In 1989, a goon attacked a pregnant fisherwoman in a fish market. She had an abortion as a result, and the goon went missing. The police and local authorities, meanwhile, refused to do anything. Then members of the Theeradesa Mahila Vedi (TMV) - the Kerala fisherwomen's collective - raised its voice. Says Freeska Kurisappan, Secretary of TMV, "These protests and demonstrations caused the police to track down and arrest the man. Now, the court has sentenced him to four years in jail."
This is one of several cases of rape, sexual harassment and violence that the TMV has fought in the 25 years of its existence. Taking recourse to both direct and legal action, their efforts have ensured that offenders are convicted or socially ostracized.
In the age of globalization, mechanization and market-friendly reforms, Kerala's fisherwomen find themselves exposed to a high degree of social - and physical - violence. As beaches are sold to private parties and as sand-mining lobbies - often with the support of local politicians - take over the coasts, women's access to the coast is blocked by coastal guards and local mafia. From physical obstruction to sexual harassment and rape, violence is a daily experience.
Through their simple, lived experience, these women understand the impact that globalization has on the earth's fragile web of life and that it must be resisted jointly - not in isolation. This is the spirit that moved them to join cause with the anti-cola agitation in Plachimada, Kerala. Magline Peter, an executive committee member of TMV, explains, "When multinationals like Coca Cola poison groundwater reserves, fish in the nearby rivers and further downstream die, and our livelihoods are at stake."
Although fisherwomen traditionally do not go out to sea, ancillary activities as critical as fishing itself - fish processing, vending, marketing, net-making, and so on - are primarily in women's hands. And these hands are rising up in protest today, as profound changes rock the coastal economy. Of the 5.4 million people in India who survive on fishing activities, 1.6 million are women. In Kerala, the fishing population is about a million strong and inhabits 222 fishing villages along the coastline. (Figures from a recent TMV report)
And the current market-friendly reforms aimed at opening up India's coasts to large-scale commercial exploitation pose a grave danger to the survival of these communities. Trawling, sand-mining, tourism, shell and coral collection: as commercial activities, these are by no means new. But globalization has turned them into threats. "The government has opened the coast to foreign trawlers that harvest all the fish. Private companies have taken over our traditional occupations, like net-making and fish processing. We are left without fish and without work," says Safia, a TMV member.
The fall in fish stocks as a result of indiscriminate mechanized trawling is the single-most worrying factor for the fishing community, and its impact on women is direct and brutal. Fisherwomen - who earlier sold the catch that the community's men brought in from the sea - are now forced to buy fish from large contractors. Says Mable, a TMV activist, "If there is no catch, women have to procure fish from wherever it is available and then sell it. This is double work for us."
It also means greater indebtedness, as money is borrowed from local moneylenders to pay for fish; it means waking up much before dawn to rush to the auction site; as traditional fish markets are swallowed, bone and all, by rich contractors, it means greater market vulnerability and insecurity.
With fish disappearing from the seas, fishermen face a loss of productive activity. In frustration, they turn to alcoholism. They borrow money for gambling. Their bitterness is an additional burden for fisherwomen, who struggle to hold their families together and cope with increased wife-beating and desertion.
Fisherwomen today also face the grave problem of loss of potable drinking water. Activities such as large-scale sand-mining weaken the coast and make it susceptible to salt water ingress. In many areas, ground water aquifers yield only brine: seawater that renders agricultural land sterile and adds the burden of thirst to coastal communities. "In many areas, women have to walk long distances everyday to fetch drinking water," says Leelamma, a TMV member.
Brewing more trouble are the recommendations made by the M S Swaminathan Committee on Coastal Policy Reforms (2005) that seek to remove existing coastal regulations and open up India's coasts to further commercial exploitation. The fisherfolk argue that opening up the coasts for unregulated commercial activities - tourism, sand-mining, trawling, shrimp farming - will lead to land being sold to industries and hotels. Naturally, fisherfolk will then be evicted or barred entry. Peter points out, "The existing coastal laws are openly violated. The commercialization visualized in these recommendations will bring the sex and drugs tourism industry to our very doorsteps."
At the recently held National Conference of Women's Movements in India conference in Kolkata, 250 women's groups joined TMV in denouncing the Committee's recommendations. Says Peter, an executive committee member of TMV, "We strongly believe that marginalized movements worldwide must join hands in the struggle against patriarchal and State violence."
In the face of the multi-pronged assault on their way of life, Kerala's fisherwomen are fighting back as never before.
With a central office in Thiruvananthapuram and affiliated to an independent union of fish workers, the Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF), TMV has been organizing fisherwomen in southern Kerala since 1980. In the early 1980s, a militant movement, in which hundreds were arrested, won fisherwomen the right of access to public transport. Prolonged struggles also ensured that traditional fish markets, usurped by rich contractors through excessive taxation and physical violence, were recaptured.
Today, in most coastal areas, local fish vendors and hawkers face the problem of eviction by contractor lobbies. In Kerala, however, resistance by fisherwomen has kept these forces at bay. "Our women are politically conscious," says Peter, "That's why we are able to show tremendous energy and courage during agitations."
Another significant change that has occurred as a result of the organization's relentless efforts is a change in social perception. Magline Peter explains, "Fisherwomen traditionally faced segregation and contempt from upper castes and classes. However, their organized struggles have been successful in bringing about some change in dominant attitudes, and today, they are no longer debarred from entering homes when they go door-to-door selling fish."
The union has organized self-funded micro-credit groups in several areas. Apart from ensuring economic security, these self-help groups are nodal points for organizational and mobilization activities. They provide an important space for women to come together to find collective solutions to individual problems, such as debt crisis or wife beating.
Women are also the backbone of the larger union, the KSMTF. In joint struggles against trawling, sand-mining and communal attacks, as well as in post-tsunami rehabilitation work, women have taken the lead in large numbers. It is significant that this collective struggle has allowed women to develop critical leadership skills that in turn help the movement grow in strength.
This is the living history of women's struggles - being written everyday in Kerala's coastal communities.