Women are not born strong but become one. They become sturdy mentally and emotionally as they take up challenges that life pose at various turns. When a 24-member women team started constructing a concrete house at Thavalappara in Ernakulam district's Manjapra panchayath, they had to even put up with sarcastic comments on the durability of the structure. "The house would me made more of gossips than bricks!” An onlooker had commented. "Can one catch a good sleep inside once it is ready"? Another ridiculed. But the houseowner Devaki Kuttappan, a widow and daily-wage labourer, was doubtless and confident. She knew that a house built by women would be strong in every detail. She would know as she had borne the struggles of raising her three children all by herself after her husband had passed away decades ago.
On October 8, Kudumbashree's Ernakulam chapter handed over its first unit constructed by an all-women team. The 450-sq ft three-bedroom house, which was built in a short period of 53 days, cost only Rs 4 lakh!
It was in 2016 that the authorities of Kudumbashree's Ernakulam district body envisaged a project to train its selected members on construction activities. Though the initial batch had undertaken some works under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and completed them successfully, lack of continuous training and inadequate work subsequently forced the unit to disperse and pursue regular chores. Two years later, Kudumbashree Manjapra unit chairperson Sunitha Jayan revived the project in coordination with Kerala government's Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment (LIFE) Mission*. They constituted a team of 24 women hailing from different villages and appointed a mason to train them in different stages of house construction. Shino, a local mason who served as the instructor made it a point not to involve men at any stage of the construction.
“We had women from far-off villages like Malayattoor and Thuravoor in our construction team. They took bus from their places early in the morning to reach Manjapra. They carried out the construction activities right from scratch - from laying the foundation to concreting the roof, white-washing, laying floor-tiles, wiring, and plumbing. All participants worked enthusiastically to realise their goal,” Sunitha said.
Houseowner Devaki, 55, was widowed when her third child was a toddler. She did daily-wage jobs to raise her son and two daughters. Her rented house, which is at Thavalappara in Manjapra panchayath, is a dilapidated structure built more of mud than bricks and cement. Devaki had submitted a petition to the LIFE Mission for a secure house almost two years ago.
When Kudumbashree authorities browsed through the sanctioned applications under the LIFE Mission for assigning work to their new team of construction workers, Devaki's petition was hand-picked by the district authorities, considering her widowed status and struggles. Devaki's son had stopped his education after plus-two and works as a daily-wage worker. Her elder daughter is a class-10 student and the youngest is in class 7.
The all-women construction team knew they could execute the project, but they had to put up with regressive mindsets at the construction site. Jiji, a 45-year-old Kudumbasree member who served as a construction worker, noted that their efforts were mocked at by a few local people.
“Men just gathered around the construction site in the afternoons and laughed at us. They gave unsolicited instructions to us and commented on our working style. I wouldn't forget the day the first door-frame was erected. A group of people took over the control and unfixed the door-frame which we had erected after strenuous effort. It took a whole day to convince them of our style and finally erect the door-frame the way our mason taught us,” she recalled.
Sunitha revealed such reactions discouraged several workers to continue the work in the beginning. “Later they took it up as a challenge. If they had backed off from this first project, no one would trust Kudumbashree in our future ventures. Some people even asked me openly whether the house would collapse on the day of house-warming,” Sunitha said.
However, Shino, the master-mason, is happy about his students. “I did not expect them to learn and execute everything so fast. They had a fear whether construction activity would be too heavy for them, but they all performed it with ease,” Shino said.
Kudumbashree Ernakulam district mission is planning to split the team into three and constitute three independent construction units at different zones of the district. Once the first house was completed successfully, more women started turning up at the Kudumbashree office seeking admission to the construction group. “The second batch will take up the construction of the next LIFE Mission house once they finish its training. The first batch is all set to begin their second project,” Sunitha explained.
*LIFE Mission of the Government of Kerala aims to provide employment for homeless within next five years.