Sea of sorrow

They are small fry in a man's world. Kausalya Santhanam finds out their views

TOUGH LIFE From selling fish to preserving it, it's a woman's job

They are enterprising saleswomen, with tongues as sharp as their skills in trading. "What would I gain by talking to you," asks Anjalai, screwing up her gaunt face against the rays of the mid day sun. Her wares, modest rows of fish, are spread out before her. Along with her companions who squat on this stretch of road in Vananthurai, she had fetched it at dawn when the load arrived at Central Station. "The fish comes from Andhra," adds Selvi, her friend. Their leader 75-year-old Rani rues that "there is little fish on our coast after the tsunami".

It is the same story at Nochikuppam, with minor variations. The women who sell fish rise at 3 a.m. and make their way to the harbour and then wait for two hours to bid for the catch once the boats come in. "The men's job is over once they fling the catch on the beach. It is we who carry it in baskets on our heads, walk for long miles, and arrange for an auto or tempo to transport it. We set up our stall at 8 a.m. and are there till 1 p.m. with just cups of tea or an idli to sustain us. We get terrible headaches out here in the open. Sundays were the best day for sales but no longer; after the Black Sunday of the tsunami, people are afraid to come to the seashore," chorus Shakila, Selvi and Kalaimathi.

"It ends with the fishing. They do not know how to sell. They know only to drink," mutters a woman and adds for good measure, "and give us children at regular intervals." The men don't help them in the household chores. But Rani is not angry. "After all they miss out on their sleep and row into dangerous waters only for the sake of their families," she says sympathetically.

"If we earn Rs. 50 or Rs. 100 a day, the men will spend half of it on liquor. And worse beat us up if we protest," chime in her companions Vasantha and Malarvizhi who have studied up to Standard V.

Savings? "We have no such thing. See that woman there. We take loans from her to buy the fish." "I only do the job of cutting the fish depending on customers' orders. I have no money to be a seller," adds M. Lakshmi pathetically.

The worst problem we face is from the traffic policemen. They demand bribes and chase us away. The Government helped us quite a bit after the tsunami struck. But why can't they provide sheds for us to sell the fish? And facilities to transport it? These are what we need the most, say the women.

"There is no problem of dowry in our community," they say. But R. Desikan of Catalyst Trust refutes it. The voluntary organisation helped the fishing hamlet Chinnandikuppam to rehabilitate itself after the tsunami. "The women here say they have to give 25 sovereigns as dowry. But we find the women plucky and enterprising. We have begun adult literacy classes for the community and all 63 who have enrolled are women!"

The tsunami threw up the gender divide in a heartrending way. In Tamil Nadu, 2,406 women died compared to 1,883 men. In Pachayankuppam in Cuddalore, all those who died were women. Studies by NGOs have shown they were hindered by their gender costume of the sari from fleeing fast and they lost valuable time while trying to collect the children. Says a representative of an NGO, "Fishing panchayats are represented almost wholly by men. Women's participation in the decision making process about livelihood opportunities and infrastructure facilities is almost nil. Also, widows and women headed households occupying temporary shelters should be given priority in the allocation of independent houses."

Chandrika Sharma of International Collective in Support of Fishworkers points out how "earlier, landings used to take place along the coastline. Now it takes place only at the harbour. The big exporters get all the export, high value fish and the women traders are left with the fry that fetches a meagre sum. At the harbour, they have no toilets or facilities for shelter and are exposed to the danger of harassment."

Voluntary groups did not realise the sort of interventions needed for women post-tsunami. Some gave them boats which were passed on to the men, says Chandrika.

But to the women today, what is most distressing is that sales have fallen after the tsunami. Why? "We don't know. You should only ask the makkal," they shrug as they splash water on their wares and call out shrilly to prospective customers.


This article was from TTHE HINDU dated February 02, 2006

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