The exodus of workforce to the Gulf countries has been so much a part of Kerala and its history that the subject of migration is more a household topic than a social issue. But spawning a generation weaned away from their mothers, reared by secondary caregivers, subjected to all kinds of abuse and neglect should set the alarm bells ringing.
The fact is that Kerala’s emigrant nurses, hailing from the lower and lower-middle class strata, in their race to gain employment in the West, are paying an exorbitant price: They are mothers, but without the experience of motherhood.
It is 11.30 am on a Tuesday in Piravom, a small town in rural Ernakulam district, and Ammini, 53, hasn’t brushed her teeth yet nor eaten breakfast. No, she is neither ill nor does she have a domestic crisis. But she has two granddaughters – one aged five and the other two-and-a-half years – completely under her care, their mother being a full-time nurse earning her experience certificate to work abroad.
Like Ammini’s daughter-in-law, Anju, 25, stays in a hostel while her mother looks after her one-year-old boy back home in Pathanamthitta, Central Kerala. Anju, who “sees him on weekends”, hopes to work in the West and to make that happen she has also enrolled for a course that will help her crack her IELTS examination. In a few months she will leave for Canada and her mother will have to take care of her son till his papers are ready. The prospect is “breaking my heart” but “the option of not going doesn’t exist”.
Bijimol, 31, left her son with her mother when he was just 45 days old. “I was a nurse with the Ministry of Saudi Arabia and I couldn’t resign for two more years since my earnings were quite significant,” she says. Consequently, her son was brought up by both his grandmothers by turns. Today, she is waiting to clear her IELTS examination and join her cousin in Australia. “If I am lucky, I can get my children in six months,” she adds.
In a working paper (September 2011), titled ‘Emigration of Women Domestic Workers from Kerala: Gender, State and Policy of Movement’, published by Praveena Kondoth and T.J. Varghese at the CDS Trivandrum, Kerala is touted as the “largest sending state within India” with the most recent survey showing “that 14.6 per cent of its emigrants are women”, both employed and otherwise. It also goes on to say that both in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, countries with high rate of women emigrant workers, a “domestic chaos” has emerged from “the relative neglect, even abuse, of children and alcoholism among men”. In the Philippines especially, the “social costs of migration”, that is the “absence of women as wives and mothers from their domestic responsibilities”, have led to unfortunate consequences.
“The mother is the primary caregiver,” says Dr V.V. Joseph, Chief Trainer, Association of Learning Disabilities (ALDI). Most children of absentee mothers are victims of abuse, the perpetrators being either the servants or the father. “The husband of an NRI nurse is a subject of scorn in our society. He is either less employed or unemployed, in most cases even an alcoholic. The anger and frustration is taken out on the child,” he adds.
Such children come to the ALDI clinic with psychosomatic disorders – recurring headaches, abdomen pain, asthma and occasionally, epilepsy. Sibling rivalry is both common and at its worst. They are either severely depressed or fake being an extrovert. When their mother finally makes an appearance, she goes on a guilt-ridding spree by pampering them with money and gifts. She tells them at every given opportunity that “I’m doing this for you”. But they interpret it as – “It’s your fault”.
Says Dr Joseph, “This guilt adds to the behavioral issues and most kids become habitual offenders, befriending anti-socials and developing unhealthy relationships.”
Bijimol would speak to her son daily on the phone, cry when she learnt he was sick but would find solace, albeit fleetingly, in the company of other grieving mothers-cum-colleagues. But when she came home on leave for the first time, the one-year-old refused to let her pick him up. “I was devastated. Today, he is five and still prefers to sleep with his grandmother,” she sighs. So the next time she conceived, she decided to work only until her delivery. “I was adamant that I wouldn’t lose my daughter’s childhood too,” she says.
Anju, too, is worried about not building a relationship with her son. “What if he holds my absence against me?” she wonders. Her son is a poor eater and prone to throwing tantrums. “I know my mother’s having a hard time bringing him up. She has stopped going for prayer meetings, weddings and even house visits because no one can tolerate a whining, destructive toddler,” she rues. Of course, Anju dreads to think of the kind of child he will turn out to be by the time she sends for him from Canada.
According to Praveena Kondoth, this problem is huge but it cannot be diagnosed with wrong solutions. “It’s a small proportion of nursing graduates who emigrate. They follow a network, meaning they choose a country because they have someone there already,” she says. And it’s not like they are willfully choosing to emigrate; it is a trade-off that they are forced to make.
Most girls can afford a nursing college education only by taking loans. By the time, they garner their two-year experience and fly to the Gulf, the debt has increased three-fold. Emigration to any country in the West costs an additional 10 to 15 lakhs. By then, they have been married well with both her family and his now depend on her NRI status to get the cash flowing in. A child or two can be managed amidst all this, but motherhood? That’s a question no one’s supposed to ask.
Jisha has four-year-old son, whom she left when he was three months to work in the UK. Apart from the occasional two-month leave, today she is back on a one-year career break and has found that she has absolutely no control over the boy. “Here, my family ridicules me when he doesn’t listen to me. In UK, they accuse me of abandoning my son,” she says.
Although some solutions can come about with the government taking pro-active measures in streamlining the migration process, investing more in the English-language education in schools and revising the private college fee structure and abolishing the bond systems, the question, according to child specialists, is still this: Who can replace the mother? Apparently, no one.
In homes where women have had to give up the role of the primary caretaker in the family and, instead, become the provider and the bread-winner, “it is a loss of her maternal rights, her personal time, her space within the family structure and a continuous struggle against patriarchy,” says Dr Joseph.
Unfortunately, these emigrant working women end up being is nothing more than cash-cows for their families, even as their motherhood is held at ransom.
It’s All On The Grandmother
Most emigrant nurses depend on their mothers or mothers-in-law to care of their children. But what of the toll, physical and emotional, this added responsibility takes on these senior women. Take Ammini, who is the sole caregiver of her two granddaughters, aged five and three. “I have knee pain, back pain and am almost always gasping for breath,” she says. While her first grandchild was “extremely destructive”, the second is “a really poor eater”. “With the first, I’d simply lock up the house and stay inside. We erected huge walls around the house and kept a gate because she had the habit of running out on to the road.” Her second granddaughter is more docile probably, as Ammini explains, because she didn’t give her too much freedom in the first place.
Anju’s mother Aliyamma, 53, too, has a tough daily schedule, as she stays alone with her one-year-old grandson. Up by 5 am, she finishes all her chores by 8 am before the baby is up. “I use the toilet with him on my lap, lay him down on the floor when I am bathing.” There are no house visits or even the occasional Church on Sunday for Aliyamma. “At my age, when you have a baby to take care of, the easiest way to live is to stay in your own house,” she says.
Leela, 57, is dreading the prospect of looking after her daughter Bijimol’s two children when she leaves for Australia. She says, “Sometimes I forget to eat and end up skipping meals or grabbing something to eat now and then.” She feels weak, but so far is not any medication. Before, Bijimol’s mother-in-law also took turns to look after the older one. “But now, he’s started school and there’s no question of shunting these kids back and forth.”
Ordinarily, these women would be attending prayer meetings, chatting up at weddings, watching television. Instead, their lives revolve around caring for their grandkids in addition to running the household. In the absence of friends or much-needed hired help, they age faster than their contemporaries. Almost all complain of joint pains and general fatigue. But none have the heart to say no to baby-sitting.
Says Ammini, “I tell everyone that if it wasn’t for my efforts, my granddaughter would have been grossly under-weight and sickly.” Of course, taking a painkiller once in three days must have helped.