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Are Teen Years Being Stolen From Katkari Girls?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

As part of my work, during a field visit to understand the livelihood opportunities available in a particular geographical area, I visited Bheema Shankar near Pune. There I met a group belonging to the Katkari Tribe. The Katkari are among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) of Maharashtra. They are historically nomadic, forest-dwelling people listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 by the British Raj.

While discussing various aspects of livelihoods and culture with them, I learned that seasonally all of them engage in procuring and selling the forest produce; however, during other seasons, they work as daily wage labourers at brick kilns. They say, “If we don’t work a day, what will we eat that day?” If not brick kilns, in the rainy season, they catch fish; other days, they collect honey or prepare alcohol and sell.

Credits: Manas Foundation on Twitter

I asked what do women do? They said, “Women work with us; otherwise, who will carry the bricks? We prepare them, women carry them, and help us in the process. Even our kids are of help at brick kilns. Only the older people stay at home and take care of very young children. Everyone else can be found at some brick kilns site.

Curiously I asked about their opinion on education. If everyone works at a brick kiln, when do kids go to school? And they said, “What is the use of education if it can’t provide our boys with a job? Only one boy from the hamlet of 100 did graduation and had no job; we also have no job.

Based on it, they say, “Education is just a waste of time and money.” There was one Ashramshala for tribal people of the area started by a local NGO. However, the point person of the same present in the conversation complains that “Children do not come, what can we do?” I asked, “why don’t they come?” He replied, “Because they have to go with their parents to the brick kiln or take care of younger siblings.

As per a study, measure reasons for non-attainment of school among the Scheduled Tribe (ST) of Maharashtra show that 42.6% have to supplement household income and 23.6% need to do domestic chores, consequently missing schools. Language also becomes a barrier where Katkari people have their own Katkari language, and schools have Marathi as a medium of communication.

When specifically asked about girl education and marriage, they seem to have collectively agreed upon their stance that it is better to marry off girls and boys soon after they attain puberty as this preserves their virginity from being lost before marriage and prevent girls from being single mothers. This is because their ‘argument’ was so brief. “Shadi nahi karayenge to yaha waha much marenge, usase acchha shadi kara do.” They also supplemented their comment by saying, “It’s natural; how can we prevent them from doing so?” (referring to having physical attraction between gender).

As per the article of The Quint, in India, a third of all our young women (tribal and non-tribal) are married before their 18th birthday. Thus, we have one of the world’s highest numbers of teenage mothers, all married. This is again due to their higher exposure to sex, lower probability of using contraception than their unmarried peers, and pressure to conceive quickly after marriage (UNICEF).

Early marriage followed by early pregnancy naturally brings along the responsibilities at a very young age: to take care of a newborn, to earn for their survival. It also impacts health, which can be lifelong and intergenerational, including undernutrition, underweight among the children, and high rates of anaemia among women and girls.

The Katkari married girls, new mothers, have no option but to work, mostly at brick kilns where the contractor takes advantage of their informal education by paying them less and often charging extra interest on the loans they had taken on a few occasions like festivals. This vicious cycle keeps them poor economically as well as physically.

Credits: Manas Foundation on Twitter

A UNICEF case study on girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy and factors preventing their re-entry after delivery, carried out in Ghana had the key findings befitting description of lives of the young girls of the Katkari tribe, as per my observation, for example:

  • The strong connection between school pregnancy and household instability and low incomes suggests that Katkari people have a low income and dwelling nature.
  • Male partners of the schoolgirls were mainly their peers either in school, unemployed or in highly vulnerable informal economy jobs; In the case of Katkari people, the boys are of the same tribe and locality, either unemployed or working at the brick kilns.
  • Inadequate sexual and reproductive health education from schools and other agents, which is the case in the context of the whole of India.
  • A tendency to blame young girls and not boys for failing to exercise due diligence over their sexuality. This, I feel, is the existing culture in India. It might not be true everywhere, but my experiences aren’t any different.

In other parts of the country, w.r.t. tribal population, there are few examples where the process of assimilation with the larger connected world, sought by either/both parties(tribal/non-tribal), have resulted in positive exchanges with the neighbouring people and culture. For example, in Jharkhand, where I used to work earlier, I have seen tribes celebrating Hindu/Christian festivals and some instances of inter-caste/tribe marriages too.

This, in turn, has resulted in their exposure to the ‘mainstream’ understanding and experiencing the benefits of education in employability and improved economic status and standard of living. In the case of Katkari people, however, it seems that xenophobic perception against people who eat rodents is believed to be the primary reason for preventing any assimilation with other populations and keeping them away from the ‘mainstream’ education, employment, economy.

All of this reminds me of my childhood and two Katkari families I had seen as a child. I saw a husband and wife staying in our village every day at the bus stand just in front of my house, selling crabs. Every night the husband was heard yelling at his wife many times drunk, beating her up. They had five daughters; I do not remember seeing them after the age of 9-10 years old.

The daughters were married soon and occasionally seen after a few months/year’s gaps in saree. So was another family I had seen at my paternal uncle’s place, near Panchgani hill station. Two Katkari brothers used to bring us mangoes, Jamun and honey in summer while custard apples in winter, whole baskets of it, and some other days fish.

My aunt always negotiated and underpaid him. He knew she would buy and hence kept coming year after year. I do not remember seeing any teenage girls within their family either. However, we had seen his wife. I wonder if there is no ‘teenage’ among the Katkari girls, and it’s just a young girl to an adult woman transitioning if the whole phase and experiences of teenagers are altogether missing.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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