From ONE Magazine

Breaking the Cycle

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 rushes through them, the streets begin to glitter with the reflected light of myriad small, mirror-like flags.

But on the street below the sparkling bunting, things are not so bright. 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 quit school young and likewise struggle to find work.

John’s father, in the grip of alcoholism, would drink all his income, 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 like 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.

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.

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.

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.

“Alcohol is at the root of at least 50 percent of all the cases we get before us,” says P.G. Gopalkrishnan Nair, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee (C.W.C.) office for Kerala’s Idukki district. The C.W.C. is a state-run office that intervenes and ensures the protection of children at risk. Gopalkrishnan Nair’s office has a caseload of about 600 per year, a figure on the rise, he says.

Sitting at his desk in the small C.W.C. office located in the iconic Civil Station government building in Thodupuzha, the largest town in Idukki district, Mr. Gopalkrishnan Nair discusses cases and procedures with another member of the committee, Sister Melvy of the Sisters of the Destitute. Above them, an old ceiling fan spins with a creak and a wobble. Now and again, administrative clerks silently appear and disappear with letters to sign and documents to review.

While alcohol abuse may be the largest factor endangering the welfare of children in Kerala, it is not their only source of strife.

Children of migrant workers are particularly vulnerable. Their parents come from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu to the east, or from poorer northern Indian states, to work as pickers on the expansive tea and coffee growing estates of Kerala. Until about five years ago, this migrant population was typically made up of men arriving solo. But in recent years, they have begun to bring their wives and families to work alongside them.

The children of these migrant families live in substandard housing on the estates, Mr. Gopalkrishnan Nair says, and they are being either exposed to exploitative child labor practices or left unsupervised all day.

The C.W.C. official says a culture shift is also responsible for much of their caseload — for years, Kerala has been moving away from a traditional, patriarchal, collective mode of living toward a society where the nuclear family, women’s careers and latchkey children are more and more prominent.

Yet the environmental risks associated with alcoholism command special attention. Children are often witness or subject to addiction, domestic abuse, depleted resources and family separation. Under the financial and moral strain of addiction, fathers often seek ways to lighten their family burden, resulting in underage marriage or the surrender of children to government social services. In many cases, children replicate the behaviors they are exposed to when they themselves become adults, leading to self-perpetuating cycles of addiction and abuse.

“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.”

Beyond the C.W.C. lies a constellation of organizations positioned to catch Kerala’s children if they fall. Services include a dedicated 24/7 helpline, public dormitories, children’s homes and self-empowerment groups.

One of the easiest ways for a child — or an adult concerned for a child — to get help is to call the national toll-free number: 1098. This directs the caller to ChildLine, a state-funded national service that is implemented locally through NGO partners.

“The main issue we get calls about is sexual abuse,” says Jose Scaria, the ChildLine district coordinator for Idukki, where the service has four offices that collectively field 1,200 calls a month.

“The second most common problem people call with is physical abuse and then child marriage, child begging and missing children.”

In the ChildLine office in Thodupuzha, Mr. Scaria and four coworkers gather at a table to discuss strategy and response. Call volume grows at a rate of 20 to 25 percent a year — not necessarily reflecting a growth of problems on the ground, he says, as much as an increasing willingness of women and children to speak up.

In terms of residential care, the government runs 25 dormitories that offer children and youth from remote or abusive home environments space to live and complete school.

The lion’s share of residential care consists of a network of 1,107 residential schools for children run by NGOs and church groups, a number that has been growing steadily over the past four decades, partly due to education initiatives led by the Catholic Church.

“It is sad for us sisters to see the moment of separation when the children come here to study,” says Daughter of Mary Sister Mary Abraham, 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.

Adivasi tend to emphasize manual labor and subsistence, leading to poor school attendance rates.

“Every morning before I start class, I go to each house in the village that has a child in school and coax that child to come to school with me,” says Marie Kutty Magalasseril, 38, the primary school teacher in the remote village of Vallakkallu, some 15 miles away from Marayoor by cross-country trek.

“If I don’t do that, many of these children just won’t show up in class.”

Ms. Magalasseril uses other strategies to increase attendance, including offering sweets as a reward at the end of class and promising to play games during class time.

In addition to cultural apathy toward formal education, schools in tribal villages face severe resource limitations. Ms. Magalasseril is the only teacher in the school, for example, and the children have neither desks nor seats; class takes place with everyone seated on the floor. The school in the village provides education only up to age 9 and the nearest school available to older students lies 20 miles away. To access it, students are obliged to move, either to government-run residences or to a children’s home such as St. Joseph’s.

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.

Underpinning this work is a belief in the “snowball effect” — that each child educated represents a future parent who believes in education; that each child spared the experience of parental alcoholism and domestic abuse will not grow up to abuse alcohol or women; that each empowered mother will lead to an empowered daughter; and that through this process of gradual, incremental improvement, Kerala will slowly leave behind those societal dysfunctions of which children are the ultimate victims.

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.”

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.