Hastings is in central Kolkata and one of the city’s major thoroughfares. It consists of a complex network of interlaced roads and flyovers under which squatter communities live. The people who are forced to live in this location are the poorest lowest caste Dalits. The community comprises about 2,500 people (500 families). They live a precarious existence in makeshift shelters constructed of scrap materials. They struggle to find employment, to access government services due to their marginal existence, and lack of status. Alcohol and drug addiction is a serious problem among men and children.
The children, often orphans or abandoned children, are particularly vulnerable. A lack of municipal schools in the area means that most older children have no formal education. Some work as rag-pickers, others as child labourers or house workers. Sanitation is none existent and men commonly urinate near where women cook.
We came across 13 year old Anika, her mother and sisters living under the Hastings flyover complexity, late one night in March 2017. Like Anna she has a learning disability and an innocent smile. There was no husband or male presence. It was obvious, and a concern to us, that Anika was a very vulnerable young girl.
When we returned in November 2017 we recognised her eldest sister, her mother was away working as a cleaner, but there was no sign of Anika. The neighbours gathered around us so we pointed to a photograph and said “Do you know where she is?” “She’s there”. We were shocked, she’d changed so much. Was she simply older? Anika was a happy, shy, and healthy child six months ago. Standing before us was a gaunt, sad, nervous, young girl.
We will never know what happened. Slowly we began to put together bits of her story. Kaushik noticed bangles on her wrist and asked the neighbours if she was married. “Yes, she married last October to a man in his 20s who’s a local casual labourer” and went on to explain “She would wonder off when her mother was away so she was married off to keep her safe. . . an extra pair of eyes to take care of her . . . . more protection than before.”
Later we bumped into Anika’s mother returning from work. She offered a different perspective on what had happened: “She (Anika) would have shamed us all . . . . caught having sex . . . lost her virginity and may be pregnant . . . . she had to marry the man for her own protection . . . the man was forced to agree to marry her.” Being a single Dalit mother with three daughters and no ‘voice’, in a country where sons are prized and daughters all too often considered burdensome, life was tough.
We assume a man in his 20s, who lived in the Hastings community, had had sex with Anika, a 13 year old girl with a significant learning disability. Of course this is illegal in India, but because of the family’s low caste status and limited influence, nothing happened. The Hastings community imposed their own solution. They coerced the man into marrying Anika, a minor, and therefore by law not able to marry. Anika was forced to marry the man who had sexually abused her. The man was required to offer support to Anika who was able to remain living with her mother. Their’s was a marriage recognised by a small cluster of people living under the flyovers, not by wider society. Child marriage has been problem in India for a long time. The country has the highest number of child brides in the world. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act states that a girl in India can’t marry before the age of 18, and a boy before 21, but according to UNICEF, 47% of girls are married by 18 years of age, and 18% are married by 15 years of age.
There is no doubt that Anika’s life will shorter and more difficult than ‘non-disabled’ peoples in India, because of her congenital disability. Although not of the same magnitude, people with disabilities in the UK are similarly affected. It is estimated there are 1,200 avoidable deaths a year in the UK of people with a learning disability. A major study in Europe has shown that people with autism and learning disability die 30 years younger than the general population. Figures from National Health Service Digital UK showed that females with a learning disability had an 18-year lower life expectancy than the general population, while males with a learning disability had a 14-year lower life expectancy. In addition, people with learning disabilities were 26 times more likely to have epilepsy, 8 times more likely to have severe mental illness and 5 times more likely to have dementia. They were also 3 times more likely to suffer with hypothyroidism and almost twice as likely to suffer diabetes, heart failure, chronic kidney disease or stroke.
In real life, marginalised people are often valued less. Hence, disabled people are perceived as broken and flawed by default resulting in multiple kinds of damaging attitudes and policies. In a myriad of ways disabled people are told their lives have less value.
Life is hard if you are disabled in the UK. It’s harder being disabled in India.
Update: May 2018
Life has many unexpected twists and turns for people with disabilities living in abject poverty in Kolkata. We had hoped that Anika would attend a Day Care Centre one or two days a week, run by The Hope Foundation but her mother said “No, I want her here.” Then news filtered through to us that 14 year old Anika had been taken away by her husband to his village outside of Kolkata. The thought of her living away from her mother and sisters, away from the Hastings Flyover community, at the mercy of the man who had abused her, filled us with dread. We visited the Flyover to ask her mother about Anika’s welfare and to offer support. To our surprise Anika was there – she had left her husband’s village and her husband (he had abandoned her) and returned to her family. They all beamed with happiness. Anna, who had been deeply upset at what had happened. She saw herself in Anika and internalised the pain she must have been experiencing. Anna was overjoyed to see the special ‘I’m happy’ smile on Anika’s face again. Hopefully, Anika’s life will be more stable in future and she will be able to enjoy time with her mother and sisters.