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INDIA: Unwed Tribal Mothers Seek Aid

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, May 30 2011 (IPS) - For Janu, walking the streets to beg for alms is the only option for survival. After all, she has a two-year-old daughter to feed, and she herself, at 14 years old, is little more than a child.

Single mother Leela with her daughter. Credit: K.S.Harikrishnan/IPS.

Single mother Leela with her daughter. Credit: K.S.Harikrishnan/IPS.

The story of Janu, who lives in the Attappady tribal area in Palakkadu district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is not an isolated one.

In tribal hamlets in the districts of Wayanad, Palakkadu and Kasargod, girls like Janu end up as unwed mothers after falling victim to sexual harassment and exploitation, sometimes by influential men who refuse to acknowledge their responsibilities. Now, these women face shame and starvation.

A survey conducted by the Kerala State Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Department found 563 unwed mothers in the state. But the Kerala Women’s Commission (KWC) puts the actual number at more than 2,000.

An investigation led by Deputy Police Inspector-General S. Sreejith had found that there were no less than 1,000 unwed mothers in the tribal areas of north Kerala.

According to the KWC, most unwed mothers are 14 to 20 years old. Oommen Chandy, the new chief minister of Kerala, has directed the police to go the extra mile to ensure justice to the victims of violence, trafficking, and sexual exploitation, particularly unwed mothers hailing from the tribal sector.

KWC member and senior woman leader T. Devi told IPS that there has been a steep rise in the numbers of unwed mothers in the tribal community in the past fifteen years. “The Commission is initiating a police inquiry into the cases of young unwed mothers and making arrangements to rehabilitate the affected women,” she said.

T. Devi pointed to 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.

“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 to public attention,” said Unnikrishnan.

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.

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