Breaking the glass ceiling in a male world: How an all-women construction group built a Kerala house (IANS Special Series)
In a small, tucked-away village in Kerala stands a 475-square feet house which is known across the region not because of who owns it, but because of those who built it. And it's not a building constructed by some famous architect but by a group of 20 daily-wage workers -- all of them women.
This 20-member all-women group, Nirmanashree Constructions, is challenging building-industry stereotypes and has broken the glass ceiling in a male-dominated sector by completing their first building at Elamdesham village here in Kerala's Idukki district.
In a matter of less than two months, these women, most of whom belong to the nearby Velliyamattom village, got trained to become qualified masons, good enough to take on their male counterparts. Not only did they complete the building as part of their training, they are already in final stages of talks for their next project.
Although women constitute half of the construction labour force in the country, they are relegated to menial work with skills like masonry, carpentry and others considered to be men's domain.
Till as late as August this year, most of these 20 women were engaged either in household chores or worked as daily-wage labourers under the "right to work" programme of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
"But thanks to our Velliyamattom village council president Sheeba Rajasekheran, we have turned professional," Suja, 43, who left college to get married after failing her B.Com examinations, told IANS proudly.
Rajasekheran, who also looks after the Kerala government's women's empowerment programme "Kudumbashree", first called a meeting and mooted the idea of training interested women to become masons.
She also got in touch with the Kottayam-headquartered Archana Women's Centre (AWC), which specialises in running training programmes for empowering women through imparting of new skills.
"There was a lot of interest shown by the ladies and 30 of them registered, which included 10 tribal ladies, as two wards in my village council are tribal villages," said Rajasekheran.
The AWC brought with them a qualified civil engineer, Priyanka, and an experienced male mason, who provided guidance.
While the experiment started with 30 women, 10 of them found the work too tough to carry on.
Bindu, 40, told IANS that there were a lot of doubts regarding whether an all-women group would be able to do a good job of constructing a house, usually considered a job for men.
"There were a few days of classroom teaching, where we were taught everything about the construction process and skills. Then we were straight away taken to the site, where we were told that we have to build the house. It was not an easy task, but we were determined and soon it became a pleasure to see the work progress," said Bindu.
The women first designed the layout of the house on paper and then, under the guidance of newly-graduated civil engineer Priyanka, they started the construction process wearing shirts over their salwar kameezes and towels wrapped around their heads.
"It was a great experience thereafter for them as well as for me," Priyanka said, adding that while they were guided by an experienced male mason, women executed all the work -- right from laying the foundation to building walls, setting the roof, and plaster and painting work.
"Today, not only have they successfully completed the job, their morale has gone up and they are confident of taking up fresh jobs, for which they have already begun discussions," said Priyanka.
Looking back at their achievements, both Bindu and Suja said that, initially, many people used to tease them, asking whether they would be able to complete the job.
"As days went by and the house took shape, those who laughed at us came to support us and that was a big game-changer."
During the first project, which was part of their training, the women were given a per-day stipend of Rs 200 plus Rs 70 for food and Rs 50 for traveling.
Now that they are fully-trained lady masons confident of what they have achieved, they expect Rs 700 to Rs 1,000 per day. Men masons are paid a minimum of Rs 1,000.
"We are basically looking to engage in building homes under the state government's schemes, where the government gives Rs 4 lakh. To complete the house in this budget is a tough ask, and here we feel the women masons can come handy, as the cost factor will work to their advantage," said Rajasekheran.
She added that through this initiative, the intention is to provide skills to women and ensure they are able to earn a sustainable income without depending on others.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Sanu George can be contacted at email@example.com)
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