Reena's life took a fateful turn just over thirteen months ago, when the friendly upper-caste construction worker from Thiruvananthapuram, who was working in the local water supply scheme project, entered her little hut and forced himself on her. The 18-year-old Adiya girl from Gunnikaparamba tribal colony in Thirunelli panchayat in Wayanad district in north Kerala is an unwed mother now.
The man fled from the village as soon as she became pregnant and Reena is trying hard to find his whereabouts so that she can initiate legal proceedings. All the details given by the construction worker are bogus. Psychological trauma apart, Reena is saddled with the difficult task of bringing up an illegitimate child.
Kali, Vatta and Onathi of the Chekkottukunnu Tribal Colony, and Lakshmi of Gunnikaparamba colony ' all are in the same tragic predicament as Reena. Twelve years ago, Kali was similarly abused by a police constable. Being a policeman's son is a matter of shame for her 11-year-old son.
Once known as the Naxalbari of Kerala because of Naxal-supported militant peasant revolts against landlords in the 1960s and the 1970s, Thirunelli is now home to over 600 unwed tribal single mothers, all victims of sexual exploitation. These hapless women, some as young as 13, are struggling to survive and raise their children. Thirunelli is the largest village in Wayanad district with a population of 24,000, largely consisting of tribes from 120 settlements.
Cases of children born out of wedlock have been regularly reported from this remote and isolated area of Wayanad district ever since the police crackdown on Naxals in the late-1960s. At the time, Thirunelli was a major centre for Naxalite activists. The anti-Naxal squads of Kerala police and the CRPF ruthlessly suppressed the tribal armed insurgency. The cops let loose a reign of terror, ravaging hamlets, pillaging tribal habitats and raping tribal women. The policemen deployed to check radical activities were chiefly responsible for creating a new class of unwed tribal mothers and their children.
In the years that followed, it was the turn of revenue, rural development, education, excise and forest officials to exploit tribal girls ' all of whom had been deputed to undertake various welfare measures for the tribal community as part of the efforts to wean them away from Naxals. Tribal girls recruited as casual laborers in the neighboring tea and coffee estates also started being sexually abused by their masters and fellow workers in the 1960s. Many settlers and traders also turned predators, making Thirunelli village panchayat infamous for having the largest number of unwed mothers. This state of affairs continues till this day. Once the girls become pregnant, they are left to fend for themselves. Many are forced into prostitution for the sake of survival.
The main source of information about unwed mothers and their children is the admission register of different tribal kindergartens in and around Thirunelli. When schools reopened in June last year, 16 new fatherless children were admitted. Their mothers are usually victims of seduction or one-night stands. In most cases non-tribal men entice them with false promises of marriage.
Valli of Thrissilery gave birth to two children even before she reached marriageable age. She is now about 25 and still retains the cheap bangles presented to her by a non-tribal youth who was working as peon in a nearby government office when she was 15. Those bangles were enough to win her over. When she became pregnant, the boy abandoned her. Rejected by her family, Valli found shelter in another Adiya 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". She 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 the 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.
The girls are usually victims of seduction or one-night stands. Non-tribal men entice them with false promises of marriage. "The Adiya and Kuruma tribal communities of Thirunelli are known for their extreme level of morality. Family values are very strict among them. In spite of all the social and community barriers, their women are enticed by non-tribals. Excommunicated by their families and tribe, these unwed mothers then lead harrowing lives on the peripheries of Thirunelli," says K. Lakshmikutty, caretaker of a tribal kindergarten run by the government's Social Welfare Department. Lakshmikutty is known for her selfless work among the tribals in Thirunelli, working to ensure better rehabilitation for unwed mothers and punishment for those who abused them. It was her effort that brought this odious phenomenon to the attention of the State Women's Commission and various NGOs and forced them to look into the matter.
No tribal community in Wayanad is ready to accept a woman who bears the children of a non-tribal. ostracized by the society, most of them end up as easy targets for sexual exploitation.
"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 author and activist K. Panoor. Both Lakshmikutty and Panoor point to the disturbing trend of an increase in the number unwed mothers.
Death of tribal women on the abortionist's table is not uncommon in Thirunelli. Three years ago, 26-year-old Subhi, who was 7 months pregnant, bled to death at a tribal healer's makeshift dispensary, leaving behind two little daughters. Faced with public indignation, the police was compelled to arrest the man responsible for her pregnancy. But in July this year, a local court freed the accused "for want of evidence".
Often, money helps the perpetrators escape justice. A boy from the upper-caste Nair community seduced 23-year-old Rajani who belongs to the Adiya community. When she became pregnant, local political workers took up the issue and made the boy agree to marry her. But his parents paid off Rajani's father.
Offenders usually 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."
Crude and inhuman methods are often employed to kill unwanted infants. "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. Hence, they resort to brutal methods of eliminating newborn infants," says Lakshmikutty. According to tribal promoters deputed by the state SC/ST department, at least 24 children of unwed tribal mothers have died in the past two years in Wayanad "under mysterious circumstances within days after delivery".
Though official figures put the number of unwed mothers in Thirunelli at 99, unofficial surveys conducted by NGOs and social workers estimate the number to be at least six times as high. Many victims are too afraid to complain. The Kerala Women's Commission, which has been tracking down unwed mothers over the last decade and fighting for their cause, has made some headway in alleviating their plight and bringing the perpetrators to book.
The commission, which has received 103 complaints in the last three years ' 85 from tribal women and the rest from dalits ' is now getting DNA tests done to establish the children's paternity. Of the 18 cases it has taken up, four of the alleged fathers who were summoned for blood tests owned up to their paternity without going in for tests. Three agreed to marry the victims while one, who is already married, is willing to pay a monthly allowance. A Kerala Legislative Assembly committee submitted its report on the problem in 1997, after which ' and after the intervention of the late Industry Minister Susheela Gopalan ' a textile manufacturing unit was started in Thrissilery.
The unit now provides training to at least 24 unwed mothers every year, after which they are hired as employees by the factory. The state government's decision to appoint educated tribal girls of the area as "tribal promoters" to create awareness among the different tribal groups about issues and problems facing them is showing results. The success of these initiatives is significant, since earlier, when sewing machines and cows were given to women to rehabilitate them, non-tribals would often take these away.
"We visit almost all the hamlets to collect information about the problems facing them. We also help abused women to lodge a complaint with the police and to seek government aid," says Radha, a tribal promoter who belongs to the Adiya community herself. "Our main goal is to make minor girls aware about the possible traps laid by people from outside. We will not allow the number of unwed mothers to increase."
"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," Lakshmikutty points out. Adivasis were in the majority in the Wayanad region, but over the years, they have shrunk to a minority, and now constitute only 17 percent of the total population of the district.
The mushrooming number of tourist resorts in and around Thirunelli is a matter of concern for Lakshmikutty. These resorts promise well-paying job opportunities to young tribal women, but the men folk are not allowing their women to work in resorts as they are apprehensive about the resort owners' real intentions.
Recently, a tribal woman working in a tourist resort committed suicide by dousing herself with kerosene and setting fire to herself. Her husband had created a scene at the resort office because she had not reached home by eight in the evening.
The tribal population is not benefiting much from the development efforts in the area. "Earlier, children had to walk to the nearest high school 32 km away, now it is 22 km away. There was no up-gradation for the local tribal primary school. However, the number of resorts is steadily increasing," Lakshmikutty says.
She shares the tribal community's concern that resorts would encourage sex tourism. She is now engaged in uniting political parties, tribal organizations and NGOs in their fight against resorts, which don't hold much promise for either Thirunelli's fragile ecology or its tribal population.