“Those were the days when freshly distilled arrack flowed like a river across the state. And in that river, our husbands swam and frolicked.”
Sicily, who goes by one name, was a 28-year-old bride in early-1970s Kerala when she arrived at her in-laws’ house to discover that her husband was a drunkard. Kunjappan, her spouse, would do odd daily-wage jobs and spend his entire earnings on arrack. Her nights were spent fighting with him over his addiction and his total abandonment of the family. At 30, she decided enough was enough and stepped into the construction sector as an unskilled helper to raise her young children.
Philomina, 56, has had a similar trajectory. With her husband, a fisherman, squandering his wages at arrack shops, she too was forced to work as a helper at construction sites and later take up any job that came her way under the MGNREGA, from cleaning canals to cutting weeds and building cowsheds.
Silicy, now 74, and Philomina were drafted last year into all-women construction units under Kudumbashree, Kerala’s famed women self-help network. The objective is simple: to turn them from unskilled labourers into masons and contractors.
While local women make up a sizeable section of Kerala’s construction labourer base, most do lowly jobs due to lack of training and experience. Kudumbashree aims to train women in all aspects of construction to guide them towards leadership positions.
Last year, as a part of the first phase of training, an all-women team comprising Sicily, Philomina and four others, built a 450 sq ft home for Rs 4.5 lakh in the coastal panchayat of Kumbalangi in western Kochi under the state government’s LIFE housing scheme. Now, across Kerala, dozens of such houses for the poor and destitute are being built by similar all-women groups of Kudumbashree.
“These are all women who have been doing MNREGA jobs for Rs 271 a day. We are training them to become better at what they do. They may be uneducated but we are attempting to upgrade their skill-sets so that they can be the ones getting contracts for housing projects,” Manjeesh, a district programme manager with Kudumbashree, who is in-charge of the construction units, says.
“In the first phase, we finished 14 houses in Ernakulam district under the LIFE mission. Right now, the second phase is on. In Kumbalangi, there are three houses being built. In Paravur municipality, CSR funds of Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) are being used to build 12 houses for flood-affected families. By the end of the second phase, the confidence levels of the women would go up considerably,” he adds.
Vinaya Joy, 28, a civil engineer, left a cushy private job to train women like Philomina. The initial phase wasn’t easy, she concedes, because of the sheer physical strength required for tasks like plastering and lifting solid blocks. “You can’t expect them to master everything on the first attempt. So naturally, there were problems. Lifting heavy cement bags, lining of solid blocks, concreting were all hard for the women. We’re also training them in cash management and managing materials,” Vinaya says.
Add to that, the sarcastic remarks passed by locals and the general attitude of the public. “‘Ayyo veedu idinju polinju veezho (Oh, will the house collapse)?’ they would often ask us. They think a house built by women will not stand,” Vinaya scoffs.
Philomina adds, “In Kumbalangi, people had never seen a house being built by women. We worked so hard, with complete dedication. So it naturally broke our heart when people cast doubts on our work.”
Vinaya says at one point they thought of packing up. “But then we remembered the state of the beneficiary for whom the house was being built, and soldiered on. At the end, everyone was happy and we were able to prove ourselves.”
Currently, Vinaya and her team are halfway into building their second house, also for a beneficiary under the LIFE project in Kumbalangi. These days, she smiles, when she walks on the roads in the town, she’s easily recognised.
Among those impressed are Ambika, for whom Vinaya’s team built a house last year. “She did everything for us,” says the 51-year-old. “Of course we were scared. These were women who used to do NREGA jobs till yesterday. We had doubts. But they worked with absolute dedication.”
The oldest in Vinaya’s gang, Sicily is up at 5 every morning, attends church and by 9 am, is at the construction site. All her children are well settled and married now, while two years ago, her alcoholic husband died. But, she says, she’s not hanging up her boots just yet.
“Once sons get married, they must look after their own families. I don’t need their help. I earn the money I need from construction work. I get ration rice and prawns from a friend’s farm. What else do I need?” she says.
Turning 75 next week, Sicily probably wouldn’t get a chance to become a contractor like the others. But, even that isn’t a deterrent. Pointing to the women around her, she laughs, “These are my friends and it’s a lot of fun together.”