In our society, adolescence is seen as a problem!
It is the stage when a person enters puberty and starts exploring her sexuality. Ideally, it should be a matter of celebration; when a person enters into a new phase of life, with new excitement and energy to explore more, but unfortunately, in our society, adolescence is regarded as a problem.
The experience even becomes bitter, in case the adolescent is a girl! Society responds differently to an adolescent based on her/his gender. I still remember the day when I started menstruating; I was told that ‘you are grown up now’ and an unknown fear and hesitation had covered me unknowingly.
It took a long time for me to overcome that stage of fear and hesitation. And after 14 years, when I joined Pradan and started staying at Ranabandh village of Godda district, Jharkhand, the years-long memories resurfaced. Here, I met Anshu, Poonam, Nilam, Renu, Nisha, Bindu and Dhanisa who are in their adolescence stage now.
I started talking to them, and knowing their fears and struggles, made me realise how adolescent issues and a lack of conversations about it, are making it even more complex in the rural context, especially for girls. This article is an attempt to share those struggles.
Adolescence can be understood in two stages: 10 years-14 years, which is also known as early adolescence; it is that stage when physical changes begin, beginning with a growth spurt and followed by the growth of the sex organs and other secondary sexual characteristics.
The external changes are apparent, and it can lead to anxiety as well as excitement or pride for the person whose body is transforming. During 15 years-19 years, also known as late adolescence, the body continues developing along with the brain, and the analytical ability of a person starts enhancing.
At this stage, an individual gains more confidence and clarity about their own self, social consciousness increases, and peers’ acceptance becomes an essential matter for the individual. The sudden physical changes and social response to those changes bring a psychological impact on the adolescent too.
When I recollect memories from my adolescence stage, the challenges that I faced come to my mind very clearly. I hail from Tezpur, Assam, where people celebrate menstruation. My menstruation was also celebrated, but unfortunately, the reason behind it was also patriarchal!
The custom of celebrating menstruation in Assam is known as ‘Tuloni Biya’ (small wedding). A girl who attains menstruation needs to be in an isolated room for seven days as her period is considered as impure.
She is not supposed to see and talk to any male member during those days, not even the younger ones. She needs to maintain a strict diet, which includes fruits, boiled food, and sprouts only and has to fast for few days, depending on her ‘dokha’ (time of menstruation decided by discussing with a Brahmin).
She is not allowed to go outside of the room and touch anyone and anything. The celebration happens on the seventh day, where the girl is dressed as a bride and neighbours, relatives, family members come to give her blessings with gifts.
If we consider the expenses involved in such ceremonies, it is not less than a real marriage in a middle-class family.
The reason behind these decade long customs is that in ancient times; when villages were less populated, when technology had not touched the peoples’ lives, and communication mediums were not advanced, the father of the girl used to announce that his daughter has attained adulthood. He then organised a ceremony, to invite nearby villagers, for people to come to see his daughter for marriage.
Menstruating for the first time is considered as attaining a ‘marriageable age’. These ceremonies were to disclose the sexuality of the girl too, assuming heterosexuality is universal.
However, nowadays, it has become a more competitive platform for parents to show off their wealth, to show off who can organise the small wedding (Tuloni Biya) of their daughter more extravagantly.
This custom is reinforcing the years-long patriarchal belief and taboos related to menstruation untouchability.
I still remember those seven days when I was locked in a room, and not allowed to talk to any male, not even to my father and brothers. I consider those days as the most unproductive days of my life, where I could not even attend the first test of my half-yearly examination.
I was 11 years old and reading in the sixth standard at that time. When I went to school the next day after the ceremony, I was feeling very shy as everybody knew about my menstruation.
One of my teachers asked me why did I not attend my first examination, and I could not answer. The fear of judgment and hesitation was there. Times have passed but the untouchability and taboos around menstruation are still going on.
Restriction on mobility, worshipping, and touching things are the practices that need to be followed by a girl, every month, during her periods in Assam, which I have stopped following for the last few years.
But it took me a long time to deny the years-long customs. Was it a celebration where I did not have any say about my choice? The real celebration will happen when people will start having a conversation on menstruation and accept menstruation as a normal process.
It will happen when girls will be empowered with knowledge on menstruation, and when they will feel free to make choices of sharing their struggles without any fear of judgment.
