By Naomi Hazarika:
Not only do hundreds of young children in India get married forcefully behind closed doors, on one day, massive numbers of such marriages take place right there out in the open with no one to stop them. Akshaya Trityaor Aka Teej, which falls in the month of April, is considered to be a good day to start new businesses, new partnerships and new marriages as it brings good fortune. It has become common on this day for a large number of child marriages, even mass marriages, to be solemnised. The influence khap panchayats and priests have in these communities, mainly in Rajasthan, prevent any sort of intervention on the behalf of the government. “If someone sexually violates my daughter while she is going for an errand then what will happen? In villages, news spreads like rapid fire that the girl has been raped. The parents lose their honour. That is why we don’t keep grown-up girls in the house without at least marrying them,” a father from Tonk, Rajasthan, was quoted as saying in the International Centre for Research on Women(ICRW) report on “Delaying Marriage for Girls in India”.
Long tradition in child marriages
Instances of child marriage can be found in mythical epics and traditional stories of India. It was assumed that if the couple knew each other from a young age, they will understand each other better and have a happy married life. Similarly, in Rajasthan the tradition of “attasatta” is followed wherein a daughter is exchanged for a daughter-in-law. This was done because the number of girls was decreasing and this was supposed to ensure a balance. The arguments for such unions often revolve around how these children are not allowed to live together prepuberty. But the fact that they are married has many more consequences than people would like to believe. At an age when these children should be playing around, they are burdened by the psychological pressure of knowing that they are married to someone, robbing them of their innocence and childhood. In a country where the Prime Minister himself was married off at the age of 17, it is not only necessary for us to change our mindsets but also eliminate this retrograde social practice through strict legal intervention and implementation.
40 % of the world’s child marriages happen in India
According to UNICEF reports published by Al Jazeera, 40% of the world’s child marriages happen in India. Child marriages are a concern for both young boys and girls, as they violate the basic rights of the most vulnerable members of our society by denying them right to health, nutrition, education and freedom from violence and abuse. Nearly 43% of the women in the country are married off before the legal age of 18. This problem has deep rooted reasons embedded in the Indian culture and society. There is immense societal pressure on young women and their families to get them married at an early age and ease off the burden that daughters are traditionally thought to be. A lot of these deep seated mindsets inculcate the type of thinking that portrays women as objects of status and social standing which means that their “purity” is given a lot of importance and emphasis on their virginity provides another reason for them to marry young girls off. Marriage is considered to be “safe” to keep the girl protected from unwanted sexual advances and without this kind of a security, a girl unmarried and older is considered to bring nothing but dishonour to the family.
Reasons for marrying girls off at such a young age
Majority of these notions stems from the fact that the status and reputation of women are usually set by the patriarchal society and the standards by which they are judged are also decided by men. So a “good” woman would be a “pure” one, meaning a virgin and ‘untouched’. The logic therefore is to marry them off early so as to protect their pureness. Another reason for the continued practice of child marriages is dowry; the older the bride is the more the family of the bride has to pay to the family of the groom as dowry. So in order to avoid that, families tend to marry off their daughters early.
But what about the boys?
What remains untouched is the issue of young men being forced into this union. There have been no advocates for their cause at all. There are three main laws dealing with the issue of child marriages in India: The Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929, The Prevention of Child Marriage Act, 2004 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. Even though there are laws making this practice illegal but the lack of actual political will to take up this problem seriously has led to the rise in child marriages.
Even though the consequences of child marriages are harder on girls, the issue of the effects on boys needs to be understood as well. In both cases, children are forced to grow up and handle responsibilities that are not suited for their age, robbing them of a childhood and chances of education, and depriving them of opportunities for personal growth. Young boys are forced to drop out from school, and are often under major psychological pressure and stigma. They are expected to start working, either look for a job, or work in the family business. None of the laws and initiatives by the Government have been oriented towards these young boys. A marriage is between two people, and the effects of child marriage are on two people as well. But if we look at the history of the legislative action taken both at the Centre and State level, none of them are aimed at elevating the situation of the young grooms. Both genders are behind their maturity level to grasp and face this issue, then why aren’t there laws addressing both their situations?
Both girls and boys are the future of our country
The Bal Vivaah Virodh Abhiyaan by the National Commission for Women is the most well-known initiative aimed at reducing child marriages and yet again it is only focussed on the plight of girls. Schemes for more awareness have to be introduced and taken up by the Central Government. And not only that, these laws and initiatives need to address the issue of the young groom’s plight as well. A skewed law is no law at all. The lives of children matter more than anything else because they are the future of our country. For a nation that boasts of a vibrant energetic youth driving it, it is necessary that we keep in mind the interests of the youngest minds. More than anything, denying children the right to a happy childhood is more than just a crime.