for a woman who was repeatedly raped by  six of her teachers at Patan P T C College in Ahmedabad.

As the president of WILPF India, and vice-president and a member of the Executive Committee of WILPF International, Ila Pathak also worked for the rights of women everywhere. Above all, Ila was a kind individual and friend, and an excellent colleague.

Ila Pathak at WILPF Congress

Ila Pathak at the 2011 WILPF Congress in Costa Rica.

Reema K Jadeja’s tribute also outlines how we can continue to honor Ila Pathak: by continuing her work. Jadeja writes, “Deeply respected by those who too spoke out against injustices, Ilaben was an inspiration to many. The hundreds of hours I spent with her were always enlightening and a constant reminder of what humanism is; and the axiom, ‘where there is a will there is a way.’ Eighty year old Ilaben’s last battle was cancer and she confronted it with courage and grace, as always.”

As Ila said, “Who has time for tears and tantrums? There is much work to be done.”’

The members and staff of WILPF will miss our leader, our colleague, and our friend. She cannot be replaced.

Please feel free to add to the many comments with your own memory or experience with Ila Pathak.

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“Ila epitomised what WILPF stands for. She was  a woman who was committed to peace and non violence, who was passionate about rights  and equality, who worked tirelessly for justice  and did so with a gentleness which was demonstrative of her inner strength. She gave us much to inspire and motivate us and whilst we celebrate her life, we will also miss her, her warmth, her smile and her kindness. Ila, we thank you!”

 – Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF

“I just saw a news report (http://zeenews.india.com/news/gujarat/social-activist-ila-pathak-passes-away_902893.html) that Ila Pathak has passed away.  I’m so sorry to hear this, and send my heartfelt condolences.  In sadness”

– Susi Synder, Former Secretary General of WILPF

“I met Ila Pathak, for the first and unique time, at the IB meeting held in Madrid in February 2013. It was her serenity, her inner calm, what most impressed  to me. I send condolences, on behalf of WILPF Spain, regretting the great loss. We will remember her figure fondly.”

– Carmen Magallón, President of WILPF Spain

“All of us in WILPF Pakistan are very sad to hear this news. Ila was a great peace maker and a true activist. She was passionate about India-Pakistan peace. We have lost a great friend.”

– Sameena Nazir, President of WILPF Pakistan

“Ila Pathak was a very charming and modest women. I enjoyed to have breakfast with her in Costa Rica. Her non-violent air should always be an example for us.”

– Irmgard Hofer, President of WILPF Germany

“I shall miss her dreadfully.  Along with everything else, she was my friend. When I first saw Ilaben across the room at a WILPF International Board Meeting in India, I knew immediately that she was an important and powerful woman who was admired and loved by many.  Through her role of Vice President on the Executive Board and  as a member of the Standing  Finance Committee of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom  I came to know and appreciate Ilaben’s gentle wisdom, knowledge and compassionate work towards peace. She was a true and effective peacemaker everywhere she went and in everything she did. She has deeply touched my life and the lives of many others all  over he world. She is a true hero. We shall really miss her. The world is a better place because of Ilaben’s presence in it. In her memory may we all follow in her footsteps by emulating  her examples of peacemaking  with compassion.”

– Nancy Ramsden, WILPF International Treasurer

“I am deeply saddened to learn that dear Ila Pathak has passed away.  She was a gentle but very strong leader in the women’s movement in India and has much contributed to the movement over years including WILPF. My heartfelt sympathy to her family  and the family of WILPF. She will be missed by us all.”

– Edith Ballantyne, Former WILPF Secretary General

“The UK Section sends our heartfelt condolences to you all following the loss of Ilaben. She was so committed to social justice and this manifested in many varied ways which I know will be collected and reflected on over the coming period.We were pleased to receive her in Leicester, UK, where she spoke to women from the Gujarati community about sexual violence and made important comparisons between women in Ahmadabad and Leicester. As IB member, I personally found her a supportive WILPF Vice President with words of wisdom whenever I sought them. In a particular piece of work I was involved with her,  she was cooperative and sensitive yet focused and determined. Ilaben was also keen to contribute to the work of the WILPF Environment Working Group which, in my role as co-convenor, I appreciated. We will continue to learn from Ilaben’s work, I know, particularly how WILPF’s principles inform and guide grassroots work and our shared ground, globally. With affection.”

