Kolkata, West Bengal: On March 13 this year, a 16-year-old girl Moumita (name changed) of Nadia district in West Bengal would have got married off to a man twice her age. She is a class nine student of a village high school in Nadia. Childline got a phone call about her wedding just two days before it took place. The district coordinator of Childline immediately informed the block development officer of Chapra. It is a block among 17 blocks of Nadia which shares an international border with Bangladesh.
Chapra is one of the most child marriage prevalent blocks in the state. In the last month, block officials and Childline jointly intervened in around 20 child marriages in these border villages. Initially, they succeeded in preventing child marriage but parents took their daughters to another village and married them off despite signing a bond.
The day before Moumita’s marriage while the rituals were going on, Childline volunteers along with two block development officers and six police personnel from Chapra police station, reached the village. I was a part of the intervention team. Moumita came out when the police jeep reached her house while family members were busy in last minute preparation. Block officials asked her parents to show her birth certificate and they found that her age is 16 years. An officer informed them about the laws regarding child marriage and instructed them to stop the preparations for the wedding immediately. The situation got critical, around 200 villagers gathered at their courtyard. Parents, relatives requested the police to allow them as everything was ready and her father is mentally disturbed but police forced them to sign a bond that says they won’t arrange the marriage of their daughter until she reaches 18 years.
Moumita belongs to a Hindu farmer family and she is the youngest child of her parents. Eventually, the marriage didn’t happen but it was a disaster for Moumita and her family. While she promised officers with tears in eyes that she will continue her schooling, her grandmother said to us, “We took loans to give her marriage, we have already paid for decorators, caterers. What can I say to the groom’s family? They won’t wait for two years.”
Moumita’s is not a one-off case. If reports are anything to go by, child marriage is rampant in the state specifically Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, Paschim Medinipur, Purulia and South 24 Parganas districts. 15-year-old Nafisa (name changed) was recently married off to a man in a remote village of Samsergunj block in Murshidabad district. She is not bothered about her education. Now she rolls beedis along with her mother-in-law. Murshidabad is now a popular hub of the beedi industry in the state and about 90% of the workforce constitutes women and children. Nafisa said, “Demand in the matrimonial market depends on the speed and accuracy of which she can roll beedis, and education has no place in her livelihood.”
As elections are coming up in the state, no political party wants to address it rather only addressing it in their election manifesto, they do not even want to comment on this issue. They find it “a family problem” rather a social problem. However this year, ruling party Trinamool Congress is likely to talk about the various developmental and social schemes including Kanyashree and Rupashree in their election manifesto which have been undertaken by the Trinamool government in the state since 2011.
A new report, Factsheet Child Marriages 2019, released by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) stated that the prevalence of girls getting married before 18 years of age in India has declined from 47% in 2005-2006 to 27% in 2015-2016 while West Bengal now has the highest incidence of girls aged between 15 and 19 years being married off. Although child marriages in India have declined, a few states like Bihar and West Bengal continue to carry on with the harmful practice and there is nearly 40% prevalence in these states, UNICEF said.
According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 41.6% girls in West Bengal were married off before the age of 18 years which is far ahead of states such as Rajasthan, with a prevalence of 35.4% child marriages, which has been traditionally associated with child marriage. When the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) was held in 2005-2006, Bihar was at the top with 69.0% prevalence of girls getting married before 18 years of age. The percentage in Bihar has now dipped to 42.5%. Jharkhand, which was at 63.2% in the previous report, has also shown a steep downward curve and stands at 37.9%. However, both are still above the national average. Bengal has shown slow progress of reducing 12.4% prevalence of child marriage while other eastern Indian states such as Bihar and Jharkhand reduced 26.5% and 25.3% respectively during the same period.
However, West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR) Chairperson Ananya Chakraborty claims that the data used in the report is five years old. She also highlights the Chief Minister’s achievements towards women empowerment in the last few years. “There have been several recent instances in the state where girls objecting to parents’ attempt to get them married were stopped successfully. Girls’ associations like Chetana and Kanyashree Mancha relentlessly campaign against child marriage in all districts of West Bengal. Families are taking benefit of Kanyashree and Rupashree scheme. Situations are not the same as claimed in the report.”
