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Runaway Child Brides And Annulled Marriages – Reversing An ‘Auspicious’ Trend

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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.

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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