– Lorraine Mirham, IB Member, WILPF United Kingdom

“In January 2009 Ila, Jharna (her daughter-in-law) and I visited refugee camps in the Khandamal district in the Orissa state. The history behind was that Hindus in this district had attacked the Christian minority, like Hindus in Gujarat had done with Muslims some years earlier. When it happened in Gujarat Ila was involved in trying to get the Muslim women back to their normal life after this attack had happened. She was aware of the traumas and aware of the need of getting some kind of help to get out of the traumas.

Ila asked if I as one of the Presidents would go to Khandamal together with her and Jharna to try to find out what had happened – and especially what had happened to the women. I will without doubt state that this is the most meaningful I have done as a WILPF member. And I am still very thankful that Ila insisted on doing this. She had – successfully – applied for money for us (Jharna, herself and me) to go from Mumbai to Kandhamal and to stay in Kandhamal. I had – also successfully applied for money to go from Copenhagen to Mumbai (and back again). 

Jharna knows the language, I had the title that would allow us to visit different decision makers (even the governor) and Ila had all the rest of what was needed. I wrote letters beforehand to get us in touch with all these powerful men and Ila did a lot of other important work from home.

For us it was – without doubt – a 1325 project. It is history now, however we (and in this case Ila was also primus motor) wanted to go through with this to the Supreme Court in order for us to get a hallmark that women’s rights are human rights and should be respected.

I will miss her my very dear and beloved friend.”

– Annelise Ebbe, Convenor of WILPF Constitution Committee, WILPF Denmark

“My most sincere condolences to Ila’s family. I met Ila at several WILPF Congresses and her courage to speak truth to power coupled with her soft-spoken, compassionate disposition have been a source of constant inspiration for me. I will sorely miss her!”

– Catia Confortini, IB Member, WILPF US

“Some phenomenal heroes go unsung. Ilaben was a hero in every sense of the word. Lawyer, professor and human rights activist, beloved Ilaben amplified the voices of those who society sometimes chose not hear. She wasa true Gandhian and fas ounded AWAG (Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group). Legal aid, 24 hour helpline, safe houses and training and rehabilitation programmes for women, campaigning for victims of riots, championing legal reform- Ilaben fought tooth and nail for thousands. Today in India, if a woman is a victim of domestic violence and seeks police intervention, the police by law have to file a FIR (First Information Report). This is the outcome of Ilaben and her comrade’s work. As a Vice President of the world’s oldest peace organisation WILPF (https://www.wilpf.org/

Ilaben concurrently dedicated her time and energy to women’s rights on the international level. I had the deep privilege of working alongside Ilaben and words will not suffice in truly capturing her essence, her spirit. All of 4 foot 11 inches, Ilaben was a petite lady with the heart and courage of a lion. In protecting others, Ilaben had guns held to her head on numerous occasions and regional governments perturbed. Was she fazed? Not at all. “Go on, shoot me if it will make you feel better dear,” was her reply on one such dangerous occasion. Deeply respected by those who too spoke out against injustices, Ilaben was an inspiration to many. The hundreds of hours I spent with her were always enlightening and a constant reminder of what humanism is; and the axiom, “where there is a will there is a way.” Eighty year old Ilaben’s last battle was cancer and she confronted it with courage and grace, as always. “Who has time for tears and tantrums? There is much work to be done…” In life, some heroes walk amongst us. We never fully comprehend their greatness until they depart. R.I.P. Dr Ilaben Pathak, you were unequivocally one of a kind. In peace.”

– Reema K. Jadeja, WILPF India

“This is really sad news. Ilaben was a true peace activist. a heroine to many including me. a quiet modest thoughtful and powerful leader.  I will treasure the special time I spent with her in 2012 visiting the home of Gandhi and Ashram,  drinking tea everywhere we went, speaking together to hundreds of young women in universities, being present when many celebrated her life work at the launch  4 books which were the the compilation of all her articles over decades, and sitting quietly peacefully in her small sitting room. Her son, Kalind and daughter-in-law must be devastated, and of course her extended family in AWAG, and WILPF.

We will miss her. May she now rest in peace and may she help us to live as she did.”

