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Unwed Mothers Of Wayanad

By M P Basheer

India Together
30 November, 2003

It's been over 12 years now, but Kali, 29, can never forget that fateful night; the familiar police constable had forced himself into her little hut - and on her - leaving her completely wrecked. The psychological trauma apart, raising an illegitimate daughter hasn't been easy, especially since the father claims he has nothing to do with either of them. The village in which she lives, Tirunelli in Wayanad district of Kerala, is home to over 300 such unwed tribal single mothers; all victims of sexual exploitation. These women, some of them as young as 13, are struggling to survive along with their children.

A number of cases of children being born out of wedlock keep popping up in he public from time to time. The main source of the information is the admission registers of the tribal kindergarten in and around Thirunelli. In June this year, when schools reopened, a chunk of 16 such children were added to the rank fatherless. Most of their mothers are victims of seduction or one-night stands. In most cases, non-tribal men entice them with false promises of marriage. Tribal girls recruited as casual laborers in tea and coffee estates are sexually abused by their masters and fellow workers. Once they get pregnant, they are left in the lurch. Many of these women are forced into prostitution for survival.

Take the case of Valli, 25, who gave birth to two children even before she reached marriageable age. She still retains the handful of bangles presented by a non-tribal youth who was working as peon in a nearby government office when she was 15. It was enough to win over her aboriginal innocence. When she became pregnant, the boy simply renounced her. Turned down by her own family, Valli got shelter in another Adiyar hut where she gave birth to her first child.

When her case came up before the court, it was rejected on the grounds that she was "a woman with loose morals". Ironically enough, the girl gave birth to another child two years later, allegedly fathered by the same man. Two years ago she approached the State Assembly Committee on Tribal Welfare with a complaint that the youth was planning to marry another girl, and sought the committee's help to persuade the man to take care of their children.

"Tribal women succumb to the wiles of the non-tribal youths as their own men have become lazy and lost interest in their women,” says sociologist Dr. S Uma Dathan. In some Indian tribes, a girl who is pregnant before marriage is an outcast. There are a few tribal communities where a man and woman are allowed to leave together before they tie the knot, just to make sure they are compatible. But no tribal community accepts a woman who bears the children of non-tribes. Ostracized by the society, most of them end up as targets for sexual exploitation.

Thirunelli is the largest revenue village in Wayanad district with a population of 24,000, largely consisting of tribes from 120 settlements. When a radical Naxallite movement took Wayanad by storm in the 1970s, Thirunelli became the major center for the Naxallite activities. The police ruthlessly suppressed the armed insurgence of the tribal people in response to feudal oppression. Headed by the notorious DGP Jayaram Padikkal, the cops let loose reign of terror, ravaging the hamlets, pillaging the tribal habitats and raping their women. The unwed mothers of Thirunelli are a cursed legacy of that tumultuous era. The policemen deployed to check the radical activities were mainly responsible for creating the new tribe of unwed tribal mothers and their children of a miserable lot.

"It is a shame for a high-literacy state like Kerala that these unmarried tribal women continue to live in a state of penury and neglect, years after their problems came into public attention", says K Panoor who specializes in the tribal studies. A disturbing fact is that their number continues to rise and they become more vulnerable to further exploitation."

For the devout pilgrims, Thirunelli has always been the Benares of the South India. The sacred stream Papanasini, which springs from the crown of the Brahmagiri ranges, winds down the mountain terrain and wraps itself around the ancient Thirunelli temple. It is here that devotees make offerings and pray for deliverance of the haunting spirits of their ancestors. But for the tribal population of the village, the Gods have repeatedly failed to deliver them from the years of intense suffering and humiliation.