In August 2017, I joined PRADAN and started staying in Ranabandh village as a part of village stay and village study programs of Daship of PRADAN.
Ranabandh is a small interior village, in Poraiyahat Block, in the Godda District of Jharkhand. The village is located at the Bihar and Jharkhand border, and it is around 20 kms away from Poraiyahat Block.
During that period of stay, it was surprising for me to see that here, girls do not talk about menstruation at all, not even with their mothers. Comparing this to my childhood, I realised that these girls have even more restrictions on making choices and are less informed about their reproductive health.
Menstrual hygiene is also a distant concept for them, as nobody talks about this. When I was in the village, there was a meeting organised by Ek Jut organisation, where the discussion was on women’s reproductive health.
I observed that the people for whom the meeting would have been more beneficial did not turn up, as there were no newly married women, not even any adolescent girls, only the village old ladies were participants.
It helped me realise the present status of how people tend to ignore these discussions. I started interacting more with the newly married women and girls, who did not participate in the discussion after that. I wanted to know their version of the story and I came to know that there are lots of hesitations.
The adolescent girls here have many struggles in their life. Early marriage is very prevalent, which often results in girls dropping out of school. After menstruation, girls are considered to be marriageable.
This is the stage when traditional gender norms push girls into helping with household chores and sibling care, leading to irregular attendance at school, that eventually results in dropouts.
Like early marriage, early pregnancy and repetitive pregnancies, without maintaining gaps are also very common in the village. And the reason behind these is also patriarchal, as people prefer having a boy over a girl child.
And women do not have any say on reproductive decisions. Knowledge of birth control and contraceptives is also very less among minor wives. In such a scenario, the stage of adolescence becomes more complex.
During my stay at the village, I made many adolescent female friends, both married and unmarried. We started talking, and we started sharing our aspirations, issues, fears, and obstacles.
The girls here have many dreams – to study, to become independent, to get a job, to get married, and manage the family too. However, many times, the girls here have to sacrifice their dreams as their parents marry them off at an early age.
The fear of getting married without their consent is always there among the girls. Here, the average age for marriage for a girl is 14-15 years, and for a boy is 20-21 years. I met many didis of 22-25 years who have 4-5 kids now.
At the time of their first child, most of the didis were below 18 years of age. When I tried to know the reason for the early marriages of those minor mothers, I found that dowry is the main reason, in most of the cases.
At present, people generally demand a dowry (tilak) of Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh; arranging this much money for their daughter’s marriage is very difficult for a family, who is completely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.
Therefore, if parents find a family who demands less or no dowry, then they accept the proposal for the marriage. Another reason for early marriage is the fear of parents about the ‘premarital affairs’ of their daughters.
A few years ago, one girl got pregnant before marriage and since then, all villagers are afraid of such incidents. If they find that their daughter has an affair with any boy, then they start looking for a groom to marry her off.
Social pressure on the parents of adolescent girls is also one of the reasons for early marriage. In this village, many girls have stopped studying after class 8 as the high school is around 5 kms away.
A few girls found it risky to go to school, as their friends’ had experienced sexual abuse by local boy gangs while going to school.
All these factors influence parents to start looking for a groom for their daughters, and their in-laws and relatives start pressurising them by saying ‘beti ka shaadi jaldi kara do nahi to sayani ho jayegi’ ( Marry your daughter quickly, or she will become cunning).
Besides all this, the villagers have witnessed eloping and love-marriage cases too, because of which they do not want to take any risks, as they believe it is going to harm their patriarchal reputation in society.
Nowadays, many projects on girls’ education are designed to address such issues. There is evidence that the educated girls are less likely to marry early and get pregnant at an early age, and more likely to have correct and comprehensive knowledge on HIV & AIDS, and deliver healthy children when they become mothers.
But if we consider the ground realities, there are many more complexities that hinder a girl from pursuing her studies.
Here are true stories of girls who were married and became mothers too young:
-Rupa didi is 23 years old now, and she has three girls. She was married off when she was 15 years old; at that time, she had just completed her 9th standard examination. Her parents married off her because they found a well off family who did not demand any dowry. Patriarchal practices like dowry compel parents to look for cheap deals for their daughters.