– Maria Butler, Programme Director of PeaceWomen

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Ila Pathak. Our hearts are with her family and many friends in this time of sorrow. We will remember with gratitude her devotion and dedication to the work for peace and justice and environmental protection.  May we all hold tight to memories for comfort and honor her life by carrying on her efforts. We send our heartfelt condolences on the loss of an extraordinary person.”

– K. Margrethe Kvam Tingstad, President of WILPF Norway and Edel Havin Beukes, IB member, WILPF Norway

“With the passing of Ila Pathak the world has lost an icon in the field for women’s rights. Ila’s energy, dedication and strength to make the world a better place for women all around the world are an inspiration for us all. I had the priviledge to meet Ila at the last WILPF IB Meeting and she made a lasting impression. Her fire and persistance motivate younger activists to continue our work to advance women’s leadership, as well has humble us and appreciate the incredible history of WILPF activists. Ila’s presence will be missed at the 2015 celebrations of WILPF. The Dutch section wishes all family and friends of Ila much strength to deal with this incredible loss.”
                    – Sophie Schellens, IB Member, WILPF the Netherlands

“Dear all, It has come to us as a great shock to hear of the passing away of an active social activist and an asset of WILPF, Ila Pathak. Words cannot express her dedication and devotion to the field of human rights and gender justice. We were very fortunate to meet her and talk to her a couple of times in the past. We believe that her warmth of personality and her drive to fight for injustice will always inspire everyone of us. We, Neelam KC and Nirmala Sitoula , on behalf of all the members of WILPF Nepal, express our deepest condolences to Ila Pathak.”

– Neelam KC, President of WILPF Nepal and Nirmala Sitoula, IB member, WILPF Nepal

“Heartfelt Condolences from the Swiss section,  honoring Ila’s commitment and spirit. Best wishes to her family in memory of a wonderful WILPF woman.” 

-Helena Nyberg, IB Member, WILPF Switzerland

“It is with great devastation and sadness that we learned of the death of our friend , mother and sister ILA. WILPF / DRC would like to present you its sincere condolences to the disappearance. Ila was a great friend to us and she was attached to African values. As a president of WILPF/RDC, I remember  the first time, I met Ila in November 2008 in Geneva for the IB Meeting and we directly sympathized. During the Congress in Costa Rica after our admission as a section, she was among the first people to  congratulate me. In our IB Meeting in Spain, all WILPFers from DRC also sympathized with her… we were very happy that she would take care of the African region.”

– Amat Mbambi, Member of WILPF DRC

“It saddened us all to hear about the loss of one of our wise members, Ila Pathak. Our hearts are with the family and friends of Ila. Needless to say, Ila was a great inspiration for many of us, and we look forward to continuing the work she started. She personalized the saying that “Peace is not an event, it’s a process.” It is the ways we act, the ways we face conflicts and the ways we talk to those who do not agree with us that decides the future. Ila will continue to be a role model for many of us in our upcoming work for peace and justice, and we appreciate all she taught us and the time she dedicated to our shared goals. In peace.”

– Emma Rosengren, IB member, WILPF Sweden; Malin Nilsson, President WILPF Sweden; Kerstin Grebäck, Vice President of WILPF International

“We are deeply afflicted by the loss of a woman so courageous in the defence of women’s rights, Ila Pathak. The women of WILPF Italy voice their indignation and dismay at what continues to happen to women in India, land of ancient culture and the fatherland of that great defender of human right, Mahatma Ghandi, but today unhappily recognized for the world’s highest number of rapes committed on women.
After the shock and repulsion aroused by the news of the appalling behaviour which continue to accompany male violence, we will not relax our condemnation. We are convinced that the protest of all the women in the world must be unceasing. The sight of all those Indian girls demonstrating en masse in streets and public places and defying the wrath and arrogance of their patriarchs, offers us some hope for their future, and we urge the Indian Government not to abandon them! 

However we think that death penalty stipulated for the rapist is not the answer and that what is needed is a strong and total commitment to the cultural formation of the younger generation, if it is wished to bring about an inversion of tendency in the mentality of all social classes. We expect this from the Indian Government.

We add our voice to that of all the women (and men) who are aware of human right, among which are the priorities of the dignity and freedom of women, whatever their age and social condition.

We are convinced that WILPF India, following the example of the great Ila, will continue to remain at the side of Indian women, and to accompany them in defending their dignity.”

– Antonia Sani, President of WILPF Italy