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Chained to the cycle

Around 3 lakh women of a cow herding community in Karnataka are forced out into dingy outhouses or even the road during their menstrual cycle and after pregnancy.

Written by Harsha Raj Gatty |
Updated: December 21, 2014 1:41:15 am
A new mother forced to live in a small outhouse after her delivery, in Durga Hosahalli village. (Source: Express photo) A new mother forced to live in a small outhouse after her delivery, in Durga Hosahalli village. (Source: Express photo)

Ramya had just returned from hospital with her newborn son. But instead of entering her home, the 26-year-old quietly walked past it into a small thatched structure located behind, cradling her child. This was to be her home for the next one month. That was in September. Twelve days later, the baby was dead.

Ramya’s neighbour Ratnamma blames the sudden cold. “It rained heavily for several days and the temperature dropped, affecting the child. Moreover, the baby and mother didn’t get proper nutrition or care,” she says.

What few talk about in Durga Hosahalli village, in north Karnataka’s Tumkur district, however, is why Ramya was in the hut and not at her home. Last month, an activist of the Kadu Golla nomadic community, put it in words — in a letter to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

Ratna from Ammanahatti, 16 km from Durga Hosahalli, highlighted the “misery” of the women of her community who were either menstruating or had just delivered and were forced to find shelter outside their homes in dingy outhouses or even the road. “Three lakh Kadu Golla women are suffering because of the superstitious beliefs of community priests and leaders,” said Ratna.

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Settled in Gollarhattis, or colonies of Gollas (meaning cow herders), in the districts of Tumkur, Hassan, Chitradurga, as well as Doddaballapur, and parts of north Karnataka, the Kadu Gollas, who number around 15 lakh, have so far remained impervious to efforts by activists and the government to end the practice.

The belief in the community is that menstruating women are inauspicious. So much so that if the shadow of a menstruating woman falls on a member of the Kadu Golla community, he or she has to bathe before entering own house. So menstruating women are forced to stay in single-room outhouses, often made of hay and shared by several homes, for up to five days of their periods. After delivery, the new mother and child end up spending up to a month there.

R Krishna, a local community leader and panchayat member, says the women do it “voluntarily”. “Women fear they will defile houses where gods are worshipped, so they move out. Nobody forces them. Is it possible to force your own daughter out in the name of tradition?”

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Justifying further, he says, “Who is to decide what is blind belief and what is not? We have practices that we believe have brought prosperity to our community and that violating them can invite divine wrath. Why object to our belief?”

Between 2008 and 2013, in a move seen as legitimising the practice, the BJP state government had set up ‘Mahila Bhavans’ in Gollarhattis to house women thus segregated. The idea never caught on, and the bhavans are now deserted.

Last year, the Congress government tried to fight the practice through the Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill, 2013. It named “forcing isolation, prohibiting re-entry into the village or facilitating segregation of menstruating or pregnant women” as one of the beliefs that needed to be curbed. However, the Bill is still impending.

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While menstruating women or new mothers are restricted from many areas of the home (particularly kitchen and prayer space) in many parts of the country, the practice among Kadu Gollas is possibly the harshest. Many whose families don’t have outhouses are forced to live in bus shelters or on the road.

The women have no access, often no contact, with other members of the family or anyone else. “A family member keeps food and other essentials at the entrance. That person too has to bathe before returning home,” says Veeranna, one of the Kadu Gollas fighting against the practice.

“Such superstitions are also prevalent among some Brahmins in Karnataka. Menstruating women are supposed to stay in a separate room, while new mothers are sent to their maternal home. However in case of the Kadu Gollas, neither the husband’s side nor the maternal family really looks after the woman,” says Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Association.

A lecturer based in Mumbai who doesn’t want to be named says she ensures that her visits to her in-laws’ home in Chikamagalur don’t coincide with her menstrual cycle. She married a colleague from the Kadu Golla community eight years ago. It was an inter-caste alliance and she had no idea of the practice till her periods started. “I was forced to move to a hut. It was humiliating as everybody knew about my period, and I could feel people staring as they passed the hut.”

Veeranna says many never recover from “the trauma”. “Twelve-year-old girls are sent away. It scars them for life.”

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Nanjanna, a fellow villager, knows of Ramya’s son’s death. But he doesn’t see it as linked to the two living in a hut in the midst of rain. “It is God’s wish,” says the village elder. “Can we can do anything?”

But those who can, have. Many members of the Golla community who have moved away from villages to settle in towns or cities no longer practise segregation. Veeranna admits that’s partly because it would be almost impossible to find such “outhouses” in cities.

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In parts of Bangalore district, the Gollas send menstruating women or new mothers to their relatives temporarily.

Earlier this year, Golla women led by social worker Pavitra sought the help of local MLA D Nagaraj to stop the practice. So much pressure was brought upon the women that Pavitra herself had to be sent away to Goa by her parents. As media got whiff of the matter, village elders warned people against talking to anybody. That suspicion still lingers in Durga Hosahalli.

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But even in the enforced silence, some facts speak for themselves. In many health care centres, Golla women are kept back at hospital after childbirth by health workers to ensure that the mother and child are not forced out into cold huts. Other women of the community are getting hysterectomies done at the age of just over 30.

Around 35 such women belong to Durga Hosahalli alone. There are no clear records available as, with no clinic or hospital nearby, the women travel at least 25 km for the operation.

Ramya has to wait though, says a neighbour. Her only child dead, she still has to bear another.

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First published on: 21-12-2014 at 01:41:07 am
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