November 29, 2018:
‘Toilet? Just avoid that. Either drink less water or use tubes’.
These were the reactions of shop owners when Viji, a tailor-turned-women’s activist first raised the issue of lack of toilets for women in business establishments in SM Street & nearby areas in 2009-2010.
After several strikes & protests for about eight years, her demand was finally fulfilled in 2018.
The relentless struggles of Viji has got her international acclaim. The BBC has included her in the list of 100 inspiring & influential women from around the world for 2018. She is in 73rd position in the list.
The initial seeds of fight for women workers were sown in her mind. Viji’s mother Kamala, 75, was a housemaid & only earning member of the family. Kamala was being physically abused by her husband too. The experiences of seeing her mother going through the ordeal influenced her later activities.
Viji Penkoottu, who was a tailor in SM Street, raised the demand for toilets when she realised that the women workers were suffering from uterine diseases. Due to lack of lack of toilets, these workers got used to not urinate for long hours causing them the ailments.
“The shop owners did not accept our demand initially. They told us not to drink water & use tubes instead if we want to urinate. However, the intense & continuous struggles changed the situation. Due to the struggles, a series of e-toilets were set up in the city. Building owners constructed toilets for women too,” she said.
While the women workers held strikes under Viji, labour officers said she could not lead as the protesters are not members of any recognised organisation.
Later, they started an organisation named ‘Penkoottu. Since its inception, Penkoottu tion has been taking up the issues of workes in the unorganised sectors, neglected by mainstream trade unions.
Viji said these organisations have not caused any trouble to ‘Penkoottu’, but they neglect it. In 2011, she formed Asangaditha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), the first women trade union in Kerala.
Viji also fought for the right of sales girls who were not allowed to sit during their work hours in 2014.The struggle spread like an epidemic across the state forcing the government to amend the Kerala Shops & Commercial Establishments Workers’ Welfare Act to ensure the rights of women workers.
What next? The struggles for the rights of women will continue, she said. “The women workers should be treated like men. We need equal wages & equal working hours,” she said.