By Shivani Makkar:
“Charakha chalaati maa…dhaga banaati maa…bunti hai sapano ki kesari…
Beton ko deti hai mehal atariya…beti ko deti pardes ri.”
(The mother weaves a counterpane of dreams with her hands,
Gives her boy the shades of castles, while sends her girl away to a foreign land.)
Beautiful lines aren’t they? Gives one a lot to ponder. We need to think beyond tradition; just because a practice is ancient and customary, doesn’t mean that it is just. The girl is considered a burden to the family, and the notion of her as embodying the honour of the whole kin and community has not died down even after decades of independence. She continues to be viewed as a ‘paraya dhan’, her future husband’s property, and therefore investing in her education seems to most as a waste of resources.
I remember having a fight with my parents about changing my school when I was about 14; they wanted to send me to a much better one. I howled and shouted and thought that the world would end if I am made to part with my friends and a place I had come to see as my second home. That was the greatest upheaval of my life, the beginning and the end of a life-changing event: a change of schools. Lucky for the world, I was never made to go through with it.
But this is what the universe of a child comprises of, and here I speak only of girls, for I have experiential reality to draw from. Growing up, our imagination is all about curiosity, trying new things, messing up, understanding a world where we feel out of place, discovering ourselves and making sense of a body that is forever surprising us. There is no concept of marriage, children, or responsibilities in our minds. Sure there is the abstract fantasy of a big ‘Bollywood’ wedding which many young girls have; but it romanticises a much harsher reality. To have those same children thrown into a life of possible abuse and violence, to leave them with no outlets for expressing themselves, to provide no means of personal growth, and to push them away from the only solid reality they can hold onto, which is their parents, is as good as erasing their entire existence from the future.
A Brutal Reality
Early marriage is a reality, a sickening, shocking one, that is a major cause of concern, for it violates all fundamental rights of a child, whether a boy or a girl, to have meaningful education, proper nutrition and health, freedom from violence and exploitation, and denies a child his or her childhood or adolescence. It primarily restricts any future opportunities for a girl and fatally jeopardizes her health. As the report by UNICEF shows, in India, nearly half (43%) of the women aged between 20 and 24 are married before the age of 18. These incidents are highest in the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. There is also a huge gap between the statistics of rural and urban cases of early marriages, with the former at a shocking high of 48%, while the latter at 29%. These disparities are much starker when it comes to the economic and caste factors; girls from poorer households and backward castes and scheduled tribes, as well as those who have had lesser education, tend to get married off at a younger age.
The Irony of it all; Why the Practice Continues
We are a society of deep contradictions and ironies. Here is an obvious one: a country as deep-rooted in traditions and cultural values as ours sees no issue with exposing a child to sexual exploitation and slavery, while on the other hand harps on about morality and the need to shun sexual openness. Where women are seen as goddesses and are prayed to in all customs and religions- are on the other hand completely denied any independent agency or a say in the matter of determining their own lives. The problem here is when the institution of marriage becomes so sacrosanct that any form of basic human rights violation and domestic abuse is allowed under it, as long as the women’s sexuality is under strict control.
According to a report by UNFPA (The United Nations Population Fund), in South Asia alone, 130 million girls are likely to marry as children between 2010 and 2030. It is a violation of Article 16 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” The Government of India too, has adopted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006 banning this widespread practice. The dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, and the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, reinforce India’s legal framework against early marriage.
So why does the practice still prevail despite national laws and international agreements, and it being a major deterrent to the development of young girls? The answers lie in the conditions of poverty and economic deprivation, the lesser dowry that is demanded when the bride is young and less educated, the burden that she is considered on her natal family, and the need to ensure her chastity. These are some of the factors why girls are married off before they reach puberty.
The Adverse Affects on the Health of Young Girls
Marriage is a union at every level; so its affects are also felt on a psychological, biological, physical and emotional spectrum. It brings a premature end to a girl’s childhood and adolescence by forcing her into adult roles. Early marriages also result in early pregnancy and social isolation, hindering the development of the girls for they often have to drop out of the school to manage the household, and receive no training or awareness in the ways of the family, thus perpetuating the gendered nature of poverty. They are burdened by domestic chores and child-bearing and rearing while still children themselves, and face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices, economic dependence and inequality at home. UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre published the digest ‘Early Marriages: Child Spouses’ in 2001, propounded both the reasons behind the continuation of this practice and its harmful effects. It highlights the importance of providing educational opportunities to young girls, and lays stress on the attitude of the families and the society at large that needs to be changed first.
Early marriage puts a girl at several health risks; for example, repeated pregnancies at an age when the body is not prepared for it. Girls who are in their teenage years suffer more delivery complications (66.6%), than the women in their 30s (59.7%). The infant and child mortality rates are also higher in the case of younger mothers. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19 (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009). In fact young mothers themselves are less healthy. The lack of knowledge about a healthy life, both sexual and otherwise, among girls, also makes them more prone to HIV infection. They are powerless to refuse sex once they enter a marital union. Marital rape becomes a big possibility in such a scenario.
Early marriages are largely prevalent in villages. One can see why Ambedkar describes villages as “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism”. But early marriages are not absent in urban areas, as the statistics suggest. The solution lies in educating young girls, to raise them to be independent, self-reliant, and responsible citizens of the country, and to let them take their futures in their own hands. The exchange between the father and the husband that happens where the girl changes hands like a property and a possession needs to be reflected upon; a girl’s sexuality is not to be guarded by another party. It is for no one to protect or relate their honour to. She must be viewed as an individual who deserves equal life opportunities to realize her potential. The nation’s and the world’s future is in deep crises otherwise.