But there are hundreds of others that WBCPCR doesn’t want to mention who have been forced into marriage because of a range of reasons. “One of the major reason that parents rush to get their daughters married is that parents are worried that their daughter will fall in love with a boy from a different caste or get pregnant. Families often married off their girls to avoid high price because as the girl grows older, more dowry to be paid. The practice of dowry still persists in the state. Even sexual harassment is a big problem in rural areas, so families feel that marriage would mean security and something that they themselves feel they will fail to provide,” explains Sabarna Saraswati, a volunteer of grass root level organisation Sreema Mahila Samity.
District Social Welfare Officer (DSWO) of Malda Ashok Kumar Poddar says, “Now the situation is changing, girls are benefitting from the government schemes. Kanyashree is best implemented across the district but we must consider the fact that more than 50% of the rural inhabitants of Malda are migrant labourers. These families are initially reluctant to enrol themselves under Kanyashree scheme as males or head of the families live outside the district. In the absence of a guardian, availability of smartphones among girls sometimes led them to a love affair with a man who is double of her age or a man from a different religious community. Then the mother and other family members fix her marriage with a man of their own choice without considering her age.”
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) revealed that 14 districts in West Bengal are among the top 100 high prevalence districts of the country. District-level analysis of child marriage in West Bengal using NFHS-4 reveals that Malda, Murshidabad, Paschim Medinipur, Birbhum, South 24 Parganas and Dakshin Dinajpur, Purba Medinipur, Purulia, Nadia, Coochbehar, Barddhaman, Uttar Dinajpur, Bankura and North 24 Parganas – these 14 districts recorded more than 35% prevalence of child marriage of which Malda topped the list with 56.80% child marriage.
Animesh Kanti Manna, Block Development Officer of Chapra reveals, “Many underage girls were married off even after block official and police’s intervention. Initially, we stopped the marriage but families would arrange the marriage within a month in the same village or in some relative’s house. As of now, there is no instance in the state where parents or a man is fined or jailed for marrying an under-age girl though there is provision for strict punishment in law. I myself stopped 60-65 child marriages in my career as a BDO and I feel only strict legal action can eradicate child marriage from our country but it is not my job to register FIR.”
In some cases block officers and police asked members of Childline to file a case in court. But it is not the only job for Childline. Then who will take action? Every district has a district child protection officer who is designated to intervene, follow up with child marriage cases across the district and take legal steps, file FIRs where necessary. “There is no such instance in the state because lack of political will and sluggish government approach,”, says a social worker based in South Bengal who wishes to be anonymous. He further claims, “As interventions usually happened on the day of marriage or day before, sometimes it is tough for the girl to return to school afterwards. They need proper counselling but nobody visits from the district administration or NGOs to support her though there is provision in laws.” In this regard WBCPCR chairperson says, “It is not yet decided but we think we have to take legal action in future to send a message to people.”
What is pathetic about child marriage cases is that young teenage girls are then forced to bear children. A UNICEF report states that while many Indian states show disparities in early childbearing between child brides and non-child brides; the greatest differences are found in West Bengal among the key states. “With lack of education and family planning awareness, a major portion of girls end up getting pregnant,” reveals the District Social Welfare Officer of Malda.
While West Bengal performed well in birth control since last ten years by reducing TFR (Total Fertility Rate) at 1.6, it recorded 18.3% prevalence of teenage pregnancy in NFHS-4 which implies 18 out of 100 pregnant women are teenage mothers, which is alarming for the state. NFHS data further revealed Tripura topped the list of teenage pregnancy with 18.8% while the national figure is 7.9%. National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) Secretary Ambuj Sarma held a press conference on September 12 last year and said, “The NHRC had recently formed a core group on child marriage. In our report to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, we have noted that a necessary step to prevent early marriage is to make education free and compulsory for all children up to the age of 18 years. Accordingly, the Right to Education Act must be amended so that it is applicable up to class 14 instead of class 8 right now.”
P.S. Many NGOs working on child protection issues across the state were approached to share their views but all avoided commenting.
Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent photojournalist and writer who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This data-driven story was developed as part of the Vital Strategies Data For Health workshop in India.