In­dian vil­lage run by teenage girls offers hope for a life free from abuse

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Mark Townsend

Each af­ter­noon the men of Then­na­madevi leave their vil­lage and head for the sur­round­ing fields, many car­ry­ing bot­tles of high-strength home­brewed al­co­hol. Hours later they stag­ger back home through the paddy fields of the state of Tamil Nadu in south­ern In­dia.

Then­na­madevi is racked by al­co­holism. Most of its 150 male in­hab­i­tants par­tic­i­pate in ru­inous daily drink­ing ses­sions. Around 90 women with fam­i­lies in the vil­lage have been wid­owed. The youngest hus­band to die was 21.

How­ever, over the past six months some­thing re­mark­able has hap­pened to break the cy­cle of squalor and de­spair: the teenage daugh­ters of the drunken men have taken over the run­ning of the place. And it’s work­ing.

A self-ti­tled “young girls’ club” has fixed the street lights, com­pleted a health au­dit of the vil­lage and en­sured that mo­bile clin­ics visit Then­na­madevi. A li­brary is be­ing built where well-thumbed books pro­mote the virtues of learn­ing and in­de­pen­dence. The phe­nom­e­non of teenage fe­male self-help has made aid agen­cies and politi­cians across the state sit up and take no­tice.

In the com­mu­nal build­ing, be­neath the glow of a sin­gle light­bulb, the girls as­sem­bled ear­lier this month for a de­bate on fur­ther im­prove­ments. A pe­ti­tion urg­ing bet­ter trans­port links – no buses pass near the vil­lage – has been drafted to be put to the lo­cal coun­cil.

De­bate is earnest, each dis­cus­sion end­ing in a show of hands. Only when con­sen­sus is reached does the com­mit­tee move to the next is­sue. “We are try­ing to trans­form our vil­lage by this process. We are em­pow­ered to be lead­ers,” said Says Sowmya, 16, pres­i­dent of the club.

Oth­ers are fo­cused on more in­ti­mate is­sues, such as shep­herd­ing peers through ado­les­cence. “I teach my friends on life skills such as per­sonal hy­giene, self-dis­ci­pline and men­strual is­sues,” said Ra­jend­hi­ran Sridevi, a 16-year-old “trainer”.

Sathiya Babu, deputy project di­rec­tor of Scope In­dia, which helps de­liver op­por­tu­ni­ties for the poor, said the gap be­tween the am­bi­tions of the young and the ex­pec­ta­tions of par­ents was widen­ing. “The young­sters know that some­body has to do th­ese things for the com­mu­nity. Th­ese girls are tak­ing con­trol of run­ning the vil­lage. They want change.”

There is an­other in­cen­tive for the young women’s in­ter­ven­tion. A sense of hope­less­ness had taken hold among Then­na­madevi’s teenagers, prompt­ing a num­ber to flee in search of a bet­ter life. Sridevi and Sowmya have fre­quently dis­cov­ered that friends have dis­ap­peared, head­ing to­wards ci­ties such as Chennai and never heard of again. Lo­cal records re­veal that at least 150 chil­dren from the area have at­tempted to run away.

Six kilo­me­tres from the vil­lage, via a labyrinthine net­work of tracks, lies the town of Villupu­ram and one of the most cru­cial rail sta­tions in south­ern In­dia. Built un­der the Bri­tish, five ma­jor lines con­verge at Villupu­ram junc­tion, con­nect­ing the coun­try’s south­ern tip with Chennai and the east coast.

When Babu be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Then­na­madevi run­aways, one com­mon thread emerged: ev­ery one of them had passed through Villupu­ram sta­tion. He heard re­ports of other mi­nors wan­der­ing plat­forms alone, their cloth­ing torn and grubby. Some were naked.

Scope’s in­ter­na­tional part­ner, the char­ity Rail­way Chil­dren, be­gan en­cour­ag­ing the sta­tion’s 40 clean­ers to re­port chil­dren trav­el­ling alone. Days be­fore the Ob­servervis­ited, a mal­nour­ishd eight-year-girl was found on plat­form six wear­ing only a T-shirt. More than 1,000 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors were found at the sta­tion in the two years to June 2017. When ques­tioned, most ex­plained they just wanted to see more of the world, al­though 49 said they were flee­ing abuse and an­other 90 said they were seek­ing rel­a­tives.

