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A salesgirl at a prominent textile shop in the city was on the stage with a unique performance as part of International Women’s Day celebrations of Penkoottu, an organisation of women in the unorganised sector. A woman clad in a nondescript kurta from one of the back rows suddenly clapped and hooted. It was none other than P. Viji, the president of Penkoottu, who has just added another feather to her cap by winning the ‘Vanitha Ratna’ award from the Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Kerala.

“Many of them have come on leave from their workplaces to be part of this celebration, now that they have the courage to,” she said, before sitting down to watch the show.

There was a time when the salesgirls did not dare go on leave or even take a toilet break during work hours for fear of repercussions from the managements. Ever since the State government amended the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act in 2018 ensuring that workers had the basic rights including to rest their feet, thanks to four years of protests and campaign under the aegis of Penkoottu, they have developed wings. “Their confidence is my greatest achievement,” Ms. Viji told The Hindu.

A tailor by profession, Ms. Viji has been at the forefront of many campaigns demanding basic rights for women labourers in the unorganised sector. She formed Penkoottu in 2010, fighting for lavatories in shops on S.M. Street in the city. With the success of the campaign, Penkoottu started taking up other issues faced by women labourers and the ‘Right to sit’ campaign for women in textile shops was launched on International Women’s Day in 2014.

It was the ‘Right to sit’ campaign that earned Ms. Viji a place in the BBC ‘100 Women’ list in 2018. However a decade since the campaign was launched, the struggle has not ended. “There are several employers who still do not abide by the law. They are adamant about not allowing their employees to sit. This should change,” said Ms. Viji.

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