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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.

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.

Sister Femily has implemented the same self-help model in other places and in other contexts. In Marayoor, next to her convent, groups of schoolgirls study nightly around the shared light of a solar lamp. At these self-help study groups, initiated by Sister Femily, the girls aid each other with homework and encourage each other to study — an expression of academic support often absent at home.

Such interventions targeting the state’s at-risk children have a goal beyond immediate protection and assistance; in the longer term, they aim to break the cycles of addiction and abuse that have plagued the state for decades.

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