Dr. S Remadevi/ Kochi
Tribal community in Kerala has been facing manifold challenges. Although the awareness level has gone up among them, women still face exploitation.
Rani (name changed) became pregnant when she was studying in a school. She fell in love with a contractor 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.
Rani'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. K. G. Vijayalakshmi, director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Women Empowerment and Human Resource Development Centre of India, who has studied the problem, told IPS that the issues of unwed mothers are mainly linked to social backwardness.
"Hunger, poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, lack of communication and financial constraints are leading tribal women to seek the help of non-tribal people," she said. "These forest invaders, especially rich people, sexually exploit the women. Many unwed tribal girls are working free of cost in the residences of non- tribal people."
Chennai-based anthropologist G. P. Paul told IPS 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.
News reports cite a survey conducted in 174 hamlets in Attappady in 2000 by the volunteer organisation NAMU, which found 343 unmarried mothers, some of them with more than one child.
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.
Kerala Aadivasi Forum (KAF), a tribal organisation, is seeking justice from the government and social agencies for the rehabilitation of unmarried mothers and their children.
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.
Kitty Lukose, a social researcher who has studied the condition of tribal unwed mothers in Wayanad, found out that many tribal girls resorted to abortion using traditional medicine. "They go to government hospitals for check-ups. Once they find that they are pregnant, they abort the fetus."
Dr. K. Ramachandran Nair, a physician who has served in tribal areas for more than 45 years, told IPS that hypertension and diabetes are very common among unmarried mothers.
"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.
Recently, the Kerala government had decided to increase the welfare pension for unwed tribal mothers from Rs 300 to Rs 1,000 a month. Besides, one acre of land would be given to each of them. The police would be directed to take strong action against exploiters.
The Chief Minister said the problem of unwed mothers was a serious one. According to the Scheduled Tribes Department, there were 910 unwed mothers in Wayanad district. Police estimates put it around 1,500. Though the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission had submitted a series of recommendations to the government in this respect in 2009, only the recommendation for payment of pension had been implemented. The government proposed to take up a rehabilitation plan for them. Land would be provided to such tribal women under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, if eligible. The Wayanad Collector would be asked to buy land for others. Budget funds of the ST Department would be spent for building houses for them.