Miseries of unwed adivasi mothers in Wayanad

Miseries of unwed adivasi mothers in Wayanad

Miseries of unwed adivasi mothers in Wayanad

A few months ago, Meena, a 13-year-old from an adivasi hamlet at Ambalavayal in Wayanad District, went missing. When her parents returned from work, the girl was nowhere to be seen. “I was angry that she had gone somewhere without cooking dinner. However, she did not come back home,” her father recalled.

Three days later when the girl came back, they got to know that their neighbour Vincent, with his wife, as an accomplice, had raped her after tying her up and forcefully feeding her alcohol. “She had bruises on her body. She could not walk properly,” the father narrated to Deccan Herald.

Now, Meena is at Nirbhaya Home in Thiruvananthapuram. It was found that the child was addicted to alcohol and hence she is undergoing de-addiction, too.

The incident has also affected Vincent’s family with his children Shiju and his sister Viji in the care of their septuagenarian great-grandparents and their maternal grandmother. Shiju is studying in class 3 while Viji is nearly three years old.

Meena is not the only one to have been abused. In this colony hosting 11 homes, 7 girls in the age group of 13 to 17 were rescued by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), based on a tip-off about sexual abuse. Two of the accused, Vincent and his wife (Shiju and Viji's parents) were arrested. Three other accused are out on bail, among whom, two are minors. 

The girls are being rehabilitated . As for the rest of them, one is pregnant and another teenager became a mother recently. Owing to the furore over the incident, both their partners are living with them. Another 14-year-old is now a domestic help in a nearby town. The rest are in Mahila Shikshan Kendra. 

When the issue was reported to the local police, initially, they did not co-operate. With the intervention of local activists, a complaint was registered. During the rescue and rehabilitation, the CWC and District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) officials came across two horrific facts: In some cases, the girls were being repeatedly abused even before their puberty. In majority of the cases, the accused were non-adivasi men.

DCPU legal-cum-probation officer Karthika Lakshmi S, who was part of the rescue, explained: “We found instances where the accused were minor too. Abuse of adivasi girls by men outside the community is rampant, not just in this colony but across all adivasi colonies. The girls are silenced with a paltry amount of even Rs 50.” This incident also exposed rampant alcohol and tobacco abuse among children, which made them more vulnerable to abuse. 

A fallout of this situation is that the girls end up as teenage and unwed mothers, hanging on to live-in relationships that do not secure their future. The abusive relationships end in the same way: abandonment. The girls are prone to abuse at their work place--plantations, construction sites or the homes where they are domestic helps. “There are cases where the girls are also used for illegal surrogacy. In the hope of getting some money, the girls go through with it,” Lakshmi added.    

Such exploitation, over the years, has altered the very core of the community's family structure. “Live-in relationships in itself is not an issue. But here, the problem is that women are being exploited and the unwed status has not arisen out of their choice,” said Wayanad District Collector Keshavendra Kumar. 

Vincent's case is an example. “Vincent's wife, though an accused, is at the same time a victim. He sought her co-operation for his whims,” Lakshmi pointed out. Vincent, a non-adivasi, was married before living-in with Shiju's mother. 

Even though, traditionally, adivasis recognise the custom of marriage, what prevailed today was a result of long period of exploitation, pointed out Fr Thomas Joseph Therakam, CWC Chairman, Wayanad, whose PhD thesis is on “Legally sanctioned and socially denied rights of adivasis: A case study from Wayanad”. How did things get twisted for them? Over the years, the community lost their bargaining power in their own land. The adivasis never owned land. “Like the air they breathe, they belong to the land where they live.

They do not understand the concept of private property. From 1920 onwards, people from South Kerala and Karnataka started buying large tracts of land in this area. One day the tribes woke up to fences around them. Only they were outside the fence,” according to Therakam.

The incident led to protests by activists and the public. The government departments concerned have initiated several measures following the arrests. “The main challenge in securing justice to these girls is to make them aware that they are being exploited,” said Ajitha Begum, District police chief. In this case itself, among all the victims, the only one complaint was registered.

 Sending girls to school would, of course, prove useful. However, the existing school system fails to strike a chord with them. Therakam has been fighting for schools to teach the tribes in their own dialect at the primary level as provided for in the Indian Constitution, National Tribal Policy and the Right to Education Act. “If schools can teach in Arabic or Sanskrit, they need to cater to these dialects too,” he opined.  (Names of victims and accused changed.)

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