The dull, grey skies of Assam could hardly dampen the spirits of the seven women trained as masons and entrusted with the responsibility of building toilets in various homes. They were aware that all eyes were on them. Would they live up to their promise or would the challenge be too much for them? Not the ones to back down, they continued their work — walking through the slush, mixing cement and putting together bricks. While masonry is not a typical job for women, in the Demow block of Sibsagar District, the scenario has changed. Today, women are receiving formal training and working on par with their male counterparts.
This initiative, the brainchild of District Commissioner Virendra Mittal, is the result of a concerted move to make the region open defecation free (ODF). As part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the district administration is working towards building a toilet in every home and changing people’s mindsets about hygiene issues. While one block, Lakwa, has already been declared ODF, work has started in Demow.
As the administration began to hire male masons in large numbers so that work could happen simultaneously in many locations, a clear shortage of skilled workforce posed a threat. “That’s when I discussed the possibility of training women as masons. So far, the response has been positive,” says Mittal.
Aparajita Gogoi, a feisty 38-year-old from Demow, was the first to raise her hand when the officials proposed the idea of providing training in masonry to women during a public meeting. “I just wanted to grab hold of any opportunity that gave me a chance to move ahead in life and do something for the betterment of my community,” she says.
Her enthusiasm thoroughly impressed the officials, who asked her to pick six women and form the first team that would receive the masonry training. “I selected a mixed group — some are from the local women’s self-help group, of which I am a part, and the rest are homemakers. My aim was to bring together women who are motivated and would not back down in the face of difficulties,” she explains, adding, “After we completed the training, our first job was at Tukeshwar Gogoi’s house in Thowra. They are very poor and were using a pit for a toilet. Thanks to continuous rains, the work was not very smooth, but we did manage to build the toilet in six days.”
Not the ones to back down, they continued their work — walking through the slush, mixing cement and putting together bricks.
The group has constructed two toilets and recently landed another contract. Obviously, they’ve had to undertake some confidence-building measures to overcome the hurdles that came their way not just from the community but also within their own families.
Meera Gogoi recalls how at first she was not really sure whether her husband would approve of her new vocation. “It’s not like I come from a very poor family, but having my own source of income meant being independent from asking my husband for money for every little thing and being guilt-free for wanting to spend on myself. But then putting forth such an argument before my husband felt … inadequate somehow. I was nervous,” she adds.
So, this mother of two — a college- going boy and a school-going girl — sought the help of her group members to build her case. They motivated her to give it a try. “I finally went to my husband and told him how I felt. In the beginning, he was not sure, but I said that it would make me happy to be able to work and interact with other women, and I could also help him out with the daily expenses, if the need arose. He finally agreed,” she says. And now, the money they make is quite useful. The daily wage of a mistri or mason is Rs 500, while the jugali, or helper, gets Rs 350.
Being a mason means back- breaking work and long hours, but the women and their families have made the necessary adjustments. “For me, the day starts at 4.30 am. I wake my son up and help him with his studies till 6 am. Then I do the cleaning and cooking and by 8.30 am I send him to college and head out for work. Usually, I come back by 4 pm but there are days when it gets late, around 7–8 pm,” says Meera.
Some, like Sunti Sangmai, another homemaker-turned-mason, have been more fortunate. Her husband works in a tea garden and stays there, while her son stays with some relatives in the town. “My son is studying in the polytechnic college and the extra income has enabled me to support his dream. That pushed me to take this up,” she says. That, and the fact that she gets to meet others like her who were passionate and shared her dream to make a real difference. And unlike other construction areas, the all-women work sites are buzzing with careless chatter and loud laughter. “I really look forward to my time at work,” says Sunti.
People accept women as competent masons and joke that that their quality of work will eventually put the men out of work!
But while the families may have been more accommodating, the community, though not very harsh, was definitely a little more sceptical about this new role that the women assumed. “I come from the town area and there people didn’t question me or my family. They understood that an extra income is required. But in the villages, people would ask, ‘Is this the kind of work women ought to do?’ We would then say that if our families have supported us, then no one else should have a problem. Moreover, no work is big or small,” Meera points out. In time, people have accepted the idea of women as competent masons because where earlier they would request a male mason to double-check or supervise the work they were doing nowadays they jokingly acknowledge that their quality of construction and workmanship might eventually end up putting the men out of work!
According to Shahnawaz Choudhury, Project Director, District Rural Development Agencies, at present, 26 women have been trained as masons. Aparajita’s group has been chipping in to train others by sharing its practical knowledge and experience.
As their success story spreads to various villages and towns in the vicinity, these women are now inspiring many others to follow in their footsteps. For instance, in the remote village of Deodhai near Sibsagar, the main road was in a dilapidated state, full of potholes until recently, when the village women, led by their enterprising ward member, Aaroti Baruah, decided to do the repair work themselves after demanding financial assistance from the district administration. “Their effort was so commendable that with the community’s consent, we decided to name that road Mahila Ali,” Mittal remarks.
One road, several toilets and then who knows what else … the women masons of Sibsagar are already building on their dreams.
(© Women’s Feature Service)