By Veda Nadendla:
“I was married at 12, I didn’t know much back then. A lot of my time was spent doing what my mother and father said I should, and after my marriage, what my husband expected of me. It was so scary. For a whole year after my marriage, I was always in pain, falling sick all the time. But that was a different time, and now you girls have seen more world than us. You will make better choices.” Little did my grandmother know that what she suffered nearly 65 years ago is the dogged fate of nearly one third of the young girls in our country even today.
Even now, at the age of 21, I worry at the thought of marriage; there is career and success waiting for me, and I am too young. But apparently, young is never too young in India. Today, more than half the women in India are married before the legal age of 18 years. These girls are just children, innocent and unaware of what their life holds for them; that they might be a bargain their parents are willing to make, to protect the family’s honour and for patriarchy’s sake. We live in a country which wages war at men who brutalize and vandalize a woman’s honour, but is it not criminal to let your little girl’s innocence be destroyed at the hands of an unknown, in the name of marriage? Where is the sanctity in that?
Early marriage affects both boys as well as girls in India, but the incidences of young girls marrying older boys or men are far more abundant. Early marriages occur in direct proportion with the economic health of a family as well as its size. Justifying their decision to marry off their little girls, parents often say that they can avoid a hefty dowry by marrying off the girl young, when in reality, giving or receiving dowry is considered a crime under Dowry Prohibition Act 1981. They say that they are protecting the little girl from promiscuity and unwanted male attention, ensuring social and economic safety for her. What about personal choice? What about her basic right to life, her right to good health, education and nutrition? What about her parents’ fundamental duty to protect her from violence, exploitation and abuse? Early marriage is a crime inflicted on childhood. A crime that parents just don’t realize they are committing.
Sitting outside the hutment, a woman with dusky skin, a slender stature, a white-blue saree with yellow-red flowers on it, maang mein sindoor and galey mein mangalsutra – Kamala Devi tells us about her marriage. “He used to drink a lot and abuse me. My in-laws used to make me work a lot, sometimes more than I could take. My state was so bad that I felt I couldn’t survive anymore.” Kamala’s father says that her in-laws started demanding dowry, and when he couldn’t pay up, they used to beat her and abuse her. “I could not take it anymore. So I brought my daughter back home. I will take care of her, no matter how much I earn. I will bring her up, I told myself.”
Kamala may have been lucky because she escaped a long life of suffering and abuse but there are still millions of little girls in the rural pockets of our country, just being born to be married off before they can even complete their education. From the moment she is born, she becomes a burden. I never understood the concept. If boys are heirs, a means of income and support for the family, girls are the same. India is transforming into a nation that seeks justice for women, equality in the workplace and equal status in the household; we are rapidly pushing our way into independence and success. Unfortunately, there is a vast disparity between the sections of society who actually see the change and participate in it and the section completely oblivious to the possibility of change. We forget that there are those girls who never make it to school, let alone the workplace, the girls whose parents are still unaware of the world of potential hidden in a daughter, the parents who do not understand the future they have planned for their girls. It is time they are told. Not just a time for repair, but a time for prevention.
Early marriage encourages an early initiation into sexual activity when a girl’s body and mind are still developing and unprepared. This girl is still coming to terms with the changes her body is undergoing; she is not made aware of sexual health and reproductive health measures, nor is her body ready for pregnancy. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls in the age group of 15-19 years. Young girls who marry later and have babies after their adolescence have healthier pregnancies and healthier bodies. Early marriage, impacts the child’s psychological well-being, education, physical health as well as the well-being of her offspring. It increases the risk of cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, obstetric fistulas, malaria, maternal mortality and depression. All parents say they want the best for their children, but why then is this noble intent diverted into a catastrophic act that is early marriage?
Marriage is a journey that one chooses to embark upon with a partner of their choice. If I have this right as a citizen, then why are these million other citizens depraved of the choice that will shape and affect the rest of their lives? Right after the wedding the girl is taken to her husband’s home which is often in another town or village, where she is expected to fulfil the role of a wife, domestic worker and soon a mother. The husbands usually are much older than the young bride and have less in common with them; the purpose of the bride then becomes to prove her fertility. This little girl in her dire need for survival pushes herself to reproduce, and to fulfil the expectations of her husband and her in-laws. Who is her confidante? When does she get to be pampered and treated with respect? Is her respect earned by the measure of her fertility? In the process, she loses her childhood, the opportunity to play and learn, make friends and mistakes, she skips a whole developmental milestone!
Listening to his daughter, Jagdish Prasad tears up. “My relative was about to marry his 10-year-old girl. I stopped him and told him to let the little child study, to let her study for as much as she wanted and to not spend money on her wedding. Spend that money on her education, I told him. I will not let you do to your daughter what I did to mine. If I see anyone even trying, I will tell them to look at what happened to me and my daughter and learn from our mistakes.”
Jagdish Prasad learnt from his mistakes, but how many more Jagdish Prasads will it take for our country to wake up to the grave encroachment that is early marriage? It is a blatant infringement on the rights and life of a child, robbing them of their potential. It is the result of a dominant regime of patriarchy, gender discrimination and an unequal distribution of wealth and power in a post modern world. It is also the result of a lax administration, which turns a blind eye toward a heinous practice that is robbing the country of its development and progress. Children are the future of our nation we say, why then have we marginalized half our female population from being included in that future?
I don’t expect that parents will stop marrying their underage daughters overnight. It takes one person at a time, one household at a time. We must have the audacity to say stop, to educate parents about the importance of educating their daughters, of the prospects of a career and a bright future for her. You and I cannot stand by and watch another daughter suffer Kamala’s fate. India for every daughter and every daughter for a brighter future. In Kamala’s own words, “There is no question of marriage right now. She will be married one day, when she is independent and capable, when she has the maturity to understand the world, when she is ready to fulfil all her responsibilities and stands on her own two feet. Then my daughter will choose to get married.” If you are seeing this injustice happen around you, you have it in you to stop it.