Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Disowned by ‘lovers’, discarded by community

The problem of unwed mothers of Kerala is serious social issue. Aggressive social awareness should be launched to prevent sexual exploitation of tribal girls

Dr S Remadevi/ Kochi

The census 2011 warmed cockles of many Indian hearts. The literacy rate had climbed up to almost 70 %. Many governments and billions of money later, hundred per cent literacy finally appeared within reach.
Beena (name changed) became pregnant when she was barely 13. She fell in love with a bus conductor, Raju. Although she used to talk to him for long, she never felt that she should know more about Raju. When Raju came to know that Beena was pregnant, she was not seen in the area.
There were complications during the delivery. Fortunately, doctors were able to save both mother and child. But, for Beena, a tribal hailing from Attappady of Palakkad district, life after the episode was even more hellish. She was thrown out of her house and the community looked down upon her and many branded her as a prostitute and made advances towards her.
The community or her family never tried to find out the culprit because they thought the girl had "committed the crime".
Now, at 40 years of age, Beena earns her livelihood by selling her body. Her son, a heavy drinker, beats her up if she doesn’t pay for his drinks. She is suffering from various ailments, including diabetes. "My son beats me up quite often. He thinks I made him a laughing stock. He may be correct also," said Beena, philosophically.
Beena’s case is not an isolated one. There are hundreds of such unwed mothers in the tribal hamlets Palakkad, Wayanad and Kasargod districts. Most of the women, discarded by the community and disowned by the men who defiled them, face starvation and penury.
The Kerala State Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Department conducted a survey and found 563 unwed mothers in the state. But the Kerala Women’s Commission (KWC) puts the actual number at more than 2,000.
A few years ago, another survey by Deputy Police Inspector-General S Sreejith had found that there were about 1,000 unwed mothers in the tribal areas of north Kerala.
Another finding is that most of the unwed mothers belong to the age-group of 14-20 years. “This is nothing but sexual exploitation. If it were in a non-tribal area, the entire state machinery would have swung into action. No one cares for tribals as they are not a vote bank," said Sivaraman, a tribal activist.
Another shocking finding of a survey is that there has been a steep rise in the numbers of unwed mothers in the last one decade. “The KWC is initiating a police inquiry into the cases of young unwed mothers and making arrangements to rehabilitate the affected women," said a member of KWC.
The member pointed out forest officials, teachers, contractors, labourers and local leaders as among those accused of impregnating young girls. They lure teenage girls by giving them money, liquor, clothes, bags, and perfumes. They flatter the girls and then invite them to their homes or to see a movie. Some men offer marriage proposals.
Dr. KG Vijayalakshmi, director of Women Empowerment and Human Resource Development Centre of India, said the issues of unwed mothers are mainly linked to social backwardness.
In most cases forest invaders who had denuded tribals of their land have found to be the culprits. The irony is that tribals are forced work under them as daily wagers. The invaders exploited the illiteracy and poverty of the tribals. “Hunger, poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, lack of communication and financial constraints are leading tribal women to seek the help of non-tribal people," said Vijayalakshmi. “Tribal women become easy prey for the rich as there is no forum to redress their grievances. The corrupt police system also becomes party in the exploitation of the poor people who are reeling under poverty and ill-health. Many unwed tribal girls are working free of cost in the residences of non- tribal people."
GP Paul, a social researcher, says the issue of unmarried mothers is as serious as the problem of displacement from tribal territory. Kerala tribes have lost thousands of acres to non-tribal people, who venture into the forest to grab their land.
“No steps were taken to restore their land. Migration of non-tribal people continues. Raped and ravaged by non-tribal people, tribal women in Kerala are paying a heavy price," he added.
Earlier in 1997, a committee of the Kerala Legislative Assembly also examined the problem and submitted a report to the government, which failed to act on it.
Since then, officials and activists have demanded action and social programmes to address the issue of unwed mothers in tribal hamlets.
Pushkala Unnikrishnan, an activist in tribal issues and vice-president of the local self-government institution in Wayanad district, wants the government to implement special welfare schemes such as pensions for unwed mothers.
Bolan, a state committee member and KAF Wayanad district president, wants government to start planning a long-term programme for the welfare of these mothers. “Living conditions of children born out of wedlock are worst. Most of them have inhibitions to face others, fearing being taunted as the children of harlots."
Experts point out that premature deaths of unwed tribal women were not uncommon, and several crude and inhuman methods have been employed to eliminate infants even after birth.
“Some of the unwed mothers later turn into sex workers since there is absolutely no income for survival. The mothers are isolated both from their family as well as from the community. The culprits escape from the net through their economic and political power," Dr. Nair pointed out.
Dr. Beena Kannan, a health expert working in a government hospital in Kochi, a city north of the capital Thiruvananthapuram, suggested that regular medical checkups, both for the mothers and children, are essential for their survival.
“Besides imparting legal and emotional support, health organisations should give awareness on safe sex practices and condom usage," she added.

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