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India's 'virtual widows' suffer as husbands seek work in the Gulf

image captionSajida has been a single parent of a six-year-old from soon after her marriage

Many young Muslim brides in India's southern state of Kerala are left behind by their husbands who go to the Gulf in search of jobs, causing a lot of worry in the community. BBC Hindi's Salman Ravi reports from Karumbil village in Kerala.

In this non-descript village along the Malabar coast of the Arabian Sea, a group of women clap their hands and sing traditional folk songs in celebration around a teenage bride.

But once the celebrations are over, the new bride will join the ranks of many other teenage brides here who are condemned to lead a lonely life.

Most of the men in this Muslim-dominated region work in the Middle East and the most eligible groom is the one who has a job in one of the Gulf countries.

According to government estimates, almost 50% of men living in the Malabar region are working either in the United Arab Emirates or other Arab countries.

There are few job opportunities in Kerala and some estimates suggest unemployment in the state is three times the national average, which forces many young men to look to the Middle East for a livelihood.

'Virtual widows'

However, this trend is fast taking its toll on the mental health of the young brides who are forced to live the lives of "virtual widows".

"Their conjugal life is short since the groom comes to get married during his vacation and has to report back for work within 15 to 20 days. Once he goes back, he doesn't come back for a couple of years after which he returns home usually for just a month," says Sujatha, a senior government official in Mallappuram district.

She says in this region, it is normal for a girl to be married off at the age of 15 - even though the legal age for marriage for a girl is 18 - as many parents feel that after that "they will not be able to find a groom for her".

But a prolonged separation from the husband, coupled with the fact that the teenage brides become mothers at an early age, has now become a major cause of concern for the community and the state government.

Sajida (not her real name), a teenager from Nilambur, was married seven years ago and is now taking care of a six-year-old son as a single parent. She became pregnant within 15 days of her wedding after which her husband left to work in Kuwait.

Ayesha, an 18-year-old from Kottakkal, was married two years ago.

The cash and gold her parents gave as her dowry were used by her husband to find a job in the Gulf but "there has been no word from my husband since he left", she tells me.

Her father Abdhul Kareem says Ayesha has been in a state of depression ever since.

'Gulf syndrome'

With a rising number of young women in such marriages suffering from depression, the government has appointed health professionals at the district and village levels to counsel them.

Ramlath, a counsellor at a government hospital, sees nearly 10 patients every day.

"These girls are not prepared to live this life of separation and, therefore, they are suffering mentally and physically," she says.

The "gulf syndrome" - as it is called in the region - is also leading to marital discords, resulting in more family break-ups.

image captionMore and more Muslim women on the Malabar coast are being forced to live as 'virtual widows' as their husbands seek work in the Middle East

Says Shamsudheen K, a lawyer who is dealing with many divorce cases: "Times are changing and the old custom of getting girls married off at an early age is not working out. The girls don't want to live like widows."

Many of the girls also end up having affairs which lead to separations, he says.

The Jamat-e-Islami Hind, a right-wing political organisation, has been working within the Muslim community for several years on this issue and has been counselling families to discourage such marriages.

Group member Nasiruddeen Alungal says the only "positive side" of such marriages is that a girl learns to manage her life at an early age.

"Usually it is the male who is the one making all the decisions in the family. But girls who do not have their husbands living with them take the reins and are proving to be good managers."

Mr Alungal says his organisation is trying to convince people that they can earn a living staying in India and don't have to travel to the Gulf to find work.

"Our men are exploited a lot in the Gulf. As soon as a man lands there for a job, his passport is taken away by his employers and he cannot return home when he wants to."

Mr Alungal says that in an effort to save money, the men work every day without a break and travel less so they can send more money back home to their families.

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