In this Kerala district, you see pregnant daughters and their pregnant mothers in the same maternity ward
By K A Shaji
Early this January, Sainabha became a mother. She was 31, not an unusual age to conceive. A week earlier, she had, however, also become a grandmother. If you are in Kerala’s Malappuram district, 31 is not such an unusual age for that either. Sainabha had got married at 13 to a man in his late 40s. She had her first child two years later. Her eldest daughter Rahianath’s life followed an identical path. She delivered a child at 16. Soon, pregnant with her seventh child, Sainabha was admitted to the same maternity ward of the government hospital.
Jameelabi was 34 when she became both mother and grandmother at the same time. After the delivery at the local hospital, mother and daughter, who’s not yet 15, are staying in the same room for the post-delivery forty-day ritual confinement. Babies are breast-fed alternatively. “I was not the first in my village to conceive with her daughter,’’ she says. Jameelabi’s only regret is not giving complete attention to her teenaged daughter during her first delivery.
“Enter the maternity ward of any hospital here and you can see sons being breastfed by grandmothers and brothers breastfed by sisters,” says veteran theatre personality Nilambur Ayesha, a campaigner against obscurantist practices among Malappuram Muslims. A Union Health Ministry survey estimates 36 per cent of girls in the district marry before they are 18. “We have at least 18 deliveries of child-mothers a day. There are 500 such deliveries in a month,’’ says a medical officer. The Muslim clergy, primarily male, have little interest in reforming the situation.
For minor girls, marriage is often the beginning of a life of deprivation. For one, it immediately gets them out of schools. The state education department’s figures say 2,152 Muslim girls in the district dropped out in the tenth standard without appearing for the SSLC examination. In the eight standard, 1502 girls and in the seventh 1834 girls dropped out.
Then, husbands drop out. At the family court in Manjeri town, there are over 300 pending cases by ‘minor’ wives against estranged husbands. “The court can direct husbands to give Rs 500 as monthly maintenance and, if they don’t, imprison them for six months. Most men prefer jail to paying the money,’’ said VP Suhara, a social activist. Women age socially far beyond their years. “They feel young but are programmed to act old. Like other 30-plus women, there is life in them, but they have to mask it, creating immense mental issues,” says Kerala Women’s Commission member PK Sainaba.
Not surprisingly, sons are at a premium. “I am fortunate I have only one son,” says 20-year-old Shakeela who was married off when she was barely 11 to a man in his late 30s. At the time, marriage for her was an event to wear new dresses and gold ornaments. At 13, after she had a son, her husband abandoned Shakeela. She says, “I don’t want my destiny for any daughter. I will never marry again.”