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Can the local Panchayat help Malappuram's tortured young brides?
By Shwetha E. George
Sameena, 31, a resident of Nilampoor village in Malappuram district, Kerala, was married at 16 to a grocer in a village near Mysore, a city in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. A year later, she returned home pregnant. She never went back.

Reem, 33, was married at 27 to a 28-year-old small-scale entrepreneur in another village in Mysore. Her husband's friends rescued her when he tried to kill her by setting her on fire. Today, she is a deserted single mother back in Nilampoor trying to come to terms with her life.

Mehnoor, 30, was married at 25 to a 28-year-old Mysore-based embroiderer. A year later, her relatives brought her and her infant son back to the village after a frantic telephone call from the young woman.

In the last 20 years, young Muslim girls from Malappuram's impoverished families, particularly those hailing from the Nilampoor Gram Panchayat, have been suffering physical and emotional abuse in their marital homes in Mysore's remote hamlets. Most of them are back home within five years of marriage - poorer, weaker and with the added responsibility of bringing up fatherless children.

Incredibly, this practice of marrying off girls in Mysore is referred to as the 'Mysore Wedding' phenomenon - and it continues to happen even though everyone is aaware of the unimaginable tragedy it has wrought upon a whole generation of women.

Saleena C., a municipal coordinator with the Nilampoor Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society, terms the trend as "a deep-rooted malaise that takes advantage of the economic and educational backwardness of these families". In extremely poor Muslim households - as in those of many other communities - an unmarried girl over 18 years of age is an abomination. "It is deemed better to have a married but deserted daughter at home than an unmarried one," she observes.

When a family finds it impossible to provide the substantial dowry required for a "good match" at home, they look towards Mysore for a "cheaper" option. Brokers, usually relatives looking to make easy money, enter the picture bringing in news of potential alliances from remote villages like Shanthinagar, Rajnagar and Kessara. Hardly any inquiries are made about these families.

"At times, the girl's family is so poor that the whole community doles out cash for the dowry because helping a girl get married is considered the greatest form of charity," Seleena continues. The amount could range anywhere from Rs 25,000 and five sovereigns to Rs 50,000 and 10 sovereigns.

But in their eagerness to marry their daughters, their families don't realise the hell they are pushing them into. For Reem, the months that followed her nuptials were nightmarish. While her sisters-in-law took away her jewellery and wedding trousseau a week after the wedding, she was treated like a "servant and given old clothes to wear". She recalls, "I couldn't follow Kannada but I could perceive the hatred in their tones. When I couldn't take the indignities any more, I asked my husband in half sign language where my gold was. He flew into a rage and hit me repeatedly. While I was crying, he went and got petrol and doused with me it. Screaming, I ran into the bathroom and locked myself in. I stayed there the whole day."

In Mehnoor's case, after she made a frantic call to her relatives on the sly, they immediately went to meet her. What they saw was unforgettably disturbing - the young woman had bruises everywhere, even her gums were swollen. Says Mehnoor's mother, "She came home for her confinement but didn't speak a word about the torture she had faced. Three months later, her husband took her and her son back. One day, our neighbours come running to us after getting a call from her, saying that her mother-in-law and husband had tried to push her into the water tank."

Afreen, 39, married at 23 to a mechanic in Mysore was also rescued by her neighbours back in Nilampoor. Although her husband agreed to live with her in Nilampoor, domestic violence came to mark the marriage. "If he saw me smile, he'd hit me. If the food didn't meet his expectations, he'd hit me. Once, he refused to buy me water throughout out the trip back from Mysore because he saw me speak to a few Malayalis at the busstop. My two older children witnessed many such fights. Finally, the neighbours intervened and my mother with other relatives came to take us back," she elaborates.

Almost every home here has similar stories. In 2011, out of the 350 reported cases of deserted wives in Nilampoor Municipality, 85 were victims of Mysore Weddings. Of the 60 cases reported to the police, only 14 had been registered so far in Nilampoor's police station, as per sources in the municipality.

According to Swapna S., advocate with Nilampoor First Class magistrate's court, getting legal redress is not easy, "The women come from the poorest families, with no legal guidance and support. At Mallappuram's only Family Court, numerous couples come every day to reach a settlement on issues like alimony, child custody and compensation. But here too justice is either delayed or denied."

The affected women now want to do something about the demeaning, cruel and repressive manner in which they had been treated and, above all, they want to find a way to bring up their children with dignity.

Says Vanaja Teacher, Chairperson of the Welfare Standing Committee of the Malappuram Zilla Panchayat, under which the Nilampoor panchayat comes, "Only a social change can truly rectify this situation." She sees education as a major game changer for these women, "With education and awareness we will see a difference. Girls, aged less than 15 years, need to be trained in job-oriented skills along with pursuing mainstream education, so that they and their families do not conclude that marriage is their only option."

During her 15 years in public service, Vanaja has seen many girls earn their way to freedom. She remarks, "All you need is a thread and you can earn Rs 20 in 10 minutes. A pair of scissors - and you can earn Rs 75 by cutting a two-metre fabric."

Initiating literacy programmes is not new to the Nilampoor panchayat. Its Jyothirgamaya initiative has helped tackle primary education in the area, while under its 'Oppathin oppam' (towards equality) learning centres, set up in each tribal and dalit colonies, education is encouraged.

For the survivors of 'Mysore Weddings', the Sameeksha programme - started with the support of the Kerala State Literacy Mission - has come as a beacon of hope. Approximately 2,591 people have been registered to write/re-write the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination under this programme, and the majority comprises victims of the Mysore weddings.

Of course, enrolling for classes is easier than actually finding the time to attend them. More often than not, life's basic hardships catch up with the women as they need to provide for their children. Being daily wagers, they are unable to attend day classes and the night school, too, is not convenient. Keeping these limitations in mind the option of Sunday classes has also been provided.

Today Sameena, Mehnoor, and Afreen have seized this opportunity provided by their local panchayat. At the moment they are making do with daily earnings of around Rs 100. While Sameena and Mehnoor work in a bakery, Afreen toils in a brick kiln. They live in crumbling homes and barely manage two meals a day, but they have ensured that their children attend school.

It's a long journey ahead for them, but at least they can hope for a future that is brighter and free of violence.

(The names of women have been changed to protect their identity.)

—(Women's Feature Service)

News Updated at : Saturday, July 20, 2013
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