Thursday, February 19, 2009
Out of the darkness
by Bhaswati Chakravorty
The Telegraph, Calcutta, 17 February 2009
An unwed teenage girl in a village decides to keep her baby
Some people may consider it a good thing that of pregnant girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in West Bengal, 8.2 per cent might have spontaneous abortions, and 3.7 per cent may have stillborn children. Between the ages of 12 and 19, the rate of maternal deaths is 3.8 per thousand births. All this gets rid of unpleasant problems, and eliminates the baggage a man might be unlucky enough to acquire for a bit of fun. The record above is for the period between 1970 and 2000, but there is little to indicate that things have changed. To be an unwed teenage mother is undesirable anywhere; in West Bengal it can be nightmarish.
But, again, here the girl might be married. In 2005, 45.9 per cent of girls were married before they were 18; later studies, focused on villages or blocks, consistently found the average age of marriage of girls in rural areas to be 14 or 15. So most teenage pregnancies that come to term, however damaging to both mother and child, are presumably within wedlock. It is impossible to avoid speculation in making these inferences, because records are often sketchy or vague, teased out of a suffocating silence that envelops the subject of premarital pregnancy. What does happen when an unmarried girl has a baby?
Thirteen-year-old Ratna was reportedly sexually assaulted by her landlord’s 26-year-old son in a village not far from Calcutta. She lives there with her brother and mother, who is a domestic worker travelling to and from the city every day. Threatened by the alleged aggressor, Ratna remained silent about the violence and, later, about the fact that she was pregnant. The story came out only when her mother discovered her condition. She immediately turned to a locally influential person, a former panchayat leader, for salish, that is, public mediation, counsel and decision.
The tone of people’s responses to Ratna’s predicament was set at this first moment of ‘coming out’. The wise men of the village put their heads together to ensure that she and her unborn baby became quietly invisible: they advised her mother to withdraw the case against a cash payment from the landlord, abort the foetus and move away from the village. The two last directions were death-dealing in different ways. Ratna was too advanced in pregnancy for abortion. And moving base would mean that her mother would lose her jobs in the city. Above all, the first direction made clear that, for the village heads, keeping the existing social and sexual power structures in place was far more important than seeking justice for the life-changing violence that had been done to a poor woman’s young daughter.
The smooth disposal of the problem that they had anticipated was ruptured by the unexpected decision of the mother and daughter to fight back. The women were fortunate to have on their side an NGO that took up their cause when Ratna said she wanted to punish her alleged aggressor. Cases were filed with the police, and the landlord’s son was arrested. While the first NGO provided Ratna with support, protection and medical help, including regular check-ups at a hospital, an allied NGO took over the responsibility of conducting her case in the courts.
But apart from a caring neighbour, the entire village was up in arms. The indifference and cruelty towards women that seem to have become characteristic of village elders throughout West Bengal were indirectly reflected in the reaction of the landlord’s family. When money did not work, they offered Ratna marriage to their son. Marriage to accused or convicted violators is increasingly being seen as a happy solution in India: it saves the men from prison. That this is not only adding to the indignity of a violated woman, but also condemning her to a life of insecurity, hatred and fear is of no account. Not just the neighbours but even the police feel outraged when the victim refuses this celebratory way out. Ratna refused.
And then she had her baby. It was not clear at first whether she was mature enough to make decisions about her own future and her baby’s. Yet she would not let the baby go. She repudiated all suggestions about giving him for adoption, conceding only that he might be kept in a home or shelter where she could visit him. This was an entirely different issue from that of alleged rape, a deeply disturbing issue of rights. Another NGO stepped in to assess her state of mind. After a thorough examination, it found her, although depressed, not only mentally stable, but “motivated” about her own and the baby’s future and “determined” not to marry the alleged aggressor. Possibly without knowing it, she was saying, in effect, that the shame of the violation was not hers, but the baby was hers, and she loved him.
Ultimately, it is the lucent justness of the principles that her stand represents, together with the fact that she is still a minor, that society has to deal with. The crux is Ratna’s extreme youth; neither the law nor medicine nor right-thinking individuals and groups can approve of minor mothers. It is another matter that her pregnancy was so advanced, and the NGOs did the best they could under those circumstances.
At home with the baby, she is fighting tremendous hostility every minute of the day. Neighbours complain of her unfitness as a mother as soon as the baby cries, she is finding it increasingly difficult to buy food and milk, the landlords, whose rent her mother is still paying, have stopped their access to the local tap and pond, and she was actually beaten up by men of the landlord’s family. The police, unable to understand why she will not marry the boy, do not feel helpful. Apparent well-wishers are suggesting that mother and daughter move away for the sake of Ratna’s well-being.
In the eyes of the community, Ratna is the criminal. The little chit of a girl, educated only up to Class V, has exercised her will. After her initial silence, fear, and possibly, bewilderment as she was being carried along a stream of consequences, Ratna asserted her will — and her rights — in two fundamental areas of her wounded young life: she wanted to punish her alleged aggressor, and she wanted to keep her child as her own. Neither her age, nor her lack of education and resources was a bar to that.
What would have happened to Ratna without the NGOs that came to her help? How many girls like her are being silently destroyed by the cowardly cruelty of a community that ruthlessly suppresses justice for women behind the veneer of peaceful solutions and conventional wisdom? Even the doctor at the city hospital, where Ratna was brought in a critical state after a bad fall when close to full term, refused to deliver the baby because she was not going to deal with “filthy things”. Ratna had to be transferred to another hospital for the delivery.
When we demand education for women, are we, the educated ones, sure that as a community and a society, we are ready to accommodate the will, the intelligence, and the understanding of self and of rights that education will unleash among those who have been conveniently silent so far? We cannot even tolerate a barely educated teenager’s determination not to marry her alleged violator and keep her baby. The word ‘education’ comes from a root that means ‘to lead out of’. The urgently needed process of ensuring education for everyone must be matched with our ability to open ourselves up to fundamental changes in thinking. Else, when all the Ratnas are led out of the darkness in their thousands, where will we hide our faces?