Child Marriage: Lest We Forget

Posted on May 24, 2010 in Society

Apoorva Chawla:

Gayatri was married at the age of 10, in a small village of Rajasthan and widowed just a year after her marriage as her husband died while working as a migrant worker. Her in-laws considered their son’s marriage a bad omen and Gayatri, bad luck. She was sent back to her parents who forced her to wear plain clothes. She could not play with her friends, could not eat normal food and was even banned from listening to music or even laughing out loud in public, all because she was a widow.

On the other hand Ramesh; a 43 year old man had been married to 4 girls all in the age group of 10 to 16. His fourth marriage took place when he was 32 and the bride was just 13 years of age.

Don’t be shocked, these are fictitious stories but they are not too discrepant from reality.

You must all be familiar with the popular daily soap called ‘Balika Vadhu’ which is a take on Child Marriage. This is an age old tradition. In certain parts of India, children are forced into relationships which they are not ready for and don’t even know about, everyday. To push two physiologically and emotionally ill-prepared individuals into marriage is a compassionless way of looking at relationships.

There are several cons of this act, and most of them relate to the female partner. She is the one who must bear the horrors of early pregnancy, which leads to more danger for her. This jeopardizes the health of both the mother and the baby. To make it worse, if the child turns out to be a girl, the mother is blamed instead of the father.

Statistically, it is translated into soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy, high infant mortality rate, and low life expectancy, especially among rural women. According to the United Nations, maternal mortality in India (which indicates the number of women dying in childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes) is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15-19-year-olds.

The Government of India, adopted the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1978 (a revision of the British Child Marriage Prevention Act of 1929 and the following amendment of 1949) setting 18 as the minimum age for women to get married and 21 for men. And, even though it is illegal to practice child marriage, the phenomenon is widespread in rural India. Adolescents are forced into these marriages in the name of tradition and if they try and resist, the parents emotionally or financially blackmail them until they break down.

The practice is particularly rampant in the populous northern belt where child marriages are most deeply rooted: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, with a combined population of 420 million, about 40 percent of India. In Rajasthan alone, 56% of the women have been married before they were 15.

Usha Choudhary, a 33year old of Jodhpur was forced to get married at the age of 13. When she revolted, her family refused to pay for her education. But an undaunted Usha continued her studies on her own and went on to do her Masters as well. Until today, she has succeeded in preventing over 300 child marriages. And her wish is to eradicate this plague completely from Rajasthan. But her wish may not come true in the near future.

A recent survey of the government of Rajasthan, where each person was asked to give details about their marriage (the year, the age etc.) shows that a shocking 82 out of 200 where victims of child marriage. If this is the condition of the employed, what will happen to the illiterate and unemployed of the villages?

Religion plays a key role in such harmful traditions and practices. Akhai Teej is an annual festival and an auspicious day for marriage in India. It is not uncommon for political leaders and government officials to attend these ceremonies to bless newly-married children and impart legitimacy to the practice. The society in turn, instead of playing the role of a watchdog, is an enthusiastic participant in a deliberate perpetuation of entrenched interests, including property and social considerations, all of which make child marriages so common.

Laws criminalizing this age old social evil are only a small milestone on the road toward its complete extinction. Currently, the police cannot arrest the organizers of mass child marriages without applying for a magistrate’s order, which may take days. The punishment (upto three months) and fine are also not severe enough. Proposed changes include stronger punishments, awareness campaigns and incentives provided by the government to families who marry their children before the legal age.

But, this is not enough; A change in the psyche of the backward and illiterate people is required. Education and empowerment of women are, beyond a doubt, two of the best remedies in our patriarchal country.

Besides this, a large network of social workers at grass root level are required to keep a check on the number of child marriages and report the same and to stay directly connected with the victim and its family. Also, the role of media is the most important in keeping the records and the details transparent, so that the society may awaken from its ignorant slumber and this awareness spreads with a cascade effect.