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July 10, 2000
Kerala's tribal hostels converted to prostitution dens
D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram
Hostels run by the Kerala Tribal Welfare Department for the educational upliftment of tribals are facing an unusual problem - unwed mothers, a phenomenon that was believed to be confined to undeveloped tribal belts in the state.
The hostels, part of the Integrated Tribal Development Project, have seen two inmates deliver children while another three are reportedly in various stages of pregnancy.
Recently, a 16-year-old inmate of the Pre-matric Tribal Hostel at Agali in the Attapadi tribal belt of Palakkad district gave birth to a child.
On making inquiries, the Palakkad district collector came across a well-knit racket, involving ITDP officials and hostel employees, to sexually exploit the schoolgirls. The collector has suspended the ITDP project officer, assistant project officer and the tribal extension officer on the basis of the preliminary inquiry.
Apparently, the girls were taken to cinema halls and other public places with the connivance of the hostel wardens and handed over to 'clients'. The innocent girls are mostly lured with small gifts like clothes, pens, books etc. They are discarded if found to be pregnant.
A survey conducted by the People's Union for Civil Liberties has reportedly identified 800 unwed mothers in the Attapadi belt. This includes several young girls like the Agali schoolgirl.
The victims are usually silenced with threats. However, this girl was different. After delivering the child, she named the father, a shopkeeper by the name of Hari, and insisted on getting married to him.
She preferred a complaint when Hari refused and that led to his arrest. Securing bail, Hari allegedly tried to hush up the matter by offering Rs 30,000 to the girl and her mother. The girl's mother, Mallika, refused the 'compensation' and pressed for action against Hari as well as the racketeers.
This is a rare case of resistance against the exploitation of the tribals. Usually, the victims and their parents succumb to pressure as the accused turn to influential people for help. Mallika has revealed that Hari had solicited the help of a forest ranger and the husband of a block panchayat member to save his skin.
Even otherwise, proving the paternity of the child involves a lengthy legal process, which most victims prefer not to pursue. Though the Kerala State Women's Commission suggested DNA tests to strengthen their case, the high cost has proved to be a deterrent. The biggest problem is that Kerala does not have a DNA testing centre. The nearest one is at Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and getting the test done involves huge expenses.
The Women's Commission's pleas to the state government to set up a testing centre in the state have fallen on deaf ears. Some civil rights activists even feel that a testing centre can be entirely avoided if the government had the will to solve the problem. Mukundan C Menon, convenor of the confederation of human rights organisations in Kerala, believes that even a constable can deal with the problem.
He told rediff.com that the Tribal Welfare Act of 1987 had enough provisions to protect the interests of unwed mothers and book those responsible for their plight. The offence is non-bailable.
"Unfortunately, the police book THE accused under provisions of the Immoral Traffic Act whenever such complaints are received," Menon said. That was the reason Hari secured bail, he added.
Inquiries into cases of unwed mothers have been completely insensitive and unsympathetic to the victims' complaints. The findings were often contradictory and inquiry reports full of loopholes. "Most of the cases in Attapadi are simple cases of prostitution if one goes by the report of the Kerala Assembly Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes," Menon said.
The happenings in Attapadi have startled human rights activists since they believed that the evil was mainly confined to Wayanad, which has the largest concentration of tribals in the state. Attapadi now has more unwed mothers than Wayanad, which, according to official figures, had about 300.
The activists are also disturbed that the trend, which earlier was confined to women working in plantations and estates, is now being seen among schoolgirls.
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