JERAM: Cradling her two-year-old grandson, Kanmani Chinapan looks at him in desperation hoping the cycle can be broken but knowing the grim future that probably awaits him.
The small boy’s parents and his aunt were arrested two months ago on drug charges, leaving the grandmother to look after their six children all under 12.
When the three were arrested, they were living in squalid conditions with the overpowering stench of a blocked toilet. The walls were mouldy and the roof leaked. Rubbish was strewn around the house.
Their meals consisted mostly of crackers dipped in watered down curry. The older children went to school and so had a respite from the deplorable conditions while the younger ones just had to live in the filth.
That is when social activist Revathy Karunanithy heard about their case. She, Sakthi Malayandi from Malaysia Indian Youth Council and several businessmen and volunteers stepped in and raised funds to clean and paint the house, and contacted the welfare department for aid. Revathy also took the younger children to the kindergarten she runs.
“The poor things didn’t know their ABCs and looked malnourished. Now they are slowly learning to read and write,” she told FMT during a visit to the house located deep in a palm oil estate.
Kanmani’s story – adult children in jail and raising her grandchildren with little help – is common within families living in Jeram, a small town in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, and about half-an-hour’s drive from the well-paved roads of the Shah Alam city centre.
Many here live in the estates, where drugs, gangsterism and poverty is a never-ending problem.
Revathy says it is difficult to stop the vicious cycle of poverty as most of the children stop schooling after Standard Six, start working in the estates, and are lured into gangsterism, selling and taking drugs at an early age. Most of them do not have ICs.
“They think it is normal to live this way. Which, for them, it is.”
The girls marry young, some as early as 12.
“They just go to the temple and tie the knot. Consequently their children are not registered because there is no proof of marriage,” she says shaking her head sadly.
“To make matters worse they often suffer domestic violence.”
When Revathy hears of such cases, she drives the children to her kindergarten, Tadika Minda Pintar Cemerlang, to teach them and register them for Standard One entrance.
“We have other primary school teachers who then try to make sure the children continue their schooling to at least Standard Six,” she says.
But some of them drop out even before they enter secondary school.
“At home, no importance is given to education. Their parents are not educated and they don’t know how to help or encourage their children.”
Revathy took FMT to several houses where the girls married young and dropped out of school.
A tearful 22-year old Kalyaani regrets marrying early.
“At 15, I fell in love and got married against my parents’ wishes. I stopped schooling at Standard Four.”
After marrying, she worked as a house cleaner. Her husband, five years her senior, fixes tents. She now regrets not continuing her studies.
“My children are weak in their studies and I can’t help them because I can’t read,” she said.
Kumari, 29, is relieved her husband is behind bars.
“He’s a drug addict and a gangster. He used to beat me up all the time,” she said raising her voice in anger.
She dropped out of school in Form One and now, just like Kalyaani, she deeply regrets it. She survives on a daily wage of around RM30 working as a house cleaner.
Her big hope is that her three children will complete at least primary school and not turn out like her or their father.
Revathy says the Welfare Department is giving food aid to some families but more intervention is needed.
She hopes the government will aggressively promote Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to help youths in the area learn a skill that will make them employable in long-term decent jobs.
“This is the only way to put an end to the vicious cycle of drugs, gangsterism and crime.”