One such was Mage­lier Ku­ral, a shy 16-year-old from Then­na­madevi. Ku­ral had wanted to visit Pondicherry, 30km away on the coast. When clean­ers found him on plat­form five, he was in tears and call­ing for his fam­ily. “I wanted to have new ex­pe­ri­ences and see some sights.”

Kan­nan Jee­vanan­tham, 16, was spotted on plat­form one hop­ing to catch the train north to Chennai to es­cape his fa­ther’s drink­ing. “I had no plan, no money. I needed to es­cape,” said Jee­vanan­tham, who is now study­ing at a tech­ni­cal in­sti­tute and is among those de­lighted that the “young girls’ club” has as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity of his vil­lage.

Yet prob­lems en­dure. Calls to Villupu­ram’s Childline in the year to this May il­lus­trate the per­ils fac­ing Then­na­madevi’s chil­dren. Of al­most 4,000 re­ported in­ci­dents, 3,016 in­volved petty crimes, 552 con­cerned chil­dren forced to beg, and 193 de­scribed cases of forced mar­riage, one doc­u­ment­ing a 15-year-old be­ing made to marry a man of 45. A fur­ther 39 calls heard claims of sex­ual abuse and 84 de­tailed chil­dren who had dis­ap­peared with­out trace.

De­spite the best ef­forts of Rail­way Chil­dren, mi­nors still van­ish, some­times taken by traf­fick­ers who use In­dia’s vast rail net­work to move their hu­man cargo. Villupu­ram’s plat­form clean­ers are in­structed to keep a par­tic­u­lar look­out for groups of chil­dren led by one or maybe two adults.

Navin Sel­laraju, Rail­way Chil­dren’s di­rec­tor for In­dia, said: “Th­ese in­ter­ven­tions are vi­tal to pro­tect­ing vulnerable chil­dren from traf­fick­ing and child labour.”

Speak­ing at the po­lice sta­tion in Villupu­ram, the town’s anti-hu­man traf­fick­ing officer, Chin­na­mari­ap­pan Pad­mashree, sifts through up­dates on crim­i­nals pass­ing through the re­gion. “Lots of chil­dren are be­ing kid­napped and go­ing miss­ing,” she said. “We have many cases of sex­ual crimes, forced labour and kid­nap­ping, crimes against women and chil­dren.”

All the chil­dren res­cued be­long to a lower caste, a fac­tor that some be­lieve makes chil­dren vulnerable to traf­fick­ers. In­ter­views found 70% be­longed to the Sadhu caste, a fifth came from the “most back­ward” caste and 10% from the “back­ward” caste.

Yet the big­gest blight re­mains al­co­holism, with en­tire fam­i­lies flee­ing to the sta­tion. One such fam­ily is the Mana­gat­tis who lived be­side plat­form 1 for years. It was a fraught exis-

tence. Amudha Mana­gatti de­scribes strug­gling to keep her son and eight daugh­ters safe. Her el­dest, then aged 15, was tar­geted by abusers. “They took ad­van­tage of her, many peo­ple in the town were in­volved,” said Babu.

A de­serted home was ren­o­vated for the fam­ily and the chil­dren given school places. Her el­dest daugh­ter is now mar­ried with her own fam­ily, a jour­ney that proves that nar­ra­tives can be amended.

For the teenagers run­ning Then­na­madevi it is the pos­si­bil­ity of change that in­spires them. Se­nior club mem­ber Gowsalya Rad­hakr­ish­nan said: “By not ac­cept­ing our fate we will give oth­ers the knowl­edge they can shape the fu­ture.”

The ‘young girls club’ meet for their Thurs­day de­bate on ways to im­prove life in their vil­lage. Pho­to­graph: Mark Townsend for the Ob­server

Amudha Mana­gatti with her fam­ily in their new home in Villupu­ram. They were re­housed af­ter spend­ing sev­eral years on the town’s sta­tion af­ter flee­ing Amudha’s heavy-drink­ing hus­band Pho­to­graph: Mark Townsend for the Ob­server

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