Single-handedly Pushpy Johny built up the SEWA branch in the city. Today, this organisation offers employment opportunities for women
Pushpy Johny remembers ‘chasing’ pregnant women outside Lourdes Hospital. “I would run behind them and tell them about SEWA. That SEWA could provide the services of home nurses who could help them after they had their babies,” she says. This is just one of the stories she has to tell about how Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Kochi came to be.
Pushpy has been at the helm of SEWA as Secretary since its founding in 1990. At the time she was working at a stationery shop, Thomas Sons Associates, which was housed in the building where SEWA hired space for its office on Veekshanam Road. Nalini Naik, who had set up SEWA in Thiruvananthapuram, and Father Thomas Kochery were looking for a person for Kochi and they found Pushpy. There was an interview, “my previous employer would have said something favourable about me which is why Nalini madam entrusted me the responsibility of SEWA.”
SEWA was set up in Kochi on the request of the Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Union. “The fisherfolk needed an alternate source of income when there was a dip in income from fishing and the men were unemployed,” she says. SEWA (Kochi) started with eight members and today has more than 7,000.
The ‘one-woman army’ has been at work since 1990. It was an uphill task getting members, “I would go to coastal areas looking for women to join the organisation. People in these areas used to mock me, ‘here comes the woman who will make our women clean faeces’. That is how home nursing was perceived in the old days,” reminisces Pushpy. Getting men to let women out of the houses for work was also tough, but since SEWA is more or less an all-woman show it worked out.
Once she had eight women, she had to generate work for them. “These women would badger me for work everyday and I would go out looking for work.” Old fashioned hard work, or rather leg work, got SEWA up and working. She has even been bitten by dogs while looking for ‘work’.
Initially, women were selected on the basis of the recommendation of the Matsyathozhilali Union. Today, word of mouth publicity gets her the women. There has, however, been a dip in the number of women joining. “Nobody wants to clean someone else’s garbage. Most of the women we get are in the 35 plus age group. It all depends on how fit the women are. We have women as old as 70.” Unmarried girls are fewer, “fewer headaches for us too.”
SEWA started with home nursing and providing house help came much later. Gradually, they started taking in, as members, women in need and not just from coastal areas. When SEWA was set up here, Nalini Naik told Pushpy that they would get financial support only for three years. “And I am proud to say that within two years we were self sufficient.”
As Pushpy tells SEWA’s story, Celine, one of the oldest members serves us tea. A home nurse, she has been with the organisation for the last 21 years and says she is very happy here. As Celine leaves for her home nurse assignment, she whispers a bye to Pushpy. “Give me a call if there is anything,” Pushpy tells Celine. “We, the women and I, are more like friends. They have the freedom to discuss any problems with me.”
There have been times when members have made distress calls to her from their work places. “I have gone and picked them up late in the night. These women are my responsibility.” Cases of harassment are fewer, though instances of the women being given stale and rotten food are common. “We do not tolerate this kind of treatment being meted out to our women.” Same goes for complaints against its members. The erring member is reprimanded.
More than the secretary, her role is more of a big sister’s. She is grateful to her husband K.E. Johny, who retired as an executive engineer from the Kerala Water Authority, for his unstinting support without which, she says, this kind of work would have been impossible.
The office where SEWA is housed is the result of Pushpy’s deft handling of finances. The 800 sq. ft. office, on St. Vincent Road, is complete with a kitchen and a dormitory. “This office is the result of our hard work. We have not borrowed money for this space,” Pushpy says. Another matter of pride for her is that the charitable institution has also bought 96 cents of land near Kodanad. She hopes to construct an old age home there, “finances permitting.”
Two decades of working with SEWA the biggest change she has observed is the change in attitudes – the women’s and the attitude towards them. “Today, children seek the advice and permission of their mothers, important or otherwise. Women’s empowerment, I feel, is our greatest achievement. Awareness of their rights and financial independence are the others.”
Another two years and she completes 25 years of helping women help themselves, and she says there are times she feels its time to hang up her boots and take it easy. “But then there is always something more to do.”