Reena (name changed) woke up early one morning, feeling extremely excited. She was going home to see her family after a long time. More importantly, her mother had promised that she would be getting new clothes and jewellery that day.
Reena wondered why her mother had instructed her not to talk about it with her friends or anyone else at school. Being young and truly wanting to share her happiness, she shared her good news with a few of her friends. Reena hoped that they wouldn’t spread the word or else she would be teased by everyone at school. She took a bath and got ready, waiting for her parents to come and take her home. There was going to be a celebration at home and all her cousins would be home too! She could barely contain her excitement.
As the day wore on, nobody came. She went to the gate a couple of times and waited but she couldn’t see any familiar faces. There was a commotion at the gate earlier in the day but nobody told her what it was about, A little bit dejected, she forgot about it and started playing with her friends at school.
While Reena was getting ready, her parents had come to the school and asked that she be sent on leave for a few days. Reena’s friends, having understood the gravity of what was happening to Reena, immediately informed the staff and principal. They held a meeting and took a joint decision to not send Reena home, at any cost.
The commotion Reena heard about was her parents threatening the staff and principal when they refused to let her go home with them. The principal casually informed the parents that Reena was in the middle of exams and could not be sent home. The parents were enraged but were powerless to take action on the staff right then. They made a scene and went back home, without their daughter.
The celebration waiting for Reena at home, where she would be getting new clothes and jewellery was her own wedding, at the tender age of 12. She had been told that she was getting married but which 12-year-old girl truly understands what marriage is and the future implications of that on her life?
When the principal of this school narrated this story to me, she wasn’t happy. She continued to tell me that what felt like a win for them was in reality, a delayed defeat. They were forced to send Reena home for the holidays and during that time, her parents got her married.
This is a story of a girl from a remote village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. What she was looking forward with childlike enthusiasm to, as a day of dress-up and magic, would shackle her to a life of responsibility that she had not knowingly signed up for.
She is not alone. One of the state-run residential schools I visited in Jodhpur revealed that 25% of their total intake of 100 students were already married. It took me some time to let that information sink in. I remember walking out of her room and looking at the faces of all the students in the school. My heart broke. My eyes were brimming with tears and I was trying to hold it back in.
That’s a fairly large percentage for girls in just one school to be robbed of their agency so imagine those who still aren’t in any sort of formal education system, in that village, or block or district? What might their plight be?
I know that most of you reading this will probably be like, “Enough with the sentiments already!” and hit back with the predictable statement, “Show me the numbers!”
Well, since you asked: 102 million girls and women were married before the age of 15, in India. India is home to close to 33% of the world’s child brides. Rajasthan is home to 15 million of India’s child brides (UNICEF, 2019).
The next obvious question would be to ask, “Why are India’s numbers so high?” UNICEF in their latest report on child marriage in India says that the incidence is high where there is less education, poverty and in rural households. My recent conversations with principals and staff at some schools across Rajasthan opened my eyes to the depths of how poverty has a direct correlation with child marriage.
In some communities, the death of a grandfather in the house will lead to young girls in the family getting married. The reason? The grandfather’s death will be celebrated with a feast for the community members and that is a large cost. Parents then decide to include their children’s wedding celebrations along with this, because one feast in a lifetime is all they have saved up for.
The catch here is that most of their children are fairly young and it’s not like they truly have any agency, now do they? This practice of clubbing together events is also done for siblings, cousins, etc. This led to one of my former 15-year-old students in Jaipur to get married. To read more about my student, click here.
Child marriage is a violation of human rights. Supporting the marriage of a child is taking away their agency to make responsible decisions for themselves. It limits their skills, knowledge, resources, social support, mobility and autonomy.
Female illiteracy was found to be a leading cause for a high incidence in child marriage. A study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) in two of India’s backwards states, Bihar and Jharkhand in 2004 revealed that girls married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands that girls who married later (ICRW, 2005). They were more likely to report being forced to have sex without consent with their husbands.
This research also brought to the limelight how these women had low bargaining power to have conversations with their husbands about the use of contraception, when they wanted to have children and how many children to have. There are numerous studies that show women who are married as children, also end up having children at a very young age, putting their health and their child’s health in jeopardy. They also end up succumbing to the demands of procreating more, leading to larger families, which they cannot afford to maintain (UNESCO, 2017).
This leads to cyclical poverty, which they cannot get out of, however hard they try. Child brides also often show signs symptomatic of child sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, including feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression (Khan, N and M. Lynch, 1997).
The World Health Organisation in a study also found that girls with low levels of education and adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 are at a higher risk of violence than better educated or older women (WHO, 2005).
According to the ASER Report of 2014, Rajasthan recorded 69.7%, the highest percentage of mothers across the Indian states with no schooling. The female literacy rate of the state is 52%, as per the 2011 Census (the last year for which data is available).
These numbers tell us a story where gender inequality is still in an alarming state. While interacting with close to 200 women aged 18 to 30, from close to 25 districts across Rajasthan who come from both rural and urban areas, this is what they had to say as to why girls aren’t still in school, despite many interventions made by the state with the help of national and international NGOs.
At the end of all this despair, is some respite, I guess. Ending Child Marriage is officially on the global agenda because as part of the Sustainable Development Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality, and empower all women and girls, the target is to eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage along with female genital mutilation, by 2030.
We have numbers that show that the number of child marriages in India has halved, with only 7% of girls getting married before the age of 15 and 27% before the age of 18 (UNICEF).
That being said, it would be foolish of me not to mention that India has had legislation in place to protect our young girls since 2006. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006, the marriage between a man above 18 years of age with a woman below 18 years of age, is punishable with imprisonment of two years, a fine of up to ₹1 lakh or both.
This only begs me to question, “What more can we do?”
What could have been done to ensure that Reena from that remote village in Jodhpur didn’t get married during those summer holidays? Who should be held responsible? When can we truly say that we have tried enough?
I have been thinking about this and discussing this with a few of my friends, family and fellow development practitioners. These are a few of the solutions we came up with.
I want to end this post on a positive note by narrating the story of a young girl from a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in Rajasthan. Having first been brought to school when she was 10 years old, she was introduced to the concept of education and aspirations for the first time. Having open conversations about child marriage, etc. in the classrooms and in parallel, conversations about being empowered to explore the world of professions and careers, outside of being confined to her home, being made educated and suddenly aware, she was slowly transforming.
At the end of her tenure at this residential school, she went back and fought with her parents to let her continue her studies at the age of 13. She was a child bride, having been married at a very young age. She refused to go to her husband’s house and demanded that their marriage be terminated.
What you and I see as a small win is truly a huge victory for her because she has developed the agency to stand up for herself and negotiate with her parents on making choices that involve her. We have a long way to go but this is truly a start! Please go and check out what UNICEF does and has been doing in countries to ensure we hit that target of ending child marriage by 2030!