By Anju Anna John:
Mamata Kumari had always dreamt of being a nurse when she grew up. But she was married off at the age of 17, and she knew absolutely nothing about the person she was going to marry or the family to which she was being sent to. This was the end of all her dreams of becoming ‘an A grade nurse’. The sad truth, however, is not just this; the sadder part is the fact that Mamata is not alone!
Growing up, if you have never really looked at your right to education or your freedom to dream and aspire, as a privilege, chances are that you did not figure in the 6% of India’s population who are married off between the ages of 10 and 19 years! Almost half of all the girls in South Asia are married off before the age of 18; with a fifth of all girls being married off even before they are 15. India ranks 2nd, only behind Bangladesh (where two out of three girls marry before the age of 18) .
These stories of child brides from Bihar helped me gain insight into not just the circumstances that led to their marriage, but also their hopes and dreams which were shattered by being married away before they could have finished school. Bihar has been largely unsuccessful in enforcing the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. On an average, the marriage of 67% of girls below the age of 18 are solemnised every year in Bihar.
The blame, most often, is shouldered by poverty and other circumstances. UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in India, Dora Giusti, says that, ‘Girls are still seen as a burden and not worthy of investing on.’ 16 year-old Jyoti Kumari’s fate was not too different. She was in the 8th standard. Her father had recently lost his job and was finding it increasingly difficult to provide for the family. So, she was married off by the age of 16 and had her daughter by the age of 17. The irony in her story, however, is the fact that she grew up seeing her mother work at the anganwadi and aspired to become a Child Development Officer (CDO). All her childhood dreams and education had to make way for her to become a child bride.
Somehow, these girls are made to believe that leaving school and marrying early is a compromise they need to make. In a country where right to education (of children between the ages of 6 and 14) has been made a fundamental right under Article 21A of the Constitution, women like Neelam Devi are still married off at the young age of 13 or 14 and sent off to live with their husband’s family. In these regions, the practice of child marriage has gained wide acceptance, and has been ruled by social norms and gender roles.
Six months ago, Kunti Devi (who was about 16-years-old) was married off and sent to the home of her in-laws. At that point, she did not know what she wanted to become yet, but she wanted to have the opportunity to continue studying.
On the other hand, Shiromani Devi – who was married at 13 years when she was in 7th class – was always involved in sports and physical activity. As a student, she dreamt of becoming a police woman one day. It is interesting to note that as of 2011, only a mere 5.65% of the Indian police force consists of women. Moreover, most states and Union territories in the country still do not have all-women’s police stations.
Sona (name changed on request) had always hoped to complete her education, be gainfully employed, and lead an independent life. Her dreams were laudable for the simple reason that India has the lowest workforce participation rate of women among the BRICS. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the patriarchal system managed to trump her hopes and dreams in yet another instance of establishing their reign over the goals and ambitions of women.
Chandni Devi dreamt of being educated enough to teach not just her own kids, but also to work as a teacher in a school. It is a well-established fact that an educated woman has the skills, information, and self-confidence to be a better parent. Instead, she ended up being married away at the age of 15. Further, the fact that she had not yet learnt to do any household chores, resulted in a lot of conflict between the families, as well as between her and the in-laws.
Perhaps, the most heart-wrenching story would be that of Phulo Devi, whose parents decided to marry her off first, before her elder sister, since the suitors always chose her over her sister for the simple reason that she was fairer. In a country obsessed with cosmetic products that promise a fairer skin and its implicit advantages, it seems almost counter-intuitive that someone with a darker complexion would have had a higher chance of completing school, finding an occupation, and being independent. Today, Phulo Devi swiftly dismisses her childhood hopes of becoming a teacher and worries about her 4 daughters instead.
These women form just the tip of the iceberg. There are many women throughout the Indian subcontinent who have been married off before they could be legally married. We need more dialogue on this topic and better enforcement of the laws that prohibit these instances to curb the problem of child marriage.
Pictures by Louie Rodrigues.