By Bhanvi Satija:
For some of us, the whole concept of child marriage exists only in TV shows, or in some faraway land. For us, ‘Balika Vadhu’ is just that – a television show. The reality of this seldom strikes.
Honestly, caught in the rigors of everyday life, I sometimes forget how privileged I am. It is in these moments that I then sit down and crib about my privileges. I cry about having to travel for two hours to reach college, having to manage my own monthly budget. In trying to keep up with the rat race, I worry about what I will do, what will I become; I accept how ‘hard’ my life is and that I’ll just have to pull through, somehow. Too many choices and what to choose – that’s my problem.
But what about those for whom life isn’t working out at all? Be it childhood, adulthood or old age? Here I am, thinking of what should I choose to become, but what of those who don’t even get to have a ‘choice’.
A Childhood Denied:
One-third of girls in the developing world are married off before the age of 18. One in every nine is married before the age of 15. Moreover, India is home to 1 in every 3 child brides across the globe. The vicious consequences of child marriage or an underage marriage are beyond what we can think of. The implications of such a marriage are manifold – from health, to education to psychological pressure. At various levels, child marriage is also related to child trafficking and abuse. Most importantly, it affects both the parties, the boy and the girl – it takes away the right to a happy childhood from both.
One of the many situations in which children can find themselves after an underage marriage is of loss of spouse, separation or divorce. Even though the latter two are less uncommon than the former, these three situations trap a child even deeper in the vicious cycle of poverty, poor mental and physical health, and lack of education and employment. Often, in the case of boys, remarriage is considered as an option – however, for girls that isn’t an option, and hence, life only becomes worse.
According to a recent report in Hindustan Times, there are about 4,50,000 people across the country who lost their spouse after an underage marriage. Of these, about 2,31,000 are women – more than half of the total. Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, top the list of states with maximum number of children who have lost their spouse. Of these, Madhya Pradesh is reportedly home to about 9 lakh children who have been married before the legal age of 18 and 21, for girls and boys respectively (as per the analysis done by NGO Vikas Samvad, of the data given in the Marital Status by Sex and Age Report, Census of India, 2011).
What does the law say?
One of the laws against child marriages is the Prohibition of the Child Marriage Act of 2006. However, there are loopholes in this law, while for the others like The Child Marriage (Restraint) Act of 1929 and The Prevention of Child Marriage Act of 2004, there is lack of political will for implementation. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 is flawed at a fundamental level – it provides space to ‘revive’ the marriage instead of completely stating it as illegal. “There is a loophole in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. It does not declare child marriages illegal, but leaves an option that the girl can keep it alive and the marriage can be ‘revived’ after the girl turns 18. Since there is a window of the girl’s consent, in many cases police can’t take action against those responsible for marrying off children,” said Debasish Banerjee, Chief of the Kolkata Chapter of the Human Rights Law Network, to HT.
Such laws make both the girls and the boys more vulnerable. In case of loss of spouse or separation, the girls are often subjected to sexual and physical abuse from other members of the family. They are burdened with more responsibility – of the family and often, of the children. Due to lack of education, the teenage widows are pushed into manual labour. Like the story of Shanti Dhakad from Raisen in Madhya Pradesh, or that of Leelabati Shaw from Kolkata (names changed), we have stories of about 2 lakh other such women across the country.
What is the government doing?
In April 2013, under the Commissioner of Women’s Empowerment, Kalpana Shrivastav, the Lado Abhiyan was launched to prevent child marriages and mass marriage functions, especially around the time of Akshaya Tritiya or Akha Teej. This is an important holy day for the Hindus, and it’s a popular belief that this day is auspicious to start off new ventures. Hence, it is considered a good omen for marriage too and many mass marriage functions or Samuhik Vivah take place on the day. Under the veil of auspiciousness, people still tend to practice the social evil of child marriages.
The Lado Abhiyan was thus started to control child marriages in the state. It even found space in the Vision 2018 document of the State Government. Under this campaign, district collectors were ordered to be more vigilant and to keep an eye out for child marriages. Those organising the mass marriage functions were directed to strictly not allow the marriage of children. People were encouraged to not attend any underage marriages through posters and advertisements. Guidelines also made it mandatory for people to print the age of the bride and the groom on the invitation cards.
This year, to intensify the campaign, the state government has roped in religious leaders, community heads, printing press owners, caterers, traditional community cooks and transporters, as they often have access to the ‘inside information’ and can therefore help in more effective implementation of the campaign and the laws. State minister for women and child development Maya Singh said the government aimed to eradicate the practice but needed the support of all sections of society. “Under our Lado campaign, we prevented 51,000 child marriages last year. We have developed about 43,000 core groups that are helping us in the matter,” she said to HT.
Despite these campaigns, there is an urgent need for stricter actions in other states and even in Madhya Pradesh. Reportedly, often marriages of the children are fixed even before the child begins to talk. In such cases, it becomes difficult to get to the root of such an arrangement and yet more difficult to control it.
By and large there still exists a social acceptance of this concept, which is pushing many young children into the vicious cycle of abuse, poverty, lack of education, malnutrition, poor health and teenage pregnancies. Which is why millions of children are being deprived of their childhood, which is why we need to act – right here, right now.
And yet sometimes, I forget how privileged I am. Only to be reminded by these instances, that it is I who can bring about a change.