The mud house is small, has a thatched roof, and plastered with cow dung; 22-year-old Kiran sits outside. We’re at Rajni village in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. This is not Kiran’s house, and before monsoon descends, she will have to move out. The house belongs to a relative who has allowed her to stay, but his wife does not like this arrangement. A small boy clad in only a shirt walks out of the house, heads towards Kiran and settles down on her lap.
“This is my child. He is one-and-a-half years old,” she says. Kiran’s mother Shobha also stays in the hut. They are farmhands, who rush off to work when a tempo comes to the village to pick up labour. Since employment is seasonal, the villagers do not tell one another when there is work to be found on other farms. Women are paid Rs 100 for a day’s work, which lasts from 10 am to 6 pm, while men get double the amount for the same time. It’s acceptable for men to take a beedi break, but should women take time off to feed their babies, they get a pay-cut. This results in women tying their babies above their bellies so that they’re able to feed them as they work. Kiran is one such mother.
Kiran is slim. She looks attractive with her honey-kissed complexion and kaajal-rimmed eyes. She is the only one in her village who dons a salwaar kameez, where most women wear khasta saris and have weather-beaten skin. “I like to look good,” she says. She has no friends and few women talk to her.
As a child, she used to live with her father in Keli village but her stepmother’s illness forced her out of school when Kiran was in class VII. Her biological mother stayed at her uncle’s place and Kiran eventually moved there. She started working in the fields in nearby Ghousa and Sonigaon villages. One day, the contractor who would take them to the fields asked Kiran to accompany him to meet the owner of the farm. She was 18 then.
“He spoke so nicely to me, asked me about my family and made me sit on a chair. After some time he told me to go back to work,” says Kiran.
Two meetings later, he said he liked and wanted to marry her. “I was very happy. A big man wanted to marry me, a very poor girl.” From then on, she would be taken to his farm daily instead of the fields and the contractor would ask her to go to the ‘bangla’ (bungalow). She would be there the whole day with the owner. But as soon as he saw her stomach becoming bigger, he asked her to stop coming.
“I did not know I was pregnant,” she says. He never intended to marry her, and overnight, Kiran became a person of disrepute and was thrown out of her uncle’s house along with her mother. They moved in with relatives in Rajni village, but the stigma of being an unwed mother followed her. “The village panchayat called a panch (meeting). I didn’t go. The contractor kaka came there and said I was not of good character. The panchayat asked us to pay a fine of Rs 3,000 to live in the village. We had to borrow the money. After that a relative offered this house to us,” she says.
Kiran’s story is not rare. She belongs to the Kolam community, considered an Adivasi tribe. In Yavatmal district, tribals face large-scale sexual exploitation because poverty and illiteracy makes them vulnerable. Kunta Madhvi is a social worker with Dilasa Sanstha, an organisation involved in irrigating drought- hit Vidarbha and Marathwada. The organisation has a vast network of self-help groups for women. Madhvi says that during field visits to Yavatmal, their social workers came across many cases of unwed mothers and estimates put the number at more than 300. A majority of these women do not have ration cards, election cards or Aadhaar cards. On official records, they do not count. “There are many more [women] but many of them do not talk. Also some women have remarried and will never talk about it,” says Madhvi.
Gangadhar Atram, a social worker, says that though other border districts of Maharashtra, such as Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Bhandara, Buldhana, Amravati, Nagpur and Gondia too have unwed mothers, the numbers in Yavatmal are higher because of its proximity to the chilli fields of Telangana, where work (for the poor) is available throughout the year. Rich farmers from Telangana have bought cotton fields in Yavatmal and employ local labour. A number of unwed mothers say they were lured by Telugu men who promised marriage but left when they became pregnant. Zhari, where Rajni village is located, and Pandharkawda talukas in Yavatmal have the largest number of unwed mothers. In 150 villages of Zhari, the numbers are especially high in the villages of Rajni, Mahadapur, Kundi and Bhimnada. “Women in these poor villages don’t even know anything about menstruation; they just think it makes them unclean and inauspicious. They do not know how children are born. They never realise they are pregnant until their stomachs start growing,” said Madhvi.
The men who impregnate these young girls don’t use condoms and when a woman gets pregnant, the decision to keep the child or abort it becomes solely the woman’s concern. “I decided to keep my child as I had already become badnaam, so why kill my child?” says Kiran. And in her case, the window period for abortion had already passed.
Poverty is glaring in these parts. For clothing, women take a five-yard sari called khasta, cut off a bit to make short-sleeved blouses and drape the rest. Children either wear a shirt or a pair of shorts, but not both because their mothers can’t afford it. The anganwadi, a state-run facility to provide mid-day nutrition to children in the village and lactating mothers, is a crucial means of support for these unwed mothers.
