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Archana Women’s Centre: Laying the Foundation of a Gender-Just Society One Brick at a Time

A welder in the process of constructing a chicken coop at the Centre

When the first batch of women trained as masons by the Archana Women’s Centre (AWC) visited a site for the construction of a toilet, they were met with disbelief and questioning eyes from the employer who opined that a toilet constructed by women was fated for an eventual fall. It took the women years of passing off as labourers at construction sites to be finally taken seriously as skilled masons—a recognition that even now does not come easily.

Dhaatri team in conversation with women trained in masonry at the Centre.

Based in the Kottayam district of Kerala, the Centre trains women in a good many livelihood skills which have been traditionally male-dominated including masonry, carpentry, bamboo and Ferro-Cement Technology, plumbing, electrical, and bricks manufacturing.

The journey to create a space for women in non-traditional livelihoods and with that, bend the gender norms, has been full of societal apprehensions and witty trade-offs, as shared with the Dhaatri team by  Thresiamma Mathew, the founder of the Centre. Today, the women masons run cooperative societies in construction and have been successful in obtaining tenders from the state government for the construction of public toilets. 

At her studio: Omana is an experienced carpenter with the Centre.

Besides the livelihood skill training, the organisation also focuses on creating community action groups bringing women together and training them to lead social enterprises for economic self-reliance with activities such as coil making, laundry, stitching, cake baking, umbrella making, and cow and goat rearing.

Women engaged in making umbrellas at one of the social enterprises supported by AWC.

Emphasis is also laid on not only building an understanding of the gender roles existing inside and outside the domestic world but also equipping the women with skills necessary for ‘advancing gender equality in their daily lives and work’ through street plays, workshops and training sessions. 

Radhika and Valsala, two of the most experienced masons who also led the construction of the Centre’s main building, explained that the approach of the organisation towards livelihood has always included addressing physical, intellectual as well as emotional aspects of the lives of the women.

Radhika and Valsala, two of the most experienced masons, led the construction of the Centre’s main building. (Source: Archana Women's Centre)

So when Radhika lost her husband many years ago the skills learnt and the friendships forged at the organisation became the pillars of support and care for her. The organisation didn’t shy away from having difficult conversations with family members of the women when they opposed their decision to learn masonry. 

To that effect, AWC is also working as a Service Providing Centre (SPC) aided by the Kerala Social Justice Department, and Kerala State Social Welfare Board and providing legal help to survivors of domestic violence. They also organise community-level awareness programs and campaigns to prevent violence against women. 

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