Editor's note:In the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, we profile little known women in South India who have fought against all odds in their local communities to bring forth change and transformation. While some of these women stand out as shining examples of the power of determination, there are others who must battle misogyny and harassment. With this series, we highlight not just the trials and tribulations faced by women in all walks of life, but also how individual women are triumphing against caste, patriarchy and discrimination. In part six of the series, read about how P Viji brought together the women labourers of Kozhikode to demand the right to urinate.
For a moment, just imagine either of these two situations — how would you feel when the temperature ranges between 28 to 32 degrees Celsius, humidity is high and you cannot drink water?Alternatively, you have consumed water but cannot go to the toilet because you are not allowed to go. Worse still, you are not a man to indulge in urinating on the roadside, but a woman in a place like Kozhikode, just off the Malabar coast, in the southern state of Kerala.
These two situations were not imaginary for hundreds of women who worked in shops as assistants or tailors and did sundry jobs in commercial establishments. It was a harsh reality.
P Viji still remembers the day the women assembled in a small room to discuss their problems broke down complaining of the pain they went through because they had to control their bladders for want of a toilet. Of course, this was in 2006, almost three years before the 'No toilet, No marriage' campaign came to be launched by the then Central government.
Viji was also working in a tailor’s shop in 2004 when the need to hear out each other’s problems brought the women together in that room.
“They used to say that they were not allowed to take breaks even to go to the toilet. They would have to hold on till their work was done and their employers would tell them to use a plastic bag or pipe to urinate so that they do not have to take a break from their shift,” recalls Viji.
“One lady broke down crying during one of our meetings saying that the inhuman conditions of working had forced her to develop an infection because she had to hold on for hours together,” said Viji.
That was the beginning of her war to get the women the same facilities and rights that the menfolk had, if not better. And, she was not fighting merely the owners of tailoring shops or commercial establishments. She was fighting powerful trade unions in the only other state other than West Bengal, which had a Left Democratic Front (LDF).
It was not easy fighting the established trade unions even though her uncles were CPM party workers. When she raised the question of women being targeted by men, she was told some 'home truths' — that the men had a lot of problems at their workplace and until those issues were resolved, the women would have to suffer the frustration of the menfolk.
Their response brought back memories of her own childhood.
“Every night, my father would come home drunk, pick up a fight and start beating up my mother. Before we knew, the frugal meal that was prepared for us would be thrown on the porch. That was the first time that anger against the brutality inflicted upon women enveloped me and I saw inequality,” 49-year-old Viji told Firstpost.
But the only person who encouraged her to ignore the patriarchal attitude and go ahead in organising the women was Ajitha, the famous woman Naxal who was paraded like a trophy in those days by the police after her arrest. Several years later, Ajitha decided to get into the mainstream and work to empower women in Kozhikode. Ajitha advised Viji to not just protect the women but to fight for their rights.
That is how Penkootam (group of women), the platform to fight for gender equality, dignity of work and equal pay for women, came to be formed in 2009. And since then, the difference has been that women got same-shift timings, competitive salaries and breaks after every four hours just like the men. And, the members grew from single digits to over 6500. For instance, Viji went on a hunger strike for four days while her other comrades fasted for 37 days to ensure that the salaries of women went up from a meagre Rs 1500 to Rs 10,000 under the Kudumbashree scheme of the Kerala government. Today, the women earn Rs 24,000 per month.
Apart from Ajitha’s encouragement, Viji had another person who understood her passion for gender equality. Her husband and companion Suresh, whom she married in 1998, has stood by her.
“Some people thought that I was a part of a union and I needed money. They would come and give a packet full of money to Suresh, asking him to hand it over to me. I would always ask him to return it to the owner and he would question whether they would feel bad about it. It was never about the money. It was just my passion,” said Viji.
Viji has a simple message to women:
“Be independent and fight against all those who oppress you. I have done it and I would like you to do it, too.”
And Viji has a dream. She wants to float a political party that will fight for equality and woman empowerment. “It will be a feminist movement to save the womenfolk,” as she puts it.
Viji may not accept it, but the fact remains that her decade-long struggle has been an inspiration to many who do not know her personally. Two years ago, the plantation women workers of Munnar simply walked out of the plantations and sat on a dharna (strike) that lasted days.
The women were unhappy that the recognised trade unions had agreed to the measly 8.33 percent bonus that the powerful management had forced upon them. After the historic protest, the women got what the trade unions had failed to get for them — a 20 percent bonus.
And this is what makes Viji, a mother of two, an influential woman.
Published Date: Mar 06, 2017 09:58 am | Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 05:01 pm