Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala-based activist Aleyamma Vijayan may be identified as the one-stop point for women's issues in the state, but that took decades of working on gender.
For Aleyamma, 68, it all began over four decades back, when she started work on upliftment of fisherwomen of Kerala's coasts.
Asked what has been her defining moment, the women's rights activist points to her work with the fishing community from 1978. "Most fisherwomen walked long distances to reach the market or individual homes as no regular transport would allow them. So, the work in early 1980s was to organise fisherwomen and provide them transport facilities to markets. At that time fish was carried on the head in bamboo baskets and water would drip. It was heavy and walking long distances was adversely affecting their health," Aleyamma said.
She added: "To organise them, we had to make them understand the gravity of the issue and we held street plays. After two years of struggle, the government, through the department of fisheries and fish workers' welfare board, granted bus services to various markets."
Aleyamma's organisation Sakhi, founded in 1996, was selected by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take up the implementation part of building homes and also livelihood programmes to those who lost theirs in the floods - the worst in a century in Kerala, in August 2018.
It was started with the support of the John D and Catherine T Mac Arthur Foundation in the form of a three-year fellowship awarded to her after she worked for 16 years with the marginalised communities and today, is recognised as one of the premier organisations that works among women in Kerala, cutting across sectors.
Three years later in 1999, Sakhi was registered as a trust and soon got recognition as they spread across the state and took up issues concerning women.
Besides, Sakhi was able to network with other organisations both in the state and at the national level.
Sakhi works on creating gender-justice practices and programmes. "Today we are a member of the national network of autonomous women's organisations (NNWAG), national coordination committee (NCC) and take part in the joint programmes," said Aleyamma.
It was due to her hard work and commitment that Aleyamma was recognised internationally for her work.
Reflecting on her career, she said that she was happy with how things had panned out for her.
Armed with a post graduate degree in Social Work, a young Aleyamma had started her 'public' career in the state capital in the late 1970s.
"It was in 1978, a few months after Programme for Community Organisation (PCO) was formed, I joined it. We worked among the fisher folks in the state and very soon we were able to walk into their minds, as they found us genuine and had absolute trust in us," said Aleyamma.
In a few years time, PCO soon became a sought-after friend, philosopher and guide of the fisher folk as numerous studies were conducted which were often seen as the final word for authorities, when it came to making policy decisions.
In 1990, her professional career took a turn when she became country coordinator at the Chennai-based International Collective of Fish Workers.
At ICFW, her canvas became bigger. She was travelling to various states where fisheries was a primary vocation and did extensive studies on women in fisheries sector and conducted a public hearing on prawn peeling centres across states.
"I felt that there should be a more focused approach on women issues and floated the Kerala Sthree Vedhi' and seeing what we were able to do when we tackled issues relating to a few high profile rape cases, it was decided that we should have a proper framework and in 1996, launched Sakhi, said Aleyamma.
Aleyamma, in 2010, decided to step down from the post of coordinator at Sakhi as, she felt that it was not proper for her to always remain at the helm of affairs.
"I continue to be a member in Sakhi and I'm always available whenever my services are needed," said Aleyamma.
With age catching up and having to deal with minor health issues, Aleyamma said that she has entered a new area - to study the nuances of gender perspective on climate change.