Four days of induction fieldwork in a Gujarati village was the first official exposure to rural realities in the life of this postgraduate Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) student.
My fieldwork was in the year 2013 in Vrajpar, a small village in the Surendranagar district of Gujarat. It was then that I came across the practise of open defecation for the first time in my life. My host family didn’t have a toilet facility in their house. In fact, very few households in the village had their own toilets. We, who were unwilling to go to the fields for nature’s call, were guided to one such neighbourhood house. The lady of the family welcomed us with pleasure and proudly told us that she was one of those few women in the village who made sure that they have a toilet in their house. We called her ‘Ben’, the Gujarati version of ‘Behen’ (sister).
Even after the induction fieldwork, she kept in touch with me. My Gujarati has not progressed from Kem Cho and Majama (“How are you?” and “I am fine“) in the last four years. Still, I talk with them over phone at least once in two months. Our conversations are hilarious because Ben doesn’t know any other language than Gujarati, and I don’t even have proper fluency in Hindi.
An hour ago, I got a call from her. To my surprise, Rupa, the daughter of Ben’s brother, was there on the other end. Ben had something very important to share with me and she asked Rupa to talk, as she is the one who can speak fluently in Hindi.
The news was this: “Raja (Ben’s son) is getting married. Ben wants you to be there for the wedding.”
I was baffled for a moment. I still could remember the boy who was walking with the school bag.
“Is he not going to the school?” my question was quite sudden.
“Yes yes, he is in class 8. He is 13 years old,” She said.
“Who is he getting married to?” I could hardly contain my curiosity.
Rupa told me that the girl’s name is Rani, a 12-year-old from Dhrangadhra, the nearest town to Vrajpar. The wedding would be right after Holi, and Ben wanted to make sure that I would attend.
I actually didn’t know how to respond to that. I have never heard them talking so happily. But in my mind, I already started thinking of what is going to happen – yes, it’s a child marriage! I remembered the visuals of child marriage from the movie “Parched” and I literally had to shake my head to come out of that thought.
“Priya and Priti are also getting married this year,” Rupa told me again. They are the daughters of my host family. Priya is 17 and Priti is 13 years old now. I still remember Priya asking me to request her father to send her to the school in Dhrangadhra, the town eight kms away from the village. She was 13 then, and the school in the village only taught till class 8. Most girls in the village haven’t studied beyond class 8, and Priya wanted to study at least till class 12. I did talk with her father then, but he didn’t really show much enthusiasm. Now, both Priya and Priti have stopped going to school and their wedding is in February.
“You will surely come, right?” She asked me again and I don’t have an answer to that yet.
We are living in the country with the highest number of child brides in the world. 47 % of the female population in India is married before the age of 18. Until the day before, these figures were just statistics to me. And now, I was invited to be part of one such event, which is a criminal offence in the eyes of the law.
I am still thinking, “What should I do here?” I know that the age-old traditions and practices cannot be changed in a day. This is not an odd event, but the story of almost every person of Vrajpar and many such villages in India. We say education can break the bonds of child marriage. Yet, this is what I am witnessing. One thing is sure. Just having a law doesn’t mean that any social evil can be controlled – be it child marriage or rape or whatever. As long as the society considers the birth of a girl child as a curse and the patriarchal customs continue, progress is such a mirage. Misogyny is embedded in our societal systems and we practice it unconsciously. These ingrained manifestations of powerlessness have to be acknowledged, accepted and worked upon.
Names of the people involved have been changed.