By Abhishek Jha:
Preeti (name changed) is a student from the seventh grade. She is an eager student. But her father is ill and consequentially, her family is mired in poverty. A neighbour suggests that Preeti be married off. Preeti’s mother has little choice, given her circumstances. Luckily for Preeti, while her proposed marriage to a 40-year-old man is being discussed by middlemen, a police raid captures the middlemen.
This is the story of a minor girl from Koderma district, Jharkhand. (Source)
But not all children are as lucky as Preeti. According to a 2014 report published by UNICEF, India is home to an estimated 720 million women and 156 million men married before the age of 18. India accounts for 33% of the world’s child brides. The relation between child marriage and trafficking is one of mutual assistance. While not all child marriages lead to trafficking, it is often used as a pretext for trafficking.
Similarly, girls are often trafficked for forced marriages. A 2013 country assessment report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says the following: “With skewed sex ratios (Punjab-893, Haryana-877 females per 1,000 males) it is impossible to find a bride for each man, and ‘importing a bride’ has become the only solution. The demographic situation of these states has become so skewed that it will take many years to stabilise the situation. The demand for “marriageable age” girls is so intense that organised trafficking rackets have started operating in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.” In the section on Haryana, it observes “a trend for luring girls on the pretext of marriage.”
This raises an important and hitherto unasked question. Are child marriages and trafficking two mutually exclusive issues? I have often heard elderly relatives and neighbours in my village defend an early marriage by arguing that it protects the bride from harm in a predatory world for women. These acquaintances belong to a very privileged class. Think then, of those who have been pushed into a position that makes this argument even stronger for them.
Reality however, as the report discussed above indicates, is far from that. Can the argument of snatching away a girl’s dreams and hopes for an educated and independent future, ever be justified under the pretext of protecting her from the world? The truth is, as long as people continue to perceive women merely as a commodity and a burden on the family, issues like child marriage and trafficking of children for the same cannot be resolved. Moreover, marriage in India is a very sacred institution. So much so that even if oppressive, a family would expect their child to remain betrothed. If trafficked for flesh or labour or organs, parents are willing to look for their children and demand their safety. It is then widely discussed and fought against, as far as possible. However, if trafficked for, or due to marriage, it is unlikely that parents will try to get the marriage annulled as it soon finds its safety behind the veil of culture, traditions, religion, purity and protection. Language barriers and fear of repression by the society imply that the children themselves never report the matter; hence, the lack of statistical data connecting trafficking and child marriages. This sanctimonious garb of marriage is then a veil that hides many evils.
Religious myths, prejudices, and customs compound the problem. While child marriage puts psychological and physical burdens on both genders, in the case of child brides, it provides traffickers an easy way of recruiting young girls for prostitution rackets or as domestic helps and maids. Often, parents from low income backgrounds, or poverty stricken households, are eager to marry their daughters off as they have to pay a lesser amount of dowry. Their vulnerability is often exploited by brokers and middlemen working for prostitution rackets who lure them into dubious marriages with unknown men in faraway places. Similarly, old men, unmarried due to skewed sex ratios in their own regions, and looking for young brides, are ready to pay the brokers to get one. (Source) These brides often end up being yoked to intense domestic labour and physical abuse, which again shows how dangerous this combination of trafficking and child marriage can be. As it happens, it gives a rise to a market for marriage where the middleman sells the prejudice of ‘young is pure’. Also, there is the fear that older children may resist such exploitation and report the matter, which further necessitates that it is the young who suffer.
Unrelated too, these twin threats blight the future of many children of this country. Inroads are regularly made against these evils, but the numbers are still staggering. That these children do not even understand the trap into which they are ensnared, is a heart-rending fact.
While there remains a chance for Preeti to hope for a better tomorrow, numerous children out there are waiting for their miracles to happen.