Indian Town Run By Girls Offers Hope
Each afternoon men of Thennamadevi leave their Town and head for the surrounding fields, many carrying bottles of home-brewed alcohol. Hours later they stumble back home through the paddy fields of the state of Tamil Nadu in India.
Thennamadevi is racked by alcoholism. Most of its 150 male population participate in ruinous drinking sessions. Around 95 women with families in the village have been widowed. The youngest husband to die was 21 years old.
However, over the past six months something incredible has happened to break the cycle of squalor and tragedy: the teenage daughters of the families 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 Town and ensured that mobile clinics visit Thennamadevi. A library has been built where well-thumbed books promote the virtues of learning and independence. The phenomenon of 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 light-bulb, the girls assembled earlier this month for a debate on even more improvements. A petition urging better transportation– 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 helping peers through adolescence. “I teach my friends 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. These girls are taking control of the village. They want change.”
There is another incentive for the young women’s intervention. A sense of hopelessness had taken hold of Thennamadevi’s teenagers, prompting to flee in search of a better life. Sridevi and Sowmya have frequently discovered that friends have disappeared, heading to 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 labyrinth 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 thing emerged: every one had passed through Villupuram station. He heard reports of other minors wandering platforms alone, their clothing torn and grubby. Some of them were naked.
Scope’s international partner, the charity Railway Children, began encouraging the station’s 40 cleaners to report children traveling alone. Days before the Observer visited, a malnourishd eight-year-girl was found on a platform, wearing only a T-shirt. More than 1,000 unaccompanied children 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 50 said they were fleeing abuse and another 90 said they were searching relatives.
One of them was Magelier Kural, a 16-year-old from Thennamadevi. Kural had wanted to visit Pondicherry, 30 kilometers 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 the technical institute and is under those delighted that the “young girls’ club” has assumed responsibility of his village.
Yet problems come up. Calls to Villupuram’s Childline in the year to this May illustrate the challenges 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 45years old. A further 39 calls heard claims of sexual abuse and 84 detailed children who had disappeared without a 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 lookout for groups of children led by one or two adults.
Navin Sellaraju, Railway Children’s director for India, said: “These interventions are vital to protecting vulnerable children from trafficking and child labor.”
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,”
“We have many cases of sexual crimes, forced labor 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% belong to the Sadhu caste, a fifth came from the “most backwards” caste and 10% from the “backwards” caste.
Yet the biggest blight remains alcohol, with entire families fleeing to the station. One such family is the Managattis who live besides the platform 1 for years now. It was a fraught existence. Amudha Managatti describes struggling to keep her son and eight daughters safe. Her eldest, 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 and has 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.”