Premature deaths of tribal woman, mostly on the abortionist’s table, are not uncommon in Thirunelli. In a latest incident on 12 June 2000, Subhi, a 26 year old who was 7 months into her pregnancy bled to death at a tribal healer’s makeshift dispensary, leaving behind two little daughters. On the face of increasing public ire, the police compelled to arrest the man responsible for her pregnancy and her death. But two years later, in the July this year, a local court freed the accused 'for want of evidence.' "Instead of insisting on concrete evidence, the courts should take the word of the victims in such cases" says Justice D Sreedevi, the chairperson of the Kerala Women's Commission.

Often, money provides the means for a perpetrator to get off the hook. A boy from the forward caste Nair community seduced Rajani, 23, of the Adiyar tribe. When she became pregnant, local political workers took up the issue and made up the boy to agree to marry her. But his parents had other plans. They paid off Rajani's father in order to settle the matter without their son having to marry a tribal woman. Rajani now lives with her son in the Adiyar colony in Thirunelli, seemingly unmindful of her status as an unwed mother. The offenders have a field day in covering up their offences. They have little to fear, since the police collude with them. Says a police official: "Wayand is a punishment posting for every policeman. His job commitment is low. He does not view the Adivasi problem with any degree of seriousness. The tribes are not a powerful lobby for him to worry about."

Several crude and inhuman methods were employed to eliminate such infants even after the birth. Thirunelli Police has registered five cases of infant deaths in the past one year. In three cases, an altogether novel method evolved by the culprits to eliminate such children soon after birth. The brutal practice is to put some grain of rice before husking into the mouth of the newly born. As the grain would block breath, the death of the child will be instantaneous. The latest of such cases was registered on May 2, 2002.

"Even if cases of sexual exploitation can be settled by giving money, a living child born out of such relationship will pose a constant threat as well as plugs all loopholes for the culprits to escape from punishment. Hence, they resort to the brutal methods of eliminating new born infants,” says C K Janu, the leader of the Tribal Coordination Committee. Janu says at least two dozen children of unwed tribal mothers have died during the past two years in Wayanad "under mysterious circumstances within days after delivery".

Though official figures put the number of the unwed mothers in Thirunelli at 99, unofficial surveys conducted by NGOs and social workers estimate the number at least three times as high. Many of the ravaged women would not dare to complain against the men who exploited them. Government statistics say that the Adiaya tops the list of the victims with 73 cases followed by the Paniyas with 11, the Kattu Naikars with seven, the Kurumars with six and the Kurichiars with two. As many as 69 of the unwed mothers have a single child while 26 have two children each. One woman has five children while the children of the five others have died.

The Kerala Women's Commission, which has been tracking down unwed mothers over the past five years and fighting for their cause, has made some headway. The commission, which has received 103 complaints -- 85 tribal women and the rest from backward Dalit group -- is now getting DNA tests done to establish the paternity of the children. Of the eighteen cases it has taken up, four of the alleged fathers who were summoned for blood tests have owned up their paternity even without going in for the tests. Of them, three have agreed to marry the victims while the third, who is already married, is willing to pay a monthly allowance.

A committee of Kerala Legislative Assembly also studied the problem of `unwed mothers' among the tribals as back as in 1997. They submitted a report to the Government recommending various steps to tackle the problem but no action was taken on it or against those responsible for ruining the life of large number of tribal women.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the increasing alienation of their land and shrinking the traditional sources of income leaving them at the mercy of the greedy settlers from outside. Their tribal heritage does not equip tribal groups to resist exploitation by outsiders. Over the decades, they have been swarmed by hordes of settlers who addicted them to alcohol, dispossessed them of their lands and sexually abused their women. Adivasis, once a majority in the hilly Wayanad region, have shrunk to a minority, and now constitute only 17 percent of the total population of the district. Their habitat lies invaded, their lifestyle irrevocably disturbed.

"The settlers have taken over our lands, turned our men folk into drunkards and desecrated tribal women. We have to declare self-rule for our self-protection, to prevent more fatherless children from being born. An Adivasi colony is not a brothel for outsiders to come and go" the firebrand Janu lists a catalogue of crimes that are committed against the tribal community by non-tribals.