Samundeswari at right, in Chennai in September
Samundeswari at right, in Chennai in September

CHENNAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–S. Samundeswari’s life has changed a lot in the decade since 2004, when the tsunami struck the coastline of Chennai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

At first things were much worse. The devastating waves took both Samundeswari’s house and her husband’s livelihood as a fisherman. They also abruptly ended her job and the only means she had to keep her family afloat.

But as it turned out, the disaster propelled Samundeswari forward, along with other coastal women in the fishing and allied businesses. "Even though I managed household duties and reared three children alongside, I wanted to do something more with my life. I didn’t ever think a disaster would give my life such a positive new direction and I could help others," Samundeswari said in a recent interview held in her one room flat in the government tenement for tsunami affected residents in Chennai.

When Samundeswari, now 44, was married she was just 17. In the early days of her marriage she would accompany her mother-in-law every morning to sell her husband’s catch. But money was tight. Her husband spent so much of the family earnings on alcohol that Samundeswari also worked in a nearby nursery school as a teacher.

This is when her education put her in a position to be spotted by Arunodhaya, a nonprofit working for child rights. When the group began working on post-disaster relief they quickly identified her as the only educated woman in her village and enlisted her to help people in the area claim benefits.

In the process of helping villagers get voter cards, ration cards and other documents necessary to accessing relief programs, Samundeswari came in close touch with many female fish workers facing problems similar to her own.

She began to represent their concerns as well, which led her to help form the Coastal Women’s Federation, a collective of women from both fishing and non-fishing communities that emerged in 2008 and 2009.

Since then, the group has been addressing the prevalent problems of domestic violence and alcoholism and has managed to close down some liquor shops in the villages and resolve some domestic disputes.

Now the Coastal Women’s Federation is focused on the problem that their work–cleaning, selling and handling the catch of their male relatives–has no official employment designation with the government. It’s important for them to correct that because as members of the informal economy they miss out on government entitlements such as medical insurance and accident compensation.

Big Moment in 2008

In 2008, ongoing efforts by the state government to displace the coastal communities in the name of development led Arunodhaya and three other nongovernmental organizations to unite to form the Forum for Securing Lives and Livelihoods of Coastal Communities with the help of ActionAid, an antipoverty nonprofit working for the disempowered. Protests organized by the Forum gave Samundeswari and other coastal women the opportunity to articulate their claim to traditional land and livelihoods.

Coastal women under the Forum also came to the fore when the federal government issued a draft of a coastal zone management plan that threatened the customary land rights of communities living on the coast and allowed the government to clear the land for its own purposes.

Samundeswari and other members of the Coastal Women’s Federation were vital participants. At one point more than 450 women from various districts of Tamil Nadu united under the banner of the National Coastal Women’s Movement and demonstrated blindfolded to symbolize the blind eye the government was turning on them.

In 2011, the government–under mounting pressure at the state and national levels as fishing and coastal associations from adjoining states came together–let the plan lapse.

Samundeswari also helped her community members–both male and female–to push ahead with rebuilding and to not wait on government relief for everything. "It was because of her efforts that the first fishermen who ventured out into the sea after the tsunami were from her village," said Virgil D’Sami, executive director of Arunodhaya.

From her start as a community volunteer on a small honorarium, Samundeswari quickly moved up the paid ranks of Arunodhaya to become a women’s rights coordinator mentoring more than 100 self-help groups formed by the organization over the past decade.

In April, as a part of the Forum’s aim to empower coastal women, Samundeswari helped organize the state’s first all-women fish workers union. Its 107 members made their first mark in ensuring that a women’s bathroom was constructed in the fish market in a busy wholesale market not far from the coast. They also campaigned successfully for the installation of a drainage system to maintain hygiene.

Changing Off-Season Payments

In another success, coastal women protested the government’s practice of putting off-season relief payments for fishermen in the name of the man only and demanded separate payments in their name. Although the government didn’t agree to give female fish workers individual compensation, relief payments are now made out jointly, to both the husband and wife.

"This was a big achievement as it meant that the husband could not use the money for his personal needs without the wife’s consent," said Samundeswari.

Samundeswari and her husband have come through some hard times.

As she was leading the community movement, trouble brewed at home. Her husband didn’t want Samundeswari spending so much time outside the house. He objected to all the time she put into the Forum’s trainings on land and women’s rights.

The family’s relocation to the government’s one-room tenements, about 13 miles away from their original home right next to the sea, meant that he was not going out to the sea to fish as often as he would have liked.

"There was a lot of tension. It took me a long time to make him understand my work," said Samundeswari.

But then things started to get better between them. "I took him with me to a training session so that he could see the work. This helped to reduce his fears. Now he even helps to pack my bags when I have to travel."