My involvement with women’s issues started when I was working with the fishing community after completing my Masters in Social Work. I was a community organizer trying to apply learnings of the social work I learnt from textbooks. But life with this marginalized community made me unlearn what I had learnt in schools of social work, and these life experiences forced me to rethink and start learning again. Each day brought new awakening and I was mostly touched by the plight of women in the community who were carrying heavy loads of fish on their heads in cane baskets, water dripping all over their bodies, going door to door, selling fish. They were socially ostracized and had to travel 4–5 hours just to be able to sell fish for one or two hours. The first step towards organizing and building a movement with these women fish vendors was taken with the demand for transport to go to the markets. Two long years of struggle and the persistence of these women led to the government granting them this facility. The experience of victory made the women realize the impact their unity and perseverance could create and they became the backbone of the fish workers’ struggle in Kerala, which was very active in the 1980s and 1990s.
In a highly politicized context of Kerala, issues affecting women were also politicized and party based women’s organizations were mostly silent when their respective parties were in power. There was very little autonomous space for women to come together and act independently. Thus in 1996, after the Beijing conference, a few like minded feminists and women’s groups came together as a network called Kerala Women’s Forum (Kerala Streevedi) with a view to taking up issues of women. A few months after the formation of the network, Sakhi, a women’s resource centre, was also started with a view to give support to the movement of women, to help build leadership and to initiate a process of public discourse on gender and development.
The first struggle taken up by Kerala Streevedi was on the issue of the rape of a ninth standard girl by about 40 men (the infamous Suryanelli case). She was handed over from one man to the other for a period of 45 days. She had been abused by so many men, and prolonged and sustained struggles were needed to arrest the culprits and to set up special court to try the case and punish the accused. Soon after this, there was another case of mass rape of a 14-year-old girl, Vithura, who was trafficked into prostitution by promising her a job. Several highly placed officials were involved in this case too. Although the culprits were identified and arrested, the trial in this case has still not taken place. So in short, many of the issues taken up in the initial period were related to sexual violence and abuse, to demand legal action and this agenda kept on recurring again and again with cases like the Ice Cream Parlour case, Kiliroor case and Pandalam case. As mentioned earlier, a strong watch dog role was needed to get justice to the survivors, without political interference.
Another round of issues was related to sexual harassment at the workplace, and two of the prominent cases were the abuse faced by Nalini Netto, an IAS officer by the then minister Neelalohita Dasan Nadar and then the case of P.E. Usha, a university employee. Although considerable public attention was there, the debates were influenced by caste and political colourings and the movement had a difficult time keeping the issue of safety in the workplace as the central issue. In both these cases prolonged court proceedings have been going on for over 12–14 years and justice has been delayed. This kind of delay discourages other women who face harassment at their workplaces.
Several other issues like prostitution or sex work, sexual orientation and choices were also debated within the movement. Slowly the character of the movement started changing and young women who strongly believed in sexual choices, etc., formed another organization called Mukta as a young feminists’ network.
After a certain period of time, ideological issues emerged and some of us withdrew since we were from funded organizations. Since it was a network and there are women from varied ideological underpinnings, the strength of the movement fluctuated. Definitely ‘NGO-ization’ played a role.
Since then, we in Sakhi have led our own discourses and campaign on several issues like child sexual abuse, masculinities, harassment at public places, political reservation of women, gender planning and budgeting, the Domestic Violence Act, etc. We continue to observe the 16 days campaign on violence against women, campaign around International Women’s Day and bring out posters, brochures, etc. We have started to involve men and young people more and more. Sakhi also found it important to work with elected women at the local government level as that is the only way to gender sensitize the political system.
There are many visual memories of the movement…of all the strong agitations and gatherings, of debates and of feeling the strength of working with a common purpose and swimming against the current.