On November 12, three days before Cyclone Gaja hit Thanjavur district, 12-year-old Vijaya of Anaikkadu village got her first period. And despite multiple warnings from the Indian Meteorological department regarding the severity of the cyclone and the need to stay within safe quarters through the course of the landfall, the Class 7 student was sent out to sleep in a thatched barn behind her house as she was menstruating. And when Gaja struck, a coconut tree uprooted by the winds fell on the thatched room, eventually leading to the young girl's death.
Her mother who was sleeping with her in the room was injured and has been admitted to the Pattukottai government hospital.
Pattukottai DSP Ganesamoorthy told TNM that the girl was asked to stay outside the house because of an archaic tradition followed by people when a girl attains puberty.
“This is some tradition in this side of the state. When a girl comes of age, the family asks her to stay separately in a thatched hut for at least a week. She is asked to come inside the house only after the rituals are done on completion of a certain number of days. It varies from community to community. That is what happened with this girl,” he said.
According to reports, the hut that she stayed in was a barn till Vijaya was made to shift there, after attaining puberty. Cows and goats were tied outside the barn and she was expected to stay there in isolation for 16 days.
Kavya Menon, Head for Project safe active periods, AWARE India says that Vijaya's death is a result of systemic violence against women by a community as a whole.
"It is common practice for women in villages to move into a different room and to be isolated when they are menstruating. But this is not spoken about freely," says Kavya. "Girls who are left alone are more vulnerable. The whole community is responsible for this death and it cannot be pinned on the Gaja cyclone. Her death is a result of societal violence against women," she adds.
Cyclone Gaja, which made landfall near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam on November 16, has claimed 45 lives across the state, according to a statement released by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister on Sunday.
(With inputs from Megha Kaveri)