By Leela Menon, Womens Feature Service
Many adolescents in Kerala are in the grip of a death wish. The state already heads the Indian suicide chart: Farmers’ suicides have been making headlines across the country and Kerala has been no exception. It is not only farmers who are committing suicide here but indebted families caught in a spiral of consumerist spending.
The latest blot on Kerala’s social landscape is the disturbing trend of teenagers seeking to end their lives. It came into focus when three girls in Ambalapuzha of Alapuzha district committed suicide by consuming pesticide. All of them were studying in class 11. They jumped over the wall of their school compound at night, entered the classroom and consumed poison. The suicide notes they left behind indicated that unrequited love was the reason why they had taken this extreme step.
The media is often blamed for highlighting suicide cases, which many believe creates a ripple effect. What followed this incident seemed to underscore this point. Immediately after this tragedy two school girls in Thrissur district ran away from home and tried to kill themselves. Fortunately, they were rescued. A few days later, three girls in Trichur jumped before an oncoming train. Two of them died, while the third escaped with injuries.
At a superficial level, these incidents appear to be acts of desperation by lovelorn teenagers. But there could be a more disturbing factor behind these deaths: The presence of a thriving trafficking mafia that traps unsuspecting young girls through boys groomed to behave as Romeos.
The majority of young women lured in this manner come from impoverished backgrounds. The first step is to offer them blandishments like mobile phones, which are then used to forge emotional bonds, camouflaged as love. The unsuspecting girl is asked to use the phone only when her parents are asleep. The relationship flourishes in this manner and the couple starts meeting outside the school campus. Once physical intimacy develops, photographs are taken of the girl in compromising positions. That’s when the blackmailing for sex begins. The girl is soon threatened with the prospect of having her photographs circulated through the phone or on the Internet if she doesn’t cooperate. Most of the victims are unaware that there are cyber laws to punish such criminal activity.
Kerala’s proliferating sex trade came into the news with the Surianelli scandal. It involved a 16-year-old girl, who was tempted by a bus conductor to run away with him. She was later sold into the sex trade. If it was fake love that lured unsuspecting young women then, today there is the additional inducement of being able to possess attractive gizmos like mobile phones.
Given Kerala’s conservative society, young women here have almost internalised the belief that once their image is “sullied”, the “taint” will stay with them for the rest of their lives because society never forgets or forgives a girl who has “misbehaved”. Observes Sugatha Kumari, the well-known Thiruvanathapuram-based women’s activist and litterateur, “Victims are constantly victimised in Kerala. After 16 long years, the girl involved in the Surianelly scandal continues to be nameless and faceless.”
Unable to face their families once the scandal becomes public, the girls feel that they have no choice but to run away from their homes and commit suicide. Slum colonies have been reporting runaway teenagers for quite some time now. Even the Vanitha Commission (the state Women’s Commission) has had to deal with innumerable incidents involving girls who have suddenly disappeared because they have been drawn into the sex trade.
Dr C.J. John, a Kochi-based psychiatrist, believes the lack of parental guidance and support is a factor in many of these cases. “Suicide is emerging as an option in Kerala because the girls who have been exploited have no one to confide in. Parents in nuclear families have no time to spare for their children and they try to compensate for this by giving their kids money or mobile phones. They even justify handing over mobile phones to schoolchildren by saying that it would help them keep track of their children. But mobile phones cannot replace real communication between parent and child. When a girl finds herself being exploited sexually, she quickly reaches a breaking point because she cannot share her agony with her mother or anyone else. It is then that suicide emerges as an option,” explains Dr John.
This was precisely what happened with the Ambalapuzha girls. When news of the suicide broke, I visited the homes of the three deceased girls. Julie, one of the three, used to keep a diary in which she had mentioned that the three of them were in love. Their parents then revealed that the behaviour of the girls had undergone a change after they had been on a school trip, during which the girls had gone on swims in the sea with some boys. Whether they were photographed while bathing at that stage and thereafter blackmailed has not been confirmed, but that could in fact have been the case. The post-mortem report allegedly confirms that the girls were sexually abused. One girl had written, “I love Manu but I have nothing to give him.”
Despite its essentially conservative nature, Kerala’s society is also increasingly adopting a consumerist lifestyle and the obsession with money and glamour is almost universal. Mothers and teenaged daughters are easily tempted by offers of roles in soap operas and reality shows. It was, in fact, the offer of a role in a soap that had ended the life of Sari in the Kiliroor sex scandal in 2005. She was sold to a number of people by Latha Nair, a family friend who convinced her that she and her associates were directing serials.
What helps the traffickers is the general ignorance about their exploitative agenda and modus operandi. When a sex scandal breaks out, it is the unfortunate young woman who is victimised, while the culprits escape from being brought to justice because of their political or police connections. Given this situation it should cause no surprise that the Ambalapuzha suicide enquiry is reaching nowhere.