-Two years ago, Sushila didi married off her daughter at the age of 14 years, her daughter was reading in class 7 then. Other didis of the village and Sahiya (Sita Devi, Asha worker) also told Sushila to stop this, but they failed.
Sushila didi married off her daughter because she found a family who did not ask for any dowry. When I interacted with Sushila didi, she told me that she regrets her decision now, as all didis of the village started insulting her in every public gathering after the marriage.
She brought her daughter from her in-laws’ house now to her home, until the age of 18, after Sahiya told her about the risks relating to early pregnancy. Many times, people advocate child marriage by eliminating its risk of premature pregnancy.
However, nobody cares about the long term repercussions and psychological consequences of such weddings on a child bride!
-Meena didi is a 35-year-old grandmother now. She has two sons and three daughters. The eldest son is 20 years old now, and the second son is 18 years old. Her second son Rajesh married Geeta.
It was a love marriage where they eloped; Geeta was only 15 years old at that time. Meena was against the wedding, but she had to agree when Geeta came to her house to stay permanently.
Geeta got pregnant in the same year, and she went to her parents’ home during pregnancy, and nobody bothered to bring her to Asha worker for the basic health facilities.
At the time of birth, the baby weighed just 1 kg, and the delivery was done at home. After delivery, there were complications, but all hospitals in Godda denied admitting Geeta in their hospitals as the condition of the child was very critical at that time.
Geeta didi and Meena didi tried hard to save the child. Rajen (the baby) is better now than before, but still, the baby and mother are underweight.
Adolescence is a critical stage because it is the time when poverty and inequity pass to the next generation. Adolescent girls from lower-income backgrounds give birth to impoverished children, and the cycle of malnourishment continues.
In Ranabandh village, having 4-5 children is also very common, and the gap between 2 children is hardly 2 years. Supriya didi is 27 years old now, and she is a Sevika in the Anganwadi centre of Ranabandh.
I wanted to meet her personally because she tells others about the use of contraceptives and consequences of multiple and frequent pregnancies, but she herself could not practice that, given the fact that she has four children.
She has a 12-year-old daughter, 9 year-old-daughter, 2.5 years old daughter, and 1-year old son. This case is different from others because the gap between her 2nd and 3rd child is around six years.
From Supriya didi, I came to know that here in the village, the awareness of contraceptives is very less, and that is why she could not maintain gaps. She used Copper T in between because of which she could maintain a six years gap between her 2nd and 3rd child, but as she wanted a boy child too, she removed the Copper T.
From Supriya didi, I came to know that in Ranabandh village, people generally do not employ sterilisation, because they have to do tough physical work in the field.
From an Asha worker, Sita didi, I came to know that people in Ranabandh do not use contraceptives, even when she distributes contraceptive pills among women and condoms among men.
Women here fear that the use of contraceptives will be harmful to their future pregnancies. Lack of awareness on birth control measures among newly married adolescent brides is also one of the reasons for frequent pregnancy here.
Again, male members do not play any role in using contraceptives here, as most of the men refuse to use condoms, despite free availability. It is the women who need to go through complex health compromises for birth control.
This is so because they do not have any say about their reproductive choices, as the society compels them to get pregnant again and again; until they give birth to a boy child.
If we see the history of child marriage, we will see that it has existed in India from the times of the Delhi Sultanate when the monarchy system was prevalent. Early marriage was also used as a weapon to protect girls from rapes and abduction by foreign rulers. Controlling the sexuality of women is another reason for early marriages.
According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) of 2006, the legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. This act clearly says that every child’s marriage is voidable by the child, but, within two years of becoming an adult.
Punishment for a male adult, if he is above 18 years, and has a contractual marriage, is imprisonment for two years or a fine of Rs 1 lakh or both. Punishment for solemnising the marriage is imprisonment for two years or fine of Rs 1 lakh or both.
Like child marriage, our country has strict laws for dowry too (Dowry Prohibition Act 1961), which clearly says, that what will hold, is the punishment of a fine, up to Rs.15000 or the dowry amount, whichever is higher and imprisonment from 6 months to five years.
The Supreme Court of India has also passed laws regarding sex with minor wives, to be considered as rape and punishable under law. But despite these laws, child marriage is still prevalent in India.
The law exists, but there is no one to make a complaint, and child marriage is widely accepted in many parts of India, especially in rural areas.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.
*Feature image is representational.