Unique to Kerala’s capital city and nearby areas,women fish vendors who deliver the late night catch to hundreds of homes live in poor conditions and suffer from many health problems due to the arduous nature of their work.
Rising at the crack of dawn,they wade through a muddy road to a narrow by-lane to a fish auction centre,bargain hard with middlemen,collect fish in metal basins,adjust loads on their heads and head for their regular clients.
Though they render a service to people,they are the most unorganised workforce in Kerala,a state known for its aggressive trade unionism. Often looked down by others,they even suffer discrimination while travelling in buses to bring the catch from coastal villages to the city.
Though Kerala has a long coastline,women fish vendors are unique to this city and adjoining areas. In other places,fish vending is done by men,who carry the supply on two-wheelers or auto-rickshaws,making the job less arduous.
Nobody knows when the practice of women delivering fish to homes began here. Many say their mothers or grandmothers were in the same trade. Poor living conditions and lack of adequate financial support from men have forced most of them to take to fish vending.
Unlike men,they cannot relax even when their job is done.
At home they have to cook,wash and attend to other chores.
“Small-scale vendors like us buy fish for Rs 500 to 600 a day. After deducting share to auction agents and for travel,the profit is around Rs 100-125.This is not enough to buy rice and provisions for a day. The budget will collapse if any unexpected expense comes about,” Rosy,a 35-year-old fisherwoman from nearby Shangumugham beach said.
“We cannot save a single paise for the future. We often borrow money on heavy interest from lenders to meet children’s educational and hospital expenses. Walking long distances with the weight on the head can cause serious health problems,” said another fisherwoman.
A third standard school drop-out,she looks after her five member family,including her husband,two children and parents. Her seafarer husband may not get work throughout the week and when he does,spends much of the money on liquor.
“It is not my case alone,but for 500 other families in our locality. Women are the main wage earners. We know it is less profitable,but learnt this from our mothers and are not trained in any other work,” she said.
CPI(M) women’s wing leader and Rajya Sabha member T N Seema,who has done several studies on fisherwomen in the city,says ‘adivasis’ (tribals) and fisherfolk are two communities in the state who lag behind women of other sections in the society.
“Their job requires huge physical strength. Many women soon develop serious health problems as their income is not enough to have nutritious food. They have to go for hours without drinking clean water.Many suffer from back pain,disc prolapse,orthopaedic and uterus problems,” she said.
Eliyamma Vijayan,an NGO worker specialising in fisherwomen’s welfare,said no government or NGO has done anything for them,tough they have been around for ages.
She said gender discrimination is strong in the community. Women walk for hours to sell fish,while men do so on two and three wheelers,using mobile phones to get information on fish availability and prices. “Women have no access to such tools due to financial and cultural reasons.”
Seema said 30 to 40 per cent of fisherwomen in Kerala go out and sell fish. The younger lot are not interested. Most older women are illiterate or school dropouts and suffer greatly to educate children to help them get jobs. They also train girl children in more profitable professions like garment-making,she said.