Twenty-year-old Neha is a trained carpenter. Since the waters receded, she’s been hammering and sawing, busy repairing and replacing windows, doors, and furniture to make schools and homes habitable again.
“In several buildings, joints, hinges and screws of woodwork have come loose or been damaged, and doors and windows have to be put back again in many instances. Many of the houses we visited on Wednesday belonged to indigent owners,” she explains.
A survivor of trafficking, Neha is part of a 27-member team of carpenters and welders, of which 19 are women, which has come from Hyderabad-based Prajwala, which rescues and rehabilitates them.
Moved by the plight of people displaced by the flood, the women volunteered to work in Kerala to help the “poorest of the poor” resume their lives once they returned home from the camps. With their tools, equipment and some amount of building material, they reached the State on Tuesday evening.
“On Wednesday, we started our day by 7 am, travelled by bus and then by boat for 40 minutes to reach Kainakary grama panchayat,” says Ahmed Ali, leader of the team. But before they could begin work, they went beyond the professional. “We cleaned six houses in which the water had receded and the owners had returned to their homes. Some houses were still flooded. Since there was no electricity, it was not possible to do any welding,” he explains. The team flushed out silt, wiped the walls clean, dried whatever was usable, washed vessels. On Thursday, they repaired and cleaned 10 buildings, including a temple and a school.
A panchayat member or councillor along with Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD) identify the panchayats and accompany the team to overcome the language barrier. COSTFORD is taking care of their accommodation and food.
“We are working in five panchayats in Alappuzha and workers of Prajwala are working in one of those — Kainakary. In addition to our electricians, the Prajwala carpenters and welders are taking care of minor repairs and cleaning too,” says K.P. Kannan, chairman of COSTFORD.
In their blue uniforms and gum boots, the women are easily identifiable as professionals on the job. In order not to be a burden on the local people, they carry their food and water with them on their daily expeditions. “Language is not a problem at all. We are here to help and that is what we are doing. In some places, we helped people bring out all the furniture, mattresses, clothes and put them out in the sun to dry,” says 23-year-old Devyani, a carpenter.
“Sometimes, we all need a helping hand. I got that when Madam [Sunitha Krishnan] rescued me and trained me in a profession. It is because of her intervention that I have a life and I am able to earn a living and send money to my parents too. Now I have been given an opportunity to help people in need. All of us are doing as much work as we can for these families in Kerala,” says Trishna.
Their biggest reward, they say, is the smiles on the faces of families as they put their houses in order. A shared history of hardship is a great bond, but so is the process of rebuilding, sometimes from scratch.
(Names of all the women have been changed to protect their identity)
Women of steel
“We did not want to adhere to gender stereotypes and train them in conventional professions. Instead, we wanted to prove that there is nothing a woman cannot do. Moreover, we wanted to rehabilitate them with training that would complement the job market and make my girls empowered. That is why I chose for them to be trained in carpentry and welding. It is also a morale booster when they see that they are as good if not better than the men and women in their profession,” says Sunitha Krishnan.
Speaking over the phone from Hyderabad, she says that today, one of the biggest problems they face is of their workers being poached by builders because of the women’s efficiency and skill. “Visitors are often awed with the confidence with which they perform sheet bending, for instance. It is a difficult job which requires them to pull and bend sheets of iron. Four or five of them together do it with ease,” she adds.
Sunitha says that the women were all keen on coming much earlier but the logistics of accommodation and travelling had to be arranged. Prajwala has tied up with COSTFORD to reach out to owners in need of help to rebuild. “They told me that each of them knew the pain of loss and displacement and having to rebuild their lives from scratch. Since, they had the chance of a second life, they wanted to extend a helping hand to people impoverished by the deluge and give them a second lease of life as well.”
Hailing from Assam, Neha was all of 14 when an acquaintance of her family promised her a job in Hyderabad and lured her away from her family. She was sold and trafficked. In 2014, she was rescued from a brothel by activists and rehabilitated. “Thanks to Madam [Sunitha], I am not only earning a living but also teaching others carpentry. I am very good at making almost anything – windows, doors, cots. If you give me a design, I can make that for you,” she says confidently.