By Anwesha Dhar:
At the first glance, Neelu is like any other child. A student of class four, she is bustling with life and energy that would surely brighten anyone’s day. She could grow up to be anything she wants, but little does she realise that her fate has already been predetermined by a repressive age-old practice that continues to tamper with the lives of many such children. She is one of the victims of the mass child marriages that take place in rural Rajasthan during Akshay Tritiya or Akha Teej – the day which is often considered to be the most auspicious one to foster new relations, establish new businesses and, by extension, to consolidate marital ties. The irony of the whole affair is perhaps captured by Neelu’s own reaction to the situation – she cannot even clearly recall the day she was married off.
Arguments favouring child marriages in particular span from the sociological to economic to religious. While traditionalists defend it through the scriptures which mention, and hence sanction, child marriage, others say that it is because of the stark disparity in the sex ratio in Rajasthan – giving rise to the practise of Atta Satta i.e. exchanging a daughter for a daughter-in-law. A threat to the continuance of the family line sometimes invites the dangerous evil of reducing one’s own daughter into a mere commodity to be exchanged and furthering, instead of fighting, a system steeped in exploitation in the larger framework of patriarchy. This is not to say that only girls are the ones who suffer; this patriarchal system also tampers with the psychological makeup of a boy child, who is suddenly made aware of his almost sacrosanct duty of protecting his family line by fathering children and ‘controlling’ his family.
The practice has a two-pronged “advantage” – for the bride’s side it’s getting rid of one mouth to feed and clothe and for the groom’s side it’s gaining a temporary economic relief in terms of dowry. This leads to harmful effects on health as well. Girls often get pregnant before their bodies are mature enough for childbirth, leading in turn to an acutely high rate of infant mortality. Despite these horrors, a 2012 UNESCO report states that 40% of the child marriages occur in India.
Things have improved, but very little from the time when child marriage was seen as a necessity by the economically weak residents of rural areas, where the younger child was married alongside her older sibling to save money.
Sometimes, amidst this bleak picture, we see fractures revealing great courageous acts performed by people who perhaps are too young to fathom their own actions. Take Narmada’s case, for example. During one such Akshay Tritya, a twelve year old Narmada was decided to be married off to a forty five year old, already married man. The choice put forward before her was simple -choosing to squash her dreams and get married to a man old enough to be her father, or severing all family ties. In a moment of supreme courage, Narmada did the unthinkable. She left home for a bridge course camp run by the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF) and passed Class 10 with the highest marks in her village. Six years have passed since then and Narmada, now an eighteen year old, is preparing to be a medical lab practitioner. Back in touch with her family and occasionally pestered by them for marriage, Narmada continues to act like a brave heart asserting that she will take her own time to get married, and the supposed ‘auspiciousness’ of Akshay Tritya too cant wield control over her fate.
There are more such stories imbued with hope. With helps of organisations like Saarthi, young adults are getting their marriages annulled. The first case of annulment came to light back in 2012, and according to a spokesperson from Saarthi, there has been no looking back since. These young adults who failed to realise at the time the gravity of atrocities committed on them in the guise of marriage, are now looking forward to a fresh start. Many of them wish to focus on educating themselves, viewing it as the only way to dismantle the system from within. The story of three siblings, Mamta, Suman and Pawan shines quietly as one such example. All of them were victims of child marriage on Akkha Teej. Following the first annulment, the three of them amassed great courage to speak out publicly against this practice. Since then, all three have got their marriages annulled and now wish to establish themselves. Mamta wishes to pursue a career in medicine while Pawan, who scored 73% in boards, wants to follow the footsteps of his elder sister and become a doctor.
The stories keep pouring in, stories of mass child marriages for an age old belief and stories of courage and resilience. However, these stories seem to cast a little effect on the society or the government. In spite of the prevalence of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) which prescribes two years imprisonment or a penalty of Rs 100,000, or both, for those guilty of marrying girls younger than 18 years of age, according to Al Jazeera, the ritual of child marriage has hardly been countered. This happens mainly due to ignorance and partly because of the confidence instilled in the people by the undeterred way in which it has taken place for several decades.
Child marriage can clearly be identified as being an infringement of human rights that advocate the development of individual goals. The way Rajasthan appears to be reversing the trend in a brilliant manner with inspiring incidences of annulments and rebellion being reported, here is hoping that the day when this practise is completely abolished, is not that far after all.