Women of this community in Karnataka are sent away from the home when menstruatingA make-shift hut in Satturu village in Davangere district where menstruating Kaadu Golla women remain in for the duration of their period
news Menstruation Thursday, November 06, 2014 - 05:30

Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | November 1, 2014 | 4.04 pm IST

“Imagine a hatti with around 50 houses. They are located in the plains and are surrounded by fields. Girls would just have to be outside, away from the houses and the fields. They could wash if there was water nearby, but they are allowed to come home only after the period ended.”

This is how a Kaadu Golla woman describes what three, four or five days a month are a like for a menstruating girl of her community.

The Kaadu Gollas are a semi-nomadic community of shepherds. They spend around six months in their villages during the monsoons, and live as nomads for the rest of the year, grazing animals. During menstruation, girls and women are simply sent out of the house, or made to spend their days in a hut or one-room building.

“I have been through that hell,” Dr. Prema G K says, describing what it was like for her as a young girl. As she said this, her voice had just a hint of unsteadiness, as if it was painful to talk about it. She said that a young aunt of hers had died of a scorpion bite when she had been sent out while menstruating. Girls have only recently begun using cloth, awareness of sanitary naps is almost non-existent, she says. The use of huts where women can go too is, a recent development.

A one-room structure in Satturu village in Davangere district where menstruating Kaadu Golla women remain in for the duration of their period.

Over the last few days Kannada channels and newspapers have been carrying news reports about the menstrual customs practiced by the community. This possibly the first time in recent memory that the community has received so much sustained media attention, and by extension, attention by the rest of the Kannada-speaking world. Kannada daily Prajavani had carried a report in March about a hatti (settlement) in Chitradurga district which had stopped this practice. All because of one woman who wanted the custom to end. Dr. Prema is one of the few members of the community who have managed to get an education and has a Ph.D. on the portrayal of woman in the literature and culture of Kaadu Golla tribe.

Dr Prema is a Kannada lecturer in a college in Shimoga town.

She says that she rebelled furiously against the custom as a teenager and even threatened to come home, but her mother would not budge. It was only later when she went outside her village to study that she tried a different tactic to convince her family and others to give it up. Today, her hatti’s girls and women are not sent outside the house. It took 10 years of sustained efforts to convince first her mother, then her younger sister and then the whole hatti that no catastrophe would befall anybody by giving it up.

Most people feel that the custom originated because of the physical circumstances of the community’s way of living. Director of the Chitradurga District Yadavara Sangha Kunikere Ramanna says: “Our houses are 5x6 feet. It was necessary back then, but it got mixed up with religion and superstition. Even today, we don’t have big houses. No one among us is rich. It might have been necessary then, but it has to go now.”

Dr Prema says that the system was originally meant for the purpose of hygiene, for the convenience of everybody else in the family. “Over time, it became rigid. There are references to this practice in the Yatthappa Junjappa folk epic, which is like a Constitution for our community. He is a cultural icon, and people believe that if we don’t follow our customs some tragedy will befall us,” she says.

A Kaadu Golla woman in Satturu village in Davangere district being served water during her period.

The Kaadu Golla community is a highly isolated society, she says because of their patterns of migration, their “innocence”, and a slight “fear of the ways of the outside world”. They associate very little with people of the other communities, she explains. 

There isn’t even a reliable estimate of the total population of the community she says, although it may number around 15 lakh together with the Ooru Golla community (Ooru is village in Kannada, and this community has few differences with the Kaadu Golla community. Kaadu means forest). According Dr Prema, the first Ph.D. on the community by Thi.Nam. Shankaranarayana of Shimoga was done in 1979 and his estimate was that the community numbered around 5 lakh people. An informal estimate was that the Ooru Golla and Kaadu Golla communities together numbered 15 lakh people, spread out across several districts in the state.  

Dr. Prema says she knows that her community is patriarchal and that everybody abides by the community’s rules because otherwise, they would have committed a “transgression”. She adds that many people in the community feel that there is a deep lack of awareness, and that there have been attempts to change that. She says that now, because of individual attempts in different hattis, many villages have stopped sending the girls and women outside.

Many in the community say that they would change if their hatti poojaris (priests who have religious, cultural and arbitration authority), advocated change. Asked if this was possible, Dr Prema said that many of the hatti poojaris too felt the need for change: “They too have lost women in the family.”

Ramanna says it was painful to watch the news coverage even though he appreciated the media’s efforts in talking about the issue. 

“It is very clear to many of us that this custom needs to go. And we have been trying in our own ways with some measure of success. But they called all men of the community women-haters, as if our only goal in life was to bring women pain. They portrayed us all as criminals, some said all Golla men must be jailed. Even if they arrested all of us, what would that achieve? Would our society improve overnight?,” Ramanna says.

Dr Prema too shares his sentiments. “The British had classified so many tribes as criminal tribes. People are looking at us too like that now.” She adds that no tribal society likes it if outsiders tell them how to live their lives. “It is not acceptable to them, they will even resent it if you tell them their cultural and religious ways are wrong,” she says.

She says women in the community too abide by the patriarchal values of her community, and that change cannot be forced. However, she has her ways of getting through to them. “When people stick to tradition, I point out that they weren’t wearing chappals earlier, now they do. Avaaga avara dharma brashta aglilla? (Did they not cross their religious traditions then?)” she says, adding that people’s mindsets could be changed by reasoning with them, and not “insulting their ways”.

Dr. Prema says that when her community does not observe the rituals of the widows (removal of bangles and jewellery, and other customs), there was no reason they could not put an end to this practice. 

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