Anita, an unwed mother with a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, doesn’t know her own age. Violent beatings from her stepfather made her run away from home to stay with her uncle in the same village, Mahadapur also in Yavatmal district. “My uncle owned 10 acres of a cotton plantation, so I went to work on his farm. Since he did not pay me, I started living with my mother again and went to work on another farm in the same village,” she says.
A labour contractor took her to the house of the owner of the farm, an acquaintance of her uncle. He promised to marry her and she started living with him. The owner continued to make her work in the fields through the day, do house work the remaining time and also be a ‘comfort woman’. While both her children are from the same man, he has since left the village, gotten married and has two other children.
What these women have to face is not just social stigma. There’s also pressure on them to remarry and regain respectability. Often, matchmakers get widowed or divorced men as prospects. Children are often abandoned when the women remarry. The women are also a target of pimps, who, in the guise of matchmakers, lure them with marriage proposals and they end up in brothels. Though Kiran and Anita did get marriage proposals, they chose to remain single. “No man looks after another man’s child. The future of my child is important to me,” says Kiran, who uses the father’s name as her child’s surname.
While some of the unwed mothers give their children the names of the men who fathered them, others use their own names as the child’s middle and surname. Lakshmi and Meera are sisters who live in Kundi village, and are both unwed mothers. Lakshmi has a 12-year-old son and Meera, a daughter, also 12. Lakshmi’s son lives in a hostel in Gopalpur while Meera has found it difficult to get free hostel facilities for her daughter because her surname is Chaudhary. “This is the surname of my child’s father and I use it. Because it is an upper caste surname my child cannot get any benefits,” says Meera.
Meera, too, was a farm worker lured into a short-lived relationship with the owner of the cotton field she worked in, a man from Andhra Pradesh. When she became pregnant and told him, he denied it was his child and began pushing her to abort. “I stood my ground and filed a police complaint against him. I also went to the Patan court about 12 years ago, but I have not heard from the police after that,” she says. He lives with his wife and two children in the same village as Meera and threatens her with dire consequences if she “tries to defame him”.
Lakshmi and Meera live together and struggle to make ends meet. “It is very difficult for us to find work,” says Lakshmi. Meera says the villagers never tell them anything nor are they taken to the fields. “Our children are now grown up and their needs are different. When there is no work for long periods, we go hungry and give them whatever is available,” she says.
Their ration card gets them a monthly quota of 15 kg of rice priced at Rs 3 per kg and 16 kg of wheat at Rs 2 per kg. “We have to earn money to buy this ration. We do odd jobs like fetching water, cleaning wheat, dal, etcetera. Since everyone in the village is poor, it is difficult to earn much,” says Lakshmi.
Employment is available only for two or three months in a year in the cotton fields, which are 15 to 20 km away from the village. During the remaining months, villagers cross over to Telangana to work in the chilli fields. Labourers like Lakshmi and Meera stay in makeshift plastic tents in the fields, collect a week’s pay and return home. “The men come into the fields at night and try to lure us. We spend sleepless nights,” adds Lakshmi.
Suvarna, 22, has two mangalsutras around her neck but is unmarried. She wears them to avoid unwanted questions. An unwed mother of two, Suvarna’s children were fathered by two different men, both of whom promised marriage to her. The elder daughter is eight, while the younger one, a son, is 18 months old. Her daughter’s father is Suvarna’s cousin, the son of her mother’s brother.
“Everyone, including our parents thought we would marry. So they let me go with him,” says Suvarna. However, when she got pregnant, her aunt questioned her character. He continues to live in the same village and is married with children. Then a mason came into her life declaring his love for her when she worked as a daily wage labourer at a construction site in the village. “He said he loved my daughter and would look after her. I was happy. I got pregnant and he ran away from the village overnight,” says Suvarna. She lives in her father’s house in a far corner in Rajni village, many bylanes away from Kiran. Suvarna knows that soon she will be homeless as her younger sister is getting married and the house will go to her. “My father has promised to build a house for me close by,” she says. “I trusted a man the second time because I thought my child and I will get some security. Instead, I got left behind with another child. No more men and promises.”
Shiv Sena leader Neelam Gorhe claims she will take up the issue of unwed mothers and ensure that the state government helps them. “The increase in their numbers is alarming and this exploitation by farm owners and contractors has to stop. DNA tests should be done on the children of willing women. If paternity is established, the children should be given rights to the property of their father even if he is not married to their mother,” says Gorhe.
For Shobha from Yavatmal district’s Bhimnada village whose 16-year-old son was fathered by a rich farmer from Nagpur, such assurances don’t mean much. “We are condemned to lead an abandoned life. How can any of this help us?” she asks.