Sexual exploitation of tribal women continues to haunt Kerala long after literacy should have ended their misery. Jeemon Jacob reports
WAYANAD DISTRICT, known for its wildlife sanctuaries and natural beauty, is also home to 2,000 unwed mothers, eking out a perilous existence in the shadow of shame. There are sexually abused and abandoned women in tribal hamlets all over Kerala, but this district, with its 17.1 percent tribal population, has the greatest number.
The new government under Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has announced a relief package for unwed mothers consisting of a one-acre plot, a house and 1,000 monthly pension. Of course, only those who have documents that prove their status will be able to avail these benefits.
Others, like Sarojini, 53, of Gunnikaparambu tribal settlement, are so shattered mentally and physically by their long trauma, that they are lost in their own world, unaware of the relief package. She never filed a police complaint against the man who sexually abused her 37 years ago, although she remembers that his name was Sivashankara Pillai, and that he was a bamboo cutter who used to visit her home with her brothers. “He promised to marry me and I believed him,” she recalls.
Later her younger sister also fell in the love trap and delivered a baby girl. But she was lucky enough to find a husband from her own community, the Kattunaickers
The first case of unwed mothers was reported in 1952 from Wayanad. The number increased steadily over the years. But their plight never bothered Kerala’s politicians as the poor women never constituted a vote bank. Until 1996, when late Susheela Gopalan, Industries and Social Welfare Minister, starting working on ways to help them out.
“Issues of unwed mothers are complex and need our support,” says Chandy. “Society should come forward to support them. The police should take stern action against the offenders.” But he knows, as do other stakeholders, that the relief package alone will not rebuild ravaged lives.
Ironically, it is engagement with the outside world that brought misery upon so many heads. “In a way, the unwed mothers are victims of development schemes in tribal hamlets,” says CV Joy, who heads the Poverty Alleviation Unit of the Kerala government in Wayanad district. “In my experience, any exposure to the outside world is leading them to misery. A majority of them are illiterate, innocent and gullible. It is easy to cheat them.
MANY OF the victims, aged 15 to 55, have not filed police complaints against their tormentors. Probes by the Crime Branch have revealed that among the tribal unwed mothers, around 200 are juveniles.
The story of Bindu, 16, of Thazhekode tribal village in Malappuram district, is particularly touching. She underwent her first pregnancy when she was 13, studying in Class VII, and delivered her second baby recently. “I fell in love with a youth who promised to marry me. But when I became pregnant, he just vanished,” she recalls. She bears the harsh burden of public scorn.
“Her story reveals the cruel fate of unwed mothers,” says S Sreejith, Deputy Inspector General, posted with the Crime Branch of Kerala Police. “It took me two hours to convince her to file a complaint. When we went for investigation in her village, we found another four under-15 girls nursing their babies. Now we have registered cases against their tormentors under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.” The Crime Branch has registered 55 new cases during the past two months, some a decade old or more, with only sketchy details provided.
TN Seema, Rajya Sabha MP and state president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the women’s wing of CPM, says, “Many unwed mothers are below 15. The Kerala Women’s Commission has taken some positive steps to protect them. But we have to do more if we are to rehabilitate them effectively.
“It’s shocking that such a crime is going unreported and victims are suffering in silence,” says Seema, who is making an aggressive attempt to sensitise the tribal community on the issue.
“Even those who are married often get beaten by their husbands for the ‘crime’ they have committed in the past,” says Lakshmikutty Prabakaran, 60, who worked as a helper in an anganwadi for almost three decades. Her meticulous records of the births that took place in 120 tribal hamlets help illiterate unwed mothers apply for relief. “The trend of sexual exploitation started when outsiders — policemen, casual workers and visitors — started coming to the tribal villages. Now there is better awareness about sexual exploitation,” reveals Lakshmikutty.
Reena, who became pregnant at 17, lodged a police complaint and tracked the man who exploited her in the neighbouring village. He paid her hospital bills for the delivery but later disappeared. “I have all the records with me. I know that he is married and living in Kudagu in Karnataka. He has destroyed my life,” Reena says with bitterness and contempt. “I don’t want to marry again,” she says. “I’m not ready to take the risk. I’m healthy and earning, so I can give my daughter a decent life.”
Bindu, 16, underwent her first pregnancy when she was 13, a Class VII student. She now faces public scorn
News of the relief package makes Reena happy, but her priorities are different. “More than land, I need a regular job so I can bring up my daughter,” she says.
Among those waiting for the relief package are 33-year-old Adiya tribal Usha, her neighbours Vatta, Binu and Sindu. The list goes on. But the government needs to do much more. “They need regular livelihood and proper schools to educate their children,” says CV Joy. “Only through education will we be able to minimise exploitation.” He feels that with constant hand-holding and monitoring, the lives of unwed mothers can be improved.
Jeemon Jacob is a Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.