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India: Kerala & Karnataka Govts short-changing victims afflicted by decades of aerailly spraying.. Print E-mail

                                                        ..... the pesticide endosulfan in the Plantation Corporation's cashew farms

 Sunday February 17 2019

Rehabilitation a far cry for endosulfan victims

By Arjun Raghunath
: Rajeevi (in sari), with her three endosulfan-affected children, in Puttur taluk, Karnataka. (Govindaraj Javali)

: Two young endosulfan victims in their house near Kanhangad town in Kasaragod district, Kerala. (Arjun Raghunath)

A sense of helplessness sets in as one reaches a thatched house at Puthige Panchayat in the northern parts of Kasargod district in Kerala. While the wailing and screaming of a woman hits your ears from inside the house, a man in his early thirties can barely get a sense of what is happening to her. He sits idle, staring blank at the stream that flows silently in front of the house.

Siblings Chitharanjan, 31, and Ashwini, 25, who are mentally challenged and physically disabled, are victims of aerial spraying of endosulfan, a pesticide that crippled thousands of lives in the district. The pesticide was banned in 2011, about three decades after its extensive use on the cashew plantations of Plantation Corporation of Kerala. The residues of the pesticide seem to be found in the region - ­ in water, soil and produce - that children are born with deformities and mental disorders even after eight years of its ban.

But the Kerala government is yet to acknowledge all the sufferers as victims of endosulfan poisoning. For the simple reason that they do not belong to any of the 11 village panchayats that were declared endosulfan-affected. As a result, they are deprived of the assistance that the government has offered to endosulfan victims. A visit to some of these villages makes one understand their anger and annoyance towards the administration. Hundreds of victims who are denied assistance under the support scheme for endosulfan victims had gathered in Thiruvananthapuram recently to protest against the government’s apathy.

Border matters
The panchayats where the cashew plantations were located in Kasargod have been declared endosulfan-hit. But activists point out that since endosulfan was aerially sprayed using helicopters, there is no doubt about the chances of it spreading to adjacent areas through air. Another aspect is that most of the cashew plantations are situated at elevated terrains. Hence the pesticide could reach the water bodies by means of rainwater, rivers and streams.

Another undisputed fact is the pitiable condition of many people in the panchayats adjacent to the endosulfan-affected panchayats. Hundreds of people have mental and physical disabilities and deformities similar to those officially acknowledged as endosulfan victims.

One of the worst-affected areas is Puthige Panchayat, which lies close to Enmakaje in the northern parts of Kasargod, close to Karnataka. "For many years, we have been knocking at the doors of the administration. But they have been turning down our pleas without any humanitarian consideration," say Mehamood and Kunhamini at Seethangoli, 25 km from Kasargod town. Three of their eight children have physical deformities.

Renjith Kumar, the sibling of Chitharanjan and Ashwini and the sole breadwinner of the family, points out that the stream flowing through the locality comes from Enmakaje and hence it is almost certain that the people of the locality are also victims of the pesticide that was widely used at the plantations in Enmakaje. "Since my two siblings are bedridden, our parents are almost confined to the house to take care of them," Renjith told DH.

Pushpakala and Sreesankaran, a couple residing at Cherkappara at Pallikara Panchayat, near Kanhangad, has been under pressure from their parents to go for a second child. But they are reluctant as they fear the second child may also suffer the same fate as the first one, Akhila. The six-year-old, though looks normal, is mentally and physically challenged, and suffers from frequent seizures.

"There is no history of such mental or physical disorders in our family. If the authorities are still maintaining that many like Akhila in the locality are not victims of the pesticide, then they should be able to give a convincing reason," says Akhila’s grandmother Kamala.

Deformities, mental disorder and seizures are some of the common problems faced by endosulfan victims. A considerable number of them also suffer from peripheral sensory system disorders. "We had taken the child to several medical screenings for inclusion in the list of endosulfan victims. But the bureaucracy rejected the plea citing boundary issues," says Dhanya, mother of an endosulfan victim.

"We just have one prayer. At least give them the strength to move around for their basic needs. As they grow up, it will be more difficult for us to take care of them," says Khadeeja, whose two children are paralysed.

According to Ambalathara Kunhikrishnan, an activist fighting for the endosulfan victims, even the Kerala Government had initially agreed in principle that 27 panchayats and three municipalities in Kasaragod were affected by endosulfan. The National Human Rights Commission also shared a similar view. But the government is now showing reluctance to consider victims from adjacent panchayats. Former Kerala Chief Minister V S V S Achuthanandan and other Left Democratic Front (LDF) leaders had backed the stirs by endosulfan victims while they were in the Opposition Party. Now the party is in power but it is yet to take an action in this regard.

Number game

As per the government list, there are 6,212 victims but people estimate that the actual number is over 10,000. Activists point out that a medical screening by a team of expert doctors conducted in 2017 found about 1,905 persons were affected by endosulfan. But only 364 of them were included in the list of endosulfan victims. Over 1,500 others, including children and youth, were eliminated during vetting by the bureaucrats mainly on the grounds that they were not living in the ‘endosulfan-hit’ villages.

In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to pay a compensation of Rs 500 crore to over 5,000 victims with around Rs 5 lakh to each victim [Scroll Down to read]. But activist Kunhikrishnan said that the government paid a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to only 1,350 persons and another 1315 were paid Rs 3 lakh each.

Following strong protests and indefinite hunger stir led by activists Daya Bai in Thiruvananthapuram recently, the government assured to reconsider the inclusion of over 1,500 persons who were earlier eliminated from the list. But there is no sign of confirmation yet.

The situation of those who have got the endosulfan-victim tag is not better either. With so many sufferers in the region, there should be more medical and rehabilitation facilities, feel activists.

Well-equipped facilities like BUDS Schools, which are free and open special schools for mentally challenged children of poor families, and Medical College hospital, with 24x7 assistance are more important than just offering financial assistance, say family members.

Of the seven BUDS Schools set up in Kasaragod for the rehabilitation of the endosulfan victims, only one functions from its own building and has the necessary infrastructure. All other schools are working from rented buildings and have minimum facilities.

Another immediate requirement is hospitals with specialist doctors. A medical college hospital announced in 2011 is just in the beginning stages of construction. The hospitals in the district lack specialists like neurologists. As a result, many endosulfan victims are depending on private hospitals in Mangaluru, which is around 60 km away, even for routine check-up. While rehabilitation and medical assistance are of utmost importance to the victims, the families are in dire need of assistance, said Mohan Pulikodan, a volunteer who works with these unfortunate people. Generally, one person in a family has to devote full-time taking care of the victims. But more assistance is required if there are more victims in a house. Most of.these affected families are financially weak and are in constant need of money. But so far, there is no proper assessment of the requirements of these families.

Deepa Peroor, principal of the Mahatma Gandhi Model BUDS School at Pullur Periya, said that rehabilitation programmes like therapies and vocational courses are helping endosulfan victims.

"We provide personalised training and therapies after analysing the requirements of each person. The main aim is to enable them to carry out activities of daily living. At present, the school is having about 85 students in the age group of 3 to 28 years. Vocational training on various skills like bag making is imparted to their parents," she said. Various NGOs are also running rehabilitation centres for endosulfan victims.

Dr Y S Mohan Kumar, who was one of those instrumental in bringing to light the ill-effects of endosulfan, feels that infrastructure development, medical and rehabilitation facilities are not getting the desired priority.
 Sunday February 17 2019

In K'taka, victims battle social, administrative apathy

By Harsha
A cloud of dust trails behind the vehicle as it comes to a screeching halt in front of Rajeevi Poojary’s house in Buderiya in Alankaru Gram Panchayat in Puttur taluk. Rajeevi, 54, and her husband, Sunanda Poojary, 58, gather all strength to shift their three children Vidya, Dinakar and Dinesh, in their thirties, from the house into the van. From here, the van begins its routine morning trip of picking up endosulfan victims and dropping them at the endosulfan day-care centre in Koila, 5 km away.

Rajeevi works as an attendant at the same centre and returns home in the evening with her children. She is worried about the future of her children with the government delaying the implementation of a proposed permanent home for endosulfan victims. "What will happen to my physically disabled and mentally challenged children after my death?" she asks. Hameed and Maimuna of Kumbra in Olamogaru Gram Panchayat said they no longer had the will to fight with officials and access benefits for their bedridden son Mohammed Anees (15). Hameed says his many requests for a waterbed mattress had received no response from the primary health centre and the taluk health officer. He recollects that his neighbour’s endosulfan-affected daughter, Pushpavathi, passed away due to bedsores in September 2018. "We hear a lot of assurances for endosulfan victims, but receive none," says Radha from Uruva.

Though Akshatha has been identified as one among the 207 bedridden endosulfan victims by the district administration, the mobile medical unit with a physiotherapist has not visited the house so far, Radha says. In the information collected under RTI, district health office had information about only 159 such victims.

Most of the 4,000 families with endosulfan victims in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts are fighting a battle against poverty and government apathy. Though the government has released stipend, opened two-day care centres and facilitated cash-free medical care in private hospitals, a feeling that the government machinery has failed to address their problems persists among the victims and their caretakers. "The feeling is justified," says RTI activist Sanjeeva Kabaka. The data he has gathered over the years point to the government’s lack of will on making amends to the victims suffering for no fault of theirs.

After the Karnataka High Court’s final judgement in an endosulfan case in 2015, the government had pledged to carry out welfare schemes for ensulfan victims. Yet, hundreds of individuals with neurological disorders, congenital malformation like hemiplegia, among others continued to be denied of the monthly stipend. Not just them, some of those who were certified as endosulfan victims have also not received the monthly stipend of Rs 3,000. Yamuna’s two children, Mithun and Trupthi, were earlier receiving a disability pension of Rs 500. After being included in the list of endosulfan victims, only Mithun began receiving the stipend. District Legal Services Authority’s letter to deputy commissioner recommending release of stipend to Trupthi’s bank account received no response. According to information obtained under RTI by Sanjeeva in July 2018, DC had attributed the delay in releasing stipend in 102 cases due to glitches in the software.

A month later, the DC, responding to a notice from the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, declared that the stipend was not released in 360 cases. In November 2018, DC had informed the nine-member assurances committee, headed by K C Kondaiah, that technical glitches had delayed the release of stipend in 426 cases. Despite hiring four mobile medical units, district health and family welfare department is unaware of the exact number of endosulfav victims who are bedridden.

Peer Mohammed Sahib of District Endosulfan Virodhi Horata Samithi remembers meeting different chief ministers as many as 25 times to get the five acres land reserved for the project in Alankaru. Now, he is on a mission to get funds for permanent houses for the victims.

Lack of facilities
When the government’s budget submitted in 2017 ignored the demands of endosulfan victims, which included a compensation of Rs 10 lakh, permanent centre in each taluk, Rs 2,000 pension for caretakers, a nurse specialised in palliative care in each village, Endo Virodhi Horata Samithi President Sridhar Gowda K along with hundreds of endosulfan victims and their caretakers had staged a protest in Kokkada in May 2017.

Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s budget has been a bigger disappointment, Sridhar Gowda says, and adds that Kumaraswamy during a visit to Kokkada had visited the houses of endosulfan victims and is thus aware of the problems. "I was expecting that he would hike the stipend which has not been increased since 2014," he rued.

A nine-member assurance committee of legislative council led by its chairman K C Kondaiah had directed district administration to implement government’s order on providing free ration to victims of endosulfan poisoning. The committee during an interaction with stakeholders in deputy commissioner’s office in 2018 also had ordered district administration to sort out last mile issues in providing healthcare to endosulfan victims by convening a meeting of super specialty hospitals. The committee had also ordered a joint survey of open wells and borewells.

The reports of High Court amicus curiae and other commissions recommending a permanent house for endosulfan victims to the government has been gathering dust.
~ Sunday February 17 2019

Many want to shed endosulfan-victim tag

By Arjun Raghunath

: Endosulfan victims in Kasaragod.

Even as pressure has been mounting on the Kerala government to include more persons in the official list of endosulfan victims, some victims are pleading for elimination from the list. Reason: the endosulfan-victim tag is affecting the future prospects of the family members in different ways.

In one case, the marriage prospects of a young woman from an endosulfan-hit family was affected because a member in the family was an endosulfan victim. So the family wanted to get rid of the tag, according to sources in the Kerala revenue department that prepares the official list of victims. Another youth’s efforts to seek a job abroad has been hit owing to the endosulfan tag. Being enlisted as endosulfan victim, he is not getting medical clearance to the country he desires to go.

More pitiable is the plight of a couple. The wife had several miscarriages as she was an endosulfan victim. Hence, the couple decided to adopt a child. The adoption procedures prescribe that the prospective adoptive parents should be medically fit. The couple also approached the Kasargod district collectorate to eliminate them from the list and get a medical fitness certificate.

A senior official told DH, on the condition of anonymity, that though these pleas to eliminate from the list of endosulfan victims deserved humanitarian consideration, there is no provision now to eliminate a person from the list. The government will have to take a call on the matter.

Meanwhile, the endosulfan cell at Kasargod district collectorate is flooded with applications for inclusion in the official list of endosulfan victims so as to get benefits like pension.

"The government has to bring in foolproof guidelines on the parameters in black and white for considering one as an endosulfan victim. Though various proposals in this regard were mooted, there were no further initiatives," a state revenue department official said.

Mohanan Pulikodan, an activist who worked with endosulfan victims, said that a lot of manipulations could have happened in the name of endosulfan victims. A good number of ineligible people managed to enter the list, while many deserving persons were not. There were even husbands, who once deserted their wife for giving birth to a child with deformities, later aligning with them eyeing the financial assistance received by endosulfan victims, he said. 
 Tuesday January 30, 2018

Mothers with endosulfan-hit kids protest outside Kerala Secretariat

Press Trust of India, Thiruvananthapuram:
A woman holds a child affected by endosulfan. (DH file photo)

Mothers with their endosulfan-hit children staged a 'dharna' in front of the Secretariat here demanding speedy disbursal of compensation and implementation of the rehabilitation package.

At least 300 members of the endosulfan-affected children reached the state capital this morning from Kasaragod, the northernmost district, to participate in the token protest. Social activist Daya Bai inaugurated the sit-in protest along with former minister and CPI leader, Binoy Vishwam. Those identified as victims in the medical camps should also find a place in the beneficiary list, they said adding if the Kerala government fails to find a solution, an indefinite agitation would be launched from March 15.

The Supreme Court had in January last year directed the state government to disburse compensation and rehabilitation package for endosulfan pesticide victims within 3 months. A bench headed by then Chief Justice J S Khehar had ordered the government to provide a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of persons who died following exposure to the pesticide and those who became bed-ridden or mentally-challenged.

The order had been passed on a petition by CPI(M)'s youth wing Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) seeking country-wide ban on sale and production of endosulfan in its present form or any other derivative in the market. Endosulfan, an off-patent organochlorine insecticide and acaricide, was used widely on crops like cashew, cotton, tea, paddy, fruits and others until 2011, when the Supreme Court banned its production and distribution.

The health effects of the chemical include neurotoxicity, late sexual maturity, physical deformities, poisoning among others.
Tuesday December 12, 2017

Endosulfan: SC issues notice to Kerala govt.

By Krishnadas Rajagopal

A file photo of protest by families of endosulfan victims raising various demands in Kasaragod, Kerala. (K. VINAYA KUMAR)

NEW DELHI: Petition alleges wilful disobedience by State administration

The Supreme Court on Monday issued notice on a contempt of court petition filed by Endosulfan victims of Kerala for not complying with a January 2017 order of the court to disburse the entire compensation to all those who had been affected by the toxic pesticide within three months.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra asked the State government to respond to the petition alleging "wilful disobedience" on the part of the Kerala government in complying with the Supreme Court order of January 10, 2017. The contempt petition arraigns Kerala Chief Secretary K.M. Abraham as party.

Besides the plea to initiate contempt of court action, the victims from Kerala’s most affected northern district of Kasargod have urged the court to direct the Chief Secretary to "disburse Rs. 5 lakh to the petitioners and to all other families of Endosulfan victims in the State of Kerala forthwith."

The victims, represented by advocates Kaleeswaram Raj and Suvidutt M.S., said that even a list prepared by the State government of victims entitled to get Rs. 5 lakh compensation came to around 6,000 persons. But, they contend, that there are several or numerous more victims, who have not been included in this list and are unable to pay for medical care.

These unnamed, forgotten victims continued to be in dire straits despite the Supreme Court order of January 10, which had specifically directed the State government "to release the entire undisbursed payment of compensation, quantified as Rs. 5 lakhs each, to all the affected persons, within three months from today."

"Thousands of children already lost their lives due to the non-availability of proper medical care. The economic backwardness of the area prevents the persons like petitioners from giving proper care to their children on time," the contempt petition said.

The State could not limit disbursement of the amount only to the persons included in the list maintained by it, the petition said.

In January, the Kerala government said it had earmarked over Rs. 180 crore for payment of compensation to victims, some of whom were terminally ill. It had said the Endosulfan rehabilitation scheme, including a multi-specialty hospital, would ideally cost over Rs. 500 crore.

India: With health jeopardised, Child Brides part of 1 in every 6 marriages in state of Karnataka Print E-mail
 Sunday February 10 2019

Though outlawed, child marriage persists in Karnataka

Scroll down to also read "Child brides are exposed to higher health risk" and "Child Marriage: Efforts necessary to empower girls"

By Anitha Pailoor DH News Service, Bengaluru

: Teenage mothers in a village in Bagalkot district. (SHAILAJA)

What is an abortion?" Pallavi, 14, sounded curious. The recently betrothed girl was intently listening to Asha, who was a year older than her. Asha had returned to stay with her parents a year after her marriage as her husband complained that she behaved differently and didn't ‘respond' to his needs. This was after Asha had suffered a miscarriage. There were over 30 adolescent girls in the room, all victims of child marriage. A few of them huddled around Pallavi and engaged in a low-pitched conversation. Within minutes, Pallavi stood up and said in a pleading but firm voice, "I want to continue my education. Please do something to stop my marriage. I don't want to have a child so early. Why do the daughters become a burden for the families once they start to menstruate?"

In Tulasigeri, like in any other village of Bagalkot district, girls generally drop out of school after Class 7, only to enter into marriage. Fourteen is the age when their right to education is curtailed, not just because of the physical changes but also due to the lack of availability and access to high school education. As might be expected, Bagalkot is among the 100 districts in the country with a high incidence of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. According to The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2016, one in every six marriages in the state is child marriage. Most child marriages are followed by teenage pregnancy, depriving the girls of basic education and self-reliant life. The survey also indicates that the average number of adolescent mothers in the 14 districts of the state is more than the national average of 7.9%, with Mysuru topping the list at 17%.


Though its prevalence is high in north Karnataka, particularly in the border districts, child marriage persists in all districts ­ both in rural and urban areas. The practice is mostly found in socially and economically disadvantaged communities in rural areas. Poverty, migration, illiteracy, tradition, family pressure and fear of sexual violence are the major causes of early marriages. In most marriages, the groom is in his early 20s and the parents get him married to ensure that he doesn't ‘get into bad habits'.

Administrative complacency

The situation doesn't seem to have changed even after the state government passed The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act 2016, in 2017, which set a precedent by declaring that all marriages of minors are void. "The reason is simple. The rules have not yet been framed to implement the Act. How can the Act be effective without a framework?" Anand B Lobo, a former member of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told DH.

Let alone the Karnataka Amendment, the implementation of The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA) has not been effective in the state due to the lack of a proactive approach. There are over 55,000 child marriage prohibition officers (CMPOs) appointed by the State government as directed by the PCMA. From Anganwadi supervisors to deputy commissioner and directors of various state departments, these officers at various levels of the administration have the power to approach the court with injunction order to prevent child marriage, to make it void, and to ensure the safe custody of a child. "They are either not aware of their responsibility or see it as a problem or fear the wrath of fellow villagers if they try preventing a marriage," said G N Sinha, director of REACH organisation, the ChildLine nodal agency in Bagalkot.

While the current CMPOs have to be empowered and sensitised towards the issue, women's rights activists feel that child marriage prevention is now everyone's responsibility but no one is doing the job. They believe that having designated officers who are guided by the judiciary will help address the situation. In Karnataka, ChildLine 1098 Services work closely with the Department of Women and Child Development, police and other government departments and get SOS calls to prevent child marriages rregularly. "We get the maximum number of calls from February to May," said G N Kumar and Shailaja from Bagalkot ChildLine Collab agency.

"Everyone knows about child marriages, but there are no proper preventive measures. We get the information at the eleventh hour and coordination becomes difficult. Moreover, stopping a marriage on the wedding day has social and emotional impacts on the families, particularly on the bride. Convincing them at that time becomes difficult. Most of the times, marriage is organised in one place while the girl would have grown up and studied in another place making it difficult to get age certificates from the authorities," said Shailaja.

Vasudeva Sharma, executive director of Child Rights Trust, said, "We don't have the absolute number of child marriages in the State. The only data available is the number of complaints received or the marriages prevented. Sadly, the administration believes that child marriage is a thing of the past." On the contrary social workers say that 90% of child marriages are solemnised clandestinely within months of their prevention. Still, the government is yet to acknowledge the problem.

"Many a time, we need to motivate and convince the CMPOs that they are doing the right thing. Many still believe it is not good to stop a marriage as it is like ruining the lives of two persons and the status of their families," Shailaja said. She also narrated incidents of the rescue team being deceived by changing the marriage scene to that of a religious ceremony, showing a slightly older girl as the bride and by producing a fake age certificate. If nothing works, they intimidate the team.

Poor law enforcement
Mass marriages are the preferred occasions for families to get their minor daughters married. After several campaigns, now there have been strict rules to prevent minors from tying the nuptial knot. The organising committee has to get the documents verified and seek the permission of the tahsildar 15 days before the event. But there are several instances of the organisers breaking the rules. The law specifies that the birth certificate or school certificate is the primary document to verify age. No wonder agencies that create fake certificates thrive in the marriage season.

"The minors who are rescued are accommodated in a suitable shelter for a period of three months. Then the child is given to the custody of parents after they pledge that they won't commit the offence again. Those who don't have parental care remain in these homes," said Kumar. Lack of a proper follow-up system makes child marriage prevention efforts futile as officials and activists have precious little knowledge of what happens to the child after the marriage is called off.

The Act directs punishment to the groom who is above 18, and to whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets such a marriage. "But you can count such cases on the fingers of one hand," said Sharma. In Bagalkot, of the 138 complaints received last year, FIR was not filed even in a single case. No one, even the CMPOs who are designated for this, comes forward to register a complaint. A few cases have been registered in some districts where the officials have shown a high level of conviction. But very few cases reach a conclusive stage and even those that do, take a long time. The recent judgement of JMFC Court Yelburga announcing punishment to the groom and the bride's parents is one such rare instance where justice prevailed, but only after six years.

"The Amendment specifies that the police can suo motu register an FIR, but they never do. In many cases, police stations become a place of settlement or reconciliation. I've been a witness in a couple of cases and we lose hope when the hearings stretch for years," said Susheela, a child rights activist and the director of Spandana organisation in Belagavi. Susheela also narrated how witnesses turn hostile after a few years and the victims are coerced to withdraw the case. The child marriage victims in the State are protected under three landmark Acts: Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 and The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act 2016. But the administration seems to have failed to put them in perspective to ensure a better life for the daughters of the land. They are not commodities, they have every right to live a dignified and secure life. Are we listening?

‘Will to act, commitment to perform make a difference'
By Justice Shivaraj V Patil
As the chairman of the core committee relating to the prevention of child marriages in Karnataka, appointed by the state government as per the direction of the Bench of the High Court of Karnataka, I had conducted 13 consultation meetings in different district places where child marriages were prevalent. While appreciating the government for passing The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016, which was based on the recommendations made in my report, I suggest to the government that law enforcing agencies are to be activated and suitable directions should be given to make honest and committed efforts to implement the law, and Government orders and policies to prevent child marriages. In addition, wherever and whenever offences are committed, cases must be registered, properly investigated, effectively prosecuted and trials to be completed

In this process, if some persons are covicted and punished, it will act as a deterrent. The framing of rules is important and more useful. However, within existing system work can be carried on. The will to act and commitment to perform can make a great difference. There is a need for cooperative, coordinated and collective efforts of ever vigilant civil society, dedicated NGOs, honest and committed law enforcing agencies, proactive judiciary and meaningful and active media, in preventing child marriages.

Basically, there is a need to change the mindset of the people. People should be made to adopt law emotionally and not merely by the letters of the law. Besides creating awareness among the people, there is a need to sensitise field functionaries for the effective implementation of laws relating to the prevention of child marriages.
 Sunday February 10 2019

Child brides are exposed to higher health risks

DH News Service

Mala has a hazy memory of how her life metamorphosed overnight: from a 12-year-old taking good care of her siblings into a bride meeting the needs of a hitherto unknown family. She is the victim of ‘Yaadi me Shaadi', a tradition widely practised in the northern districts of the state. Generally, this marriage is arranged within hours of the prospective groom's family visiting the girl's house.

Many a time, the child bride's parents fail to trace her whereabouts after the marriage. The groom's family prefers such a flash marriage when the boy has a questionable character, divorced or physically challenged. Poverty is the main reason for the girl's parents to consent to such an alliance. "Soon after my brother-in-law's divorce case was settled, we, along with a marriage broker, went straight to Mala's house. Though the idea was to meet the family of the prospective bride, it so happened that the wedding took place the same night," recalled Suma.

Lakki was married off early because her parents feared her safety at home when they migrated to cities for six months every year in search of work. Poverty not only deprived Mala of education but also thrust her into a marriage with a divorced and physically challenged person, who was much older than her.

A couple of years have passed by and now she is the mother of a nine-month-old child. "She found it difficult to adjust. I had to guide her ­ from cooking to understanding a man's needs. Now I help her in taking care of the child, too," Suma spoke for Mala who seemed to have gone into her shell. Suma is not fortunate either. At 25, she has a 12-year-old son, and she underwent uterine fibroid surgery last year.

This is one of a host of health problems that early motherhood poses. The haemoglobin level in 90% pregnant adolescents is as low as 7 to 8 g/dL. Miscarriage, postpartum haemorrhage, stunted child, urinary tract infection, white discharge, menstrual and uterine complications are some other risks child brides face. Depression, mental stress and low confidence level are common psychological problems seen in these girls. Violence and unhealthy sexual behaviour from partners puts these young girls at a greater risk of diseases. Take the instance of Lakki (14). When DH met her in a village near Belagavi, she was leading a herd of goats to a grazing site. This three-month pregnant was clueless about staying healthy and safe during this period. All she knew was that her family wants a child soon. More unsettling details unveiled as we engaged in a conversation: she had to undergo an abortion four months ago after a complicated pregnancy and the doctors had strictly advised the couple to delay pregnancy until the girl becomes an adult. "We didn't discuss this at home because we hardly talk to each other," she revealed. Her spouse is in his early twenties and he doesn't find the need for birth control measures as he feels, "The younger the better."

The visibly malnourished Lakki has been issued a card under the state government's ‘Thayi Bhagya Scheme', where the age column declares she is 20. "We don't have a choice. We can't specify a lesser age as it is against the government's policy. We try our best to educate them on the negative impacts impacts of early pregnancy. But it falls on deaf ears because of the social and family pressure on a girl to deliver a baby within a year of marriage," says an accredited social health activist worker. This is a pointer to show how the administration ensures an ‘all-is-well image'.

Manifestation of violence
A sense of anger and resentment overcomes Priya, 18, in Bagalkot, when she shares how her partner cheated her. "It was over one year into the marriage when I realised that he had another wife. I was made to carry out household chores but was not given the rightful place of a wife. During the period, he had taken around Rs 50,000 from my parents citing several reasons." She lives with her parents now and is trying to get back the money. These girls are in a precarious situation as none of the child marriages is registered.

Halavva, in Bagalkot district, was married when she was in Class 5 under pressure from her paternal uncle who wanted to help his sister save money by marrying her four sons at a single ceremony. "I was married to the youngest, who was a high school student," she said. A girl with rare guts and high educational ambition, she returned home one week after she was sent to her in-laws' house. When the family decided to send her again, she fled home to save herself from a ‘marriage of convenience'. The police rescued her and now she lives with her parents on the condition that she is allowed to continue her education. "What makes them believe that marriage brings happiness to their daughters? We wouldn't even know what a marriage is and they make decisions for us," says Anjum, another victim.

"By the time they realise that their daughters are considered as free labour and experience higher levels of violence after marriage, it will be too late. For most of these women, the prime life ends at 30," rued Latha Lobo, a counsellor at SEVAK, an NGO working with early married girls."Deserted, widowed, indisposed, weak adolescent girls are the manifestation of the evils of child marriage."
 Sunday February 10 2019

Child Marriage: Efforts necessary to empower girls

By Anitha Pailoor

Cycling!' Over 80% of the girls married off young that DH met miss this activity the most. "Whenever I see someone riding a bicycle, I get overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. Even after marriage, I used to cycle around the village every time I went to my mother's place until I conceived," Charita said endearingly. She has completed Class 10 and aspires to be a teacher. "I will have to wait for a few years until my child has grown up, but I am hopeful," she says. In the meantime, she is undergoing skill training to channelise her time and abilities in the right manner. She is one of the 3,000 early married girls in the five districts of the state identified by Initiative for Married Adolescent Girls' Empowerment (IMAGE).

The collaborative project is funded by Terre des Hommes, Netherlands and is being implemented in Bagalkot, Belagavi, Bidar, Chamarajanagara and Chikkaballapur districts. The project aims to empower these girls by addressing health and psycho-social issues, facilitating education and skill development, and educating about the legal provisions. While identifying these girls was easier than expected as the numbers were overwhelming, it took about a year for IMAGE to help them get a sense of self, open up about their problems, understand their strengths and start working towards self-reliance.

Several organisations have been engaged in the prevention of child marriages in the past few decades. Apart from stopping the marriages on the spot, they have also guided and motivated children to prevent child marriages by discussing the issue in the Child Rights Grama Sabhas and encouraging children to inform officials of such marriages. But child marriage prevention doesn't seem to have yielded expected results.

Advocates of child rights
Comprehending the limitations of prevention efforts, IMAGE aims to empower married girls to stand up for themselves and to become advocates of child rights. "First and foremost, the government has to admit that child marriage is still prevalent in the state and plan programmes for the effective implementation of the Act. I can't fathom why the government is under the impression that the practice has stopped. Priority should be to plan supportive programmes to follow the recommendation of the Justice Shivaraj V Patil Committee report based on which the Karnataka Amendment was made," said Vasudeva Sharma. Justice Shivaraj V Patil Committee report delves deep into the problems of this practice and has made practical and futuristic suggestions, which with a proper action plan can go a long way in curbing the practice. Department of Women and Child Development sources said that "the rules are being framed and will be ready shortly." Interestingly, all early married girls know that it is illegal to be married before 18 years and maintain that their age is 18, 20 or 21 years. But they do not know why.

The young girls open up only after they are convinced that their age will not be revealed, that no harm will come their way, and the person visiting them is not from the government. This explains the state's paradoxical sex ratio as recorded by Census of India 2011. The sex ratio drops after the age of 12 years ­ from 948 to 940 (12-15) and 904 (16-18), and sees a steep rise (960) in the age group of 19-22 years.

Some children stop schooling after Class 7, whereas a majority drop out after Class 8. The need to walk a long distance to reach school exposes these kids to various problems. Once the parents get a feeling that their daughter's safety is at risk, they don't allow her to go to school. "Marriage remains the sole option for a drop ," said a high school teacher. Though some of the girls continue schooling after marriage they conceive after a few months and are forced to discontinue.

Holistic approach
The Right to Education Act entitles a child to free and compulsory education from 6 to 14 years. And most of the children drop out soon after that. "Making education compulsory till PUC, and ensuring easy and safe access to schools are the most important steps in curbing child marriage," believe the activists. Various studies have shown that access to education and child marriage are inversely related. Investing in a child's education might be an important step towards ending child marriage. In addition, experts believe that if adolescent girls and boys are empowered with information about the impacts of early marriage on their physical and mental well-being they will be able to influence their parents to make the right decision. "Higher primary school textbooks should have a chapter on this, along with the provisions of PCMA," Susheela told DH. "The entire society has to be educated about this tangled web. It is linked to many other issues, mainly development and education. The problem can be solved only with a holistic approach and when all the stakeholders act conscientiously," said Raghavendra Bhat of UNICEF branch in Koppal.

A less-studied aspect of child marriage is its impact on development outcomes and economic costs. Early marriage also decreases a woman's productivity and limits the ability to reach her potential. A 2017 report by the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank estimates that the budget savings of India from ending early childbirths and child marriage that could be achieved in terms of the cost of reaching universal secondary education by that year will amount to nearly $10 billion in 2030.
London: Pre-eminent medical journal commits to feminist analyses as essential for relevant changes Print E-mail

The Lancet - London ~ Friday February 08, 2019

Advancing women in science, medicine, and global health

Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the fields of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve. The fight for gender equity is everyone's responsibility, and this means that feminism, too, is for everybody - ­for men and women, researchers, clinicians, funders, institutional leaders, and, yes, even for medical journals. - ­ The Lancet

The February 9, theme issue on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health, contains new international evidence on forms of gender bias in funding; women's attrition in clinical training programmes; the extent to which universities worldwide have actualised their public commitments to gender and ethnic diversity; and the relationship between women's leadership in science and the production of sex/gender-related research.

New analysis and commentary establish the importance of feminist and masculinity theories, and problematise organisational strategies for increasing gender diversity in medicine and science. The importance of intersectionality, learning from the Global South, and the under-recognition of women's experience of harassment and abuse are key themes.

Collectively, the theme issue lays out robust evidence to inform an action plan for institutional leaders to confront gender bias, improve diversity and inclusivity, and drive change. Strategies to redress inequalities are not just women's issues­they require the full participation of everyone in deeper explanations and solutions.

Read the special theme issue of The Lancet on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health and read on for the accompanying editorial within

 Volume 393, ISSUE 10171, P493, February 09, 2019

Feminism is for everybody

"To be 'feminist' in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression." Bell Hooks made this clear and powerful statement in her 1981 study of sexism, racism, and the feminist and civil rights movements Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Almost 40 years on, the world is still reckoning with pervasive and inexcusable gender inequality underpinned by bias and sexism, and research and health care are no exception. Today, The Lancet publishes a theme issue on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health, with the aim of showcasing research, commentary, and analysis that provide new explanations and evidence for action towards gender equity. This theme issue is the result of a call for papers that led to over 300 submissions from more than 40 countries. The overwhelming conclusion from this collection of work is that, to achieve meaningful change, actions must be directed at transforming the systems that women work within ­making approaches informed by feminist analyses essential.

It is well established that women are under-represented in positions of power and leadership, undervalued, and experience discrimination and gender-based violence in scientific and health disciplines across the world. Intersectional approaches have provided insights into how other categories of difference such as ethnicity, class, geography, disability, and sexuality interact with gender to compound inequalities. Most submissions to this theme issue came from high-income countries, highlighting the need to support scholarship from the Global South. Geordan Shannon and colleagues provide a global overview of gender inequality in science, medicine, and global health, and discuss the evidence for the substantial health, social, and economic gains that could be achieved by addressing this inequality. Indeed, some studies, including one in this issue by Cassidy Sugimoto and colleagues, show that more diverse and inclusive teams lead to better science and more successful organisations.

Despite decades of recognition, these problems have proved stubbornly persistent. It is now commonplace for organisations to make public statements valuing diversity, hire diversity officers, and implement programmes to advance women's careers. Yet, all too often, such programmes locate the source of the problem, and hence the solution, within women and their own behaviour. Thus, although actions such as mentoring and skills training might be well intentioned and advantageous to a degree, they often fail to engage with broader features of systems that disproportionately privilege men. For instance, Holly Witteman and colleagues show, using data from a federal funder, how gender bias disadvantages women applying for grant funding.

Reflecting on these biases can be difficult for professions like science and medicine that are grounded in beliefs of their own objectivity and evidence-driven thinking. A trio of papers in this issue demonstrates the value of critical perspectives in this regard. Malika Sharma explains how the "historical gendering of medicine prioritises particular types of knowledge (and ways of producing that knowledge), and creates barriers for critical, and specifically feminist, research and practice". Feminist and other critical perspectives enable researchers to question the underlying assumptions that produce and maintain social hierarchies, and in doing so, imagine ways to transform fields and practices to make them more equitable and inclusive. Likewise, Sara Davies and colleagues argue that a feminist research agenda is key to advancing gender equality in global health, and Kopano Ratele and colleagues explain why efforts to engage men in advancing gender equality must be grounded in an appreciation of theories of masculinity.

For actions to have lasting and far-reaching consequences, they must therefore be directed at creating institutional-level change. Several pieces in this theme issue discuss such approaches, with a Review by Imogen Coe and colleagues providing a toolbox of organisational best practices towards gender equality in science and medicine. The Lancet's commitments to addressing gender bias in publishing are detailed in a Comment. Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the fields of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve. The fight for gender equity is everyone's responsibility, and this means that feminism, too, is for everybody ­for men and women, researchers, clinicians, funders, institutional leaders, and, yes, even for medical journals.

For more on Bell Hooks' works see Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics. (London: Pluto Press)

And more on the #LancetWomen initiative HERE

Afghanistan: Women want peace but not at the cost of reinstating the Taliban Print E-mail
 January 28, 2019, Page A1

Afghan Women Fear Peace With Taliban May Mean War on Them

Afghan women lining up to vote in a parliamentary election in Herat Province in October. (Hoshang Hashimi/Agence France-Presse ­ Getty Images)

By Rod Nordland, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed

KABUL, Afghanistan ­ When Rahima Jami heard that the Americans and the Taliban were close to a peace deal, she thought about her feet.

Ms. Jami is now a lawmaker in the Afghan Parliament, but back in 1996, when Taliban insurgents took power, she was a headmistress ­ until she was forced out of her job and told she could leave her home only in an ankle-length burqa.

One hot day at the market, her feet were showing, so the religious police beat them with a horse whip until she could barely stand.

Horror stories at the hands of enforcers from the Taliban's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are a staple for any educated Afghan woman over age 25 or so. Now those women have a new horror story: the possibility that American troops will leave Afghanistan as part of a peace deal with the Taliban.

Six days of talks ended Saturday with a promise they would soon resume, bringing the parties closer to a deal than at any time in the 17 years since the Taliban were ousted from power. The mere possibility of concrete progress on peace inspired a wave of enthusiasm and hope among many Afghans on all sides that four decades of nearly continuous war could actually end.

Among many women, though, the hopes raised by a possible end to the fighting are mixed with an undeniable feeling of dread.

"We don't want a peace that will make the situation worse for women's rights compared to now," Robina Hamdard, head of the legal department for the Afghan Women's Network, said. The organization is a foreign-funded coalition of prominent women's organizations.

No one needs to sell Afghan women on the need to bring an end to the bloodshed. They have buried far too many husbands and sons and brothers. But they fear that a peace that empowers the Taliban may herald a new war on women, and they want negotiators not to forget them.

"Afghan women want peace too," Ms. Jami said. "But not at any cost."

When she thinks of that time she was beaten, she said, "I remember it and I actually feel faint."

And like many women, Ms. Jami is convinced that any peace deal that gives the Taliban a share of power will come at the expense of freedom for Afghan women. "Come that time, they will complete their incomplete dreams and they will be crueler than in the past," Ms. Jami said.

 Afghan women praying at a shrine where s female islamic scholar was beaten to death in 2015. (Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Compounding that concern is a fear among women that they have been sidelined in the peace process, and that when Afghans finally sit down at a peace table together, there will be no women present.

"We don't want to be the victims of the peace process with the Taliban," said Laila Haidari, a businesswoman who also works with drug addicts.

Ms. Haidari's work would not have been allowed under the Taliban regime, when she lived in exile in Iran. "But the Afghan government totally ignores Afghan women on the peace process," she said.

Shukria Paykan, another woman member of Parliament, recalls spending the Taliban years "forced to be inside a dark cage when out of our houses ­ I mean the burqa."

Ms. Paykan was forced from her university professorship and her daughter's school was closed, like all girls' schools under the Taliban. She opened a clandestine school at home, pretending to teach girls the Quran and dressmaking, among the only subjects allowed for them. The only women allowed to work then were doctors, and even they had to have a close male relative as a chaperone at work.

Ms. Paykan, who is from Kundiz, said she felt shut out of the Afghan peace process.

"I have been an M.P. twice and a university professor, but no one has ever asked me about peace talks with the Taliban, or even told me that my rights will be secure," she said. "We have had 40 years of war and everybody is tired of fighting, but that peace should not be at the price of losing our rights and freedom as women."

It is still early days in this stage of the peace process, and last week's talks in Doha, Qatar, did not include any Afghan government officials, men or women.

American officials hope to persuade the Taliban at a later stage to sit down with Afghan officials, which they have so far refused to do, and issues like the Constitution, which guarantees women's rights, would be on the table then.

Some women in government expressed satisfaction that talks had at least begun.

"Women need to raise their voices so they are not forgotten," said Habiba Sarabi, the deputy of the High Peace Council in Kabul, and one of 15 women on the 75-member council, which is appointed by the government. "Without women it will be a broken peace. But we are optimistic about the peace talks."

Saira Sharif, an Afghan poet and politician from Khost, said that previous efforts at talks between the government and the Taliban had excluded women.

"The Afghan government has assured women many times that women's rights will not be affected negatively after a peace deal with the Taliban," she said, "but women were not involved in the previous talks with the Taliban, and we need a place in future ones. We came a long way to achieve the rights we have now, just to lose them after a peace deal."

Members of the women's soccer team training in Kabul in 2016.(Adam Ferguson for The New York Times)

Everyone involved in peace negotiations agrees that the war could end only with a power-sharing deal. That might mean sharing government ministries or territory around the country, or some combination of the two. It might even mean Taliban officials standing for national office ­ and possibly winning.

"We want the Taliban to accept women's rights and publish a statement where they guarantee women's rights," said Ms. Paykan. So far, though, no one is even talking about that, she said.

Her drug rehabilitation center was closed down, too, amid unfounded accusations that it was a front for prostitution. "It is a democratic government, but still women face many problems in this country," Ms. Haidari said.

Qadria Azarnoosh is a Hazara dancer, whose traditional art has been suppressed by cultural conservatives in recent years ­ or as she puts it, by "Taliban mentality people who are not Taliban members."

Last week she and a group of female friends staged a public performance of the colorful dance, knowing many of their parents would disapprove and possibly confine them to their homes afterward. That same day came news of the peace talks in Doha

Video: Afghan female traditional dancers in Kabul last week. (Credit 1TV with permission)

"When we heard that U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan in 18 months, we girls were asking each other, ‘Now what will become of us?'" Ms. Azarnoosh said. "People already think we are bad girls for dancing. What will happen to us if the Taliban become part of the government?"

Follow Rod Nordland, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed on Twitter: @rodnordland, @FatmaFaizi and @fahimabed

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.
UK: In absence of political will to ban, cruel practice of Breast Ironing girl's chests continues Print E-mail

 Saturday January 26, 2019

Revealed: 'dozens' of girls subjected to breast-ironing in UK

Perpetrators consider it a traditional measure to stop unwanted male attention

By Inna Lazareva

: A stone used for breast-ironing is placed on a fire. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

An African practice of "ironing" a girl's chest with a hot stone to delay breast formation is spreading in the UK, with anecdotal evidence of dozens of recent cases, a Guardian investigation has established.

Community workers in London, Yorkshire, Essex and the West Midlands have told the Guardian of cases in which pre-teen girls from the diaspora of several African countries are subjected to the painful, abusive and ultimately futile practice.

Margaret Nyuydzewira, head of the diaspora group the Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (Cawogido), estimated that at least 1,000 women and girls in the UK had been subjected to the intervention. There has been no systematic study or formal data collection exercise.

: Margaret Nyuydzewira, who herself was subjected to the practice of breast-ironing as a young woman. (Inna Lazareva)

Another community activist, who did not wish to be named, said she was aware of 15-20 recent cases in Croydon alone.

"It's usually done in the UK, not abroad like female genital mutilation (FGM)," she said, describing a practice whereby mothers, aunties or grandmothers use a hot stone to massage across the breast repeatedly in order to "break the tissue" and slow its growth.

"Sometimes they do it once a week, or once every two weeks, depending on how it comes back," she added.

The perpetrators, usually mothers, consider it a traditional measure which protects girls from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment and rape. Medical experts and victims regard it as child abuse which could lead to physical and psychological scars, infections, inability to breastfeed, deformities and breast cancer.

The United Nations describes it as one of five global under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.

One woman living in the suburbs of an English city told the Guardian how she went about ironing her daughter's chest at the first sign of puberty.

"I took the stone, I warmed it, and then I started massaging [my daughter's chest]," she said. "And the stone was a little bit hot. When I started massaging, she said: ‘Mummy, it's hot!'" The child developed bruising and the mother was eventually questioned by police, before being released with a caution.

British-Somali anti-FGM campaigner and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein said she has spoken to five women in her north London clinic who had been victims of breast-ironing.

"They were all British women, all British citizens," Hussein said. One of the women said she became flat-chested as a result of the practice, said Hussein. "She kept saying: ‘I have a boy's chest.' But no one has ever questioned her about it. No one had physically checked her. This was in north London, just down the road," said Hussein.

"I was a nurse in the UK for over 10 years and watched the numbers grow," said Jennifer Miraj, who worked in hospitals in Essex, Glasgow, Birmingham and London until 2015. Miraj said she came across confirmed cases of breast-ironing in approximately 15 adults and eight girls.

"I took care of a young 10-year-old girl who had an infection, which had been going on for a few years from ironing," she said, describing a case from Broomfield hospital in Essex.

Mary Claire, a church minister in Wolverhampton, said she had spoken to four victims in Leeds, originally from west Africa. "You could see the marks," she said.

Police say they have fielded no allegations about breast-ironing in the UK, but suspect it is happening.

"If I knew it was happening, I would do something about it," said the Insp Allen Davis from the Met police.

"Prosecutions are really important," he added. "People have to recognise these practices for what they are -child abuse."

A recent London borough of Brent mental health report mentioned that voluntary sector organisations working across the African diaspora felt that breast-ironing was "an emerging issue" which "was not receiving enough attention".

"It is surprising to me that the police and other authorities are not allocating even the resources clearly needed to deal with this horrific phenomenon," said Alex Carlile, one of UK's leading QCs, who is a former deputy high court judge and a member of the House of Lords.

"Surely it's high time for the police and prosecuting authorities to address and tackle the issue in a robust manner, sensitive to the personal issues that arise for young victims and their communities."

