Saving Kerlala’s Families

Untitled 1Children in need
The streets of the town of Marayoor, in the east of the Indian state of Kerala, are festooned with bright silver bunting
to mark the feast of St. Sebastian. When a soft breeze rushers through them, the streets glitter with the reflected light of myriad small, mirror-like flags.

But on the street below the sparkling bunting, things are not so right. Day laborer John, 28, who dropped out of school at an early age, faces another day with no work and nothing to do.

"I quit school when I was 15 to take care of my family." says John, as his two friends, Selvam and Anad, look on. They also dropped out of school young and likewise struggle to find work.

Alcoholism, Therapy and the Family

John's father, in the grip of alcoholism, would drink all his income, his leaving John, his mother and his siblings next to destitute. So John, the eldest, took on the role of breadwinner. He left school to take work in the fields. “I find things very hard now because of having left school early,” he says, “I could have studied longer and I would have a much better life now.”

Towns and villages all across Kerala feature displays of shimmering bunting for about ten days each January. But listless boys such as John, Selvam and Anad, however, remain a feature across Kerala every day.

Alcoholism strongly afflicts Kerala, reputed to be the heaviest drinking of India’s 29 states. A 2007 report by the Alcohol and Drug Information Center (ADIC)-India, estimated Kerala's consumption at more than two gallons of pure alcohol per person per year. Other studies suggest rising consumption rates since then – part of a broader trend spanning several decades.

Government Attempts

In the last ten years, Kerala's government has made a number of attempts to combat alcoholism – including, in 2014, announcing phased prohibitionary measures, restricting alcohol sales in hotels and limiting liquor license renewals, resulting in the closure of hundreds of bars and liquor distributors. The effects have been inconclusive, and recent election results have likely signaled a shift away from such heavy-handed measures.

Untitled 2Sisters greet a family coming for counselling
Primary knock-on effects of alcoholism – domestic violence, marital crisis and the premature deaths of men – are clearly detrimental to children. But secondary consequences, such as the squandering of family income and the perpetuation of negative behaviors, also disrupt the lives of Keralite youth and obstruct them from reaching their full potential.

The Church Steps in to Help

With no easy answers in sight, it has fallen to the church and its institutions to seek solutions for a problem that seems only to be growing worse…

"It's a spiritual crisis we have here," says Sister Melvy between administrative tasks with Mr. Gopalkrishnan Nair at the C.W.C. "It's all speed, busy schedules, separations, nuclear families earning money but with no life satisfaction. Mobiles, emails and networks are all omnipresent, but there is no real communication at the end of the day. A spiritual vacuum is emerging and it should be filled by some more important power; some say Jesus Christ, some say Allah, some say Krishna." …

"It is sad for us sisters to see the moment of separation when the children come here to study," says Sister Mary Abraham, a Daughter of Mary who administers St. Joseph's Home for Children in Pallanad, about 30 minutes from Marayoor. It houses 125 girls and boys ages 6 to 9. "However, within a few weeks, we see the children settle and really excel in their newfound stability."

"My parents sent me here because my village has no school – only a nursery," says 9-year-old Satheesh Panbiraj, who has attended St. Joseph's for three years. Satheesh, born in the village of Tamalakuri, is one of the many children at St. Joseph's belonging to Adivasi (or tribal) communities that enjoy special protection from the government of India. People from 35 recognized tribes make up 5 percent of the population of Kerala. They live on reservations designed to protect their unique cultures from destruction through exposure to the surrounding dominant culture…

Untitled 3Young students listen well
The alcohol problems facing Kerala – including the attendant domestic issues – are even more acute among tribal people, for whom the production and consumption of alcohol has been a longstanding part of their cultural tradition. Limited access compounds the challenge for those wishing to help Adivasi children. Many communities are geographically isolated and all are insular to varying degrees, suspicious of outsider contact.

Improving the Lives of the Poor through Faith and Education

For Sister Femily Jose of the Sisters of the Destitute in Marayoor, it took three years to establish contact and trust with the tribal people in some 18 villages before she could create self-help groups there.

"I gathered women in ten-day seminars where they learn to do things that can help them improve their lives," says Sister Femily. "They learn how to make ornaments, chains, bracelets, candles, soap and how to make clothes."
Through her work, Sister Femily has found that a potent way to help children is to help their mothers. Empowering women leads to better protection of their children and directly increases the chances that those children will lead better lives.

At a self-help group meeting at the Cheruvadu village's community hall, about a 15-minute drive from Marayoor, Sister Femily discusses microcredit with a group of 20 or so women. The majority of men in the community have drinking problems, Sister Femily says, and so women have started to do what they can to improve their family's lot.

After completing a three-month tailoring course with Sister Femily, Balamani Thankapan, 40, borrowed 10,000 rupees (about $150) on microcredit from the self-help group to buy a manual sewing machine.

"I buy material and make clothes for me and my boy, Jayatheesh, who is 13," she says. Soon, she began making clothes for others and before long Mrs. Thankapan was doing a brisk trade in shirts, earning $1.50 in profit on each shirt sold. Her earnings proved sufficient to underwrite a new, comparably sized loan to open a shop.

This has provided Mrs. Thankapan with crucial economic independence; her husband, an alcoholic, routinely drank away the family's income, leaving his wife and son with little on which to survive and subjecting them to physical abuse in times of stress. Mrs. Thankapan now earns 1,000 rupees ($15) a month thanks to profit from her store, shirt business and sewing classes she gives. With that money, she is able to feed her son properly and send him to school…

Mrs. Thankapan is one of those empowered mothers – and she sees her young son finally facing a future far better than she could have once imagined. "My son is now studying at St. Mary's School, run by the sisters," she says with a broad smile. "After he finishes there, I want him to do a three-year degree in university, and then he could get a job as a policeman."
Untitled 4Adults studying day and might

(Reprinted with permission from CNEWA, One magazine, March 2017, pgs.6-11)

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