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DAUGHTERS OF DISTRESS: The Dalit girls of Keezhakuyilkudi, who are school dropouts. Photo: G.Moorthy
DAUGHTERS OF DISTRESS: The Dalit girls of Keezhakuyilkudi, who are school dropouts. Photo: G.Moorthy

S. Annamalai

`Mangalya thittam' arousing hopes, in fact, keeps Dalit girls fettered to bonded labour `Mangalya thittam', arousing hopes, in fact, keeps Dalit girls fettered to bonded labour

MADURAI: Seventeen-year-old C. Sita of Keezhakuyilkudi village in Madurai district has spent two years in a spinning mill as a bonded worker. She is on a five-day annual vacation, visiting her widowed mother and four sisters.

She left the village, lured by the mangalya thittam offered by spinning mills around Palani and Dharapuram through local brokers. She is not alone. Dalit girls in around 15 villages surrounding Nagamalai are following the pattern of dropping out of school and walking into the bonded labour net in the last two years. They go to work in textile units for a daily wage, starting from Rs. 25 and increasing by Rs. 2 every four weeks.

The mangalya thittam, a euphemism for keeping adolescent girls as bonded workers, offers food and stay at a cost of Rs. 10 per day. The wages are paid at the end of the fourth week.

After three years of service, with an annual holiday of five days, the girls return home with Rs. 30,000, which is supposed to take care of their marriage expenses. They leave home at around 14 years of age and return to get married, often subjecting themselves to all kinds of exploitation at the workplace. Sita says, "My mill is good but I cannot say anything about the other mills," before bursting into uncontrollable sobs.

Though poverty is the primary reason for these girls falling into a trap, there are other contributory factors like the absence of a high school and exorbitant fees charged by private schools.

Keezhakuyilkudi has a Government Kallar Middle School, started in 1925.

The nearest high school is about 20 km away. There are many private schools around this village but they charge Rs. 1600 for admissions to IX standard. Children like Alagurani and Chitra want to complete high school studies but their parents, who are employed as sanitary workers in the local panchayat, do not have the wherewithal. With reluctance, parents send their teenage children to unknown places for work. Brokers get Rs. 1000 for every girl brought for work. A seven-member group from the region left for a textile unit in Puliyampatti near Palani two days ago.

NGO worried

Littles Trust, a non-governmental organisation working for educating girl children in these villages, is worried at the alarming rate of dropouts.

T.R. Parvadavardini, managing trustee, is concerned at the poaching done by agents in Dalit colonies. "The agents recruit apprentices for spinning mills from Dalit colonies and expose the girls to health hazards. They also become vulnerable to HIV infection," says Ms. Parvathavardini."Recruitment drives are confined to a cluster of villages for a period of three years. This phenomenon was witnessed in villages around Tirupuvanam in Sivaganga district and Melur in Madurai district," she recalls.

A local teacher feels that upgrading primary schools as high schools will check the dropout rate. This will also help the girls avail themselves of the marriage assistance provided by the State Government under the Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammal scheme.

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