"It's not only an issue of funding, it is also an issue of political will to tackle something that historically has been accepted as a cultural practice," said Conservative MP Maria Miller, who also chairs the women's and equalities select committee in parliament.

"I think public service providers have to start being more honest and realistic about some of the things they are encountering, and to have the support to challenge what are abusive and barbaric practices, particularly aimed against children," she added.

The government has said it is "absolutely committed" to stamping out the practice. But activists and social workers say that little has been done thus far.

"Nothing came out of this -nothing!" said campaigner Geraldine Yenwo of Cawogido. "We talk about early marriage and violence against women and girls but no one ever mentions breast-ironing," she added.

Nyuydzewira, who was herself subjected to the abuse as a girl, said British authorities were not taking the problem seriously, and have not prosecuted those doing breast-ironing on their children on grounds of it being seen as a "cultural practice".

"The British people are so polite in the sense that when they see something like that, they think of cultural sensitivities," she said. "But if it's a cultural practice that is harming children ... any harm that is done to a little girl, whether in public or in secrecy, that person should be held accountable."
 Saturday January 26, 2019

Breast-ironing: ‘the whole community needs an education'

Practice that aims to slow girls' physical development is both ineffective and dangerous, say doctors

By Inna Lazareva

: Doctors say the practice of breast-ironing does little to delay physical development. (Inna Lazareva)

In a quiet suburban house on the outskirts of a city in northern England, Maureen* -a mother of two in her late 30s -sits cradling a large dark stone in the palm of her hand.

She had just been using it to crush spices for a family meal. But a few years ago, she was using it for a very different purpose.

She heated the stone and then pressed against the chest of her eight-year-old daughter. She stopped only when her daughter cried out in pain and the heat from the stone had left a bruise on the child's body.

"When they [police] asked me why I did it, I said to them: it's a tradition," Maureen explains, recalling her interrogation as bewildered social workers googled "breast-ironing" on the internet.

The practice is aimed at slowing physical maturity in girls to spare them the unwanted attention and predation of young men while they are still minors. But doctors say it does little to delay breast development, and threatens all kinds of physical and psychological harm.

The intervention is not confined to this city. A Guardian investigation heard anecdotal evidence of dozens of cases in London, Leeds, Essex and Wolverhampton.

Yet British authorities, social workers and some NGOs appear to be unaware or in denial that the practice exists in the UK and are not taking a proactive approach to find or even keep track of the cases.

Police say the obvious problem is that children are unlikely to report their parents, and few other people will ever get to know it is going on

: A parent in Cameroon heats a stone to iron the breasts of her daughters. (Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

"What we wouldn't expect is a victim to necessarily walk into a police station and report what is happening to them," says Allen Davis, the Metropolitan police's lead on illegal culture practice. "If people were to tell us where it's happening, when, to whom and by whom -then we will do something about it."

"Like FGM, cultural practices that harm children or adults are complex issues to solve," says Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley. "However, we must do all we can to educate communities against the practices and seek to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims."

Maureen says that having had her own breast ironed when she was a child in Cameroon, she became convinced this would help her protect her own daughter from harm, especially when she noticed her beginning to develop.

"The area where we were living -it wasn't a good area," she says, describing youth gangs walking the streets, fighting and peddling cannabis. "I couldn't let her play outside.

"When you saw her, you couldn't see the baby in her -you just saw a teenager. So for me it was really a nightmare."

Maureen called her mother in Cameroon, who guided her through the process.

"Some women say that they do [it] because these girls ... are prone to rape," says Mary*, a local community activist in south London.

"We have chat groups most weeks and women have talked about breast-ironing," says Karyne Tazi, the executive director of the Women & Families Resource Centre in Wolverhampton, who works to educate women on the risks of the practice.

"You're thinking about it like a vaccine: ‘It's painful but it helps,'" says Tazi, adding that the practice has serious physical, psychological and overall health effects that many people are simply not aware about.

Jennifer Miraj, a nurse, recalls seeing dozens of cases of women and girls who had been breast-ironed while she worked in hospitals around the UK.

She says she saw "women who couldn't breastfeed and had long-term issues with cysts and infections from the milk ducts not being able to express the little milk they were producing".

She says many women had "painful red infections and no opportunity to bond [with the baby] by breastfeeding", and that it was common for women who had been breast-ironed to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cathy Aba Fouda, who was subjected to breast-ironing in Cameroon, where the practice is thought to originate, also says that there have been cases of women who had been breast-ironed developing breast cancer.

"We lost a young woman only last month who had been breast-ironed as a girl and died from breast cancer, aged just 24," says Fouda. "I don't know why no one has done a study on the link between the two."

Psychological problems are also very common following breast-ironing and can last for years, according to Fouda. "When I had a baby, all the trauma came flooding back," she says, explaining that whenever the child reached for her chest, she felt panic like someone was about to hurt her.

Yet some UK-based community activists appear to be unaware of the risks.

"I haven't seen any research which said that breast-ironing is bad," says Mary, adding that some women say it improves the mother-daughter bond. "Up to now I haven't heard that it's related to cancer."

"The only thing is that the nipple sort of goes into inverse, and it makes it very difficult if you have to breastfeed."

"FGM, breast-ironing - it fundamentally comes back to the control over women's bodies," says the anti-FGM activist Leyla Hussein, who also provides therapy to breast-ironing survivors.

"The whole community needs an education," says Mary Stella in Wolverhampton. "Because we are coming from a background where we think it's OK."

Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for north-west England, says that introducing a specific law against breast-ironing could help, citing a similar experience with the criminalisation of forced marriage. "Sometimes you need to change a law to send out a message," he says.

But others believe this would spell disaster and would push the practice even further underground. "Look at FGM: from 1985 till now they are still looking for somebody to prosecute -is that not ridiculous?" says Mary.

"Going around in a sympathetic way saying: ‘Do you know anyone undergoing this?' so that they can latch on to that child like a tonne of bricks -that's not support, is it?"

Tazi says interventions need to be subtle. "More organisations need to have the resources and opportunities to get these communities to talk. Because if they don't talk, it will always be an underground crime ... But the more people talk about it, the more we'll find solutions.

"When we first started, you hold a chat group on breast-ironing and labia pulling and no one would turn up. But they've seen us: we're there, we're constant, we try to work with them around it, not criminalise them. And they're now more open to talking," says Tazi.

In Maureen's case, her daughter was held by social services for 10 days before being released back to her family. Maureen faced no criminal charges, only a police caution.

"A social worker would come around once a week for one or two months, that's all. After then, they just dropped the case," she says. Maureen moved her daughter to another school.

"If I knew the laws of this country, I should've kept my daughter at home for three days [instead of sending her to school]," she says, slapping her hands together in frustration.

"Until that bruise just went away. They [would] never have known."

* Name changed

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