Viji Penkoottu: Patriarchy made us fight for something as basic as a urinal
When the matter was brought to the notice of their male employers, they were told to use tubes to relieve themselves
Fought for the right of women salespersons to sit and access washrooms
In 2009, Viji Penkoottu was one of the many tailors working on Mittai Theruvu, a shopping street located in Kozhikode, Kerala. But she soon acquired a new identity, that of a trailblazing activist, when she learnt that fellow women workers from the same street, were suffering from uterine diseases, due to lack of toilets.
"I couldn't let the matter slide because these workers had grown accustomed to not urinating for long hours, causing a spike in ailments. They would report to work at 9.30 am and return home by 8 pm, which is when they would relieve themselves," says the activist, who featured in the BBC'S list of 100 inspiring women from around the world in 2018. The women, she recalls, would get scared to drink water during work hours for this reason. When the matter was brought to the notice of their male employers, they were told to use tubes to relieve themselves.
It's then that the 50-year-old floated an organisation called Penkoottu to take up issues faced by women workers in the unorganised sector. This also included the "right to sit" at the workplace for saleswomen. She recalls how her efforts would run into roadblocks due to the absence of a union. No union, meant no rights, which is when she decided to form the Asangaditha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), the first women trade union in Kerala in 2014. It took two years for them to get it registered. "The labour officers tried their best to not grant us the registration."
Nine years and countless strikes later, her demands have been heard. In July, the Kerala Cabinet cleared an amendment to the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act, 1960, to ensure a "secure environment" for working women. This meant that total working hours in a day could not exceed 10, and that women had the right to take breaks, and the right to sit, among others. "The problem was the deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset. They didn't even treat us like human beings, which is why we had to fight for something as basic as a urinal. They assumed that they were doing us a favour by allowing us to work in the first place," she says.
Today, Penkoottu is working relentlessly to get equal pay, stop mental harassment at work and enlighten workers about their own rights. "We have lakhs of workers, and our onus is now to keep them informed and aware. Thankfully, women are no longer keeping silent. They are talking back."
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A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli