Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 14, Jul 02 - 15, 2005
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COVER STORY

Child BRIDES OF INDIA

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR
T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Child marriage is widespread in India despite a law banning it, and the loser in the end is invariably the girl child given the socio-economic factors that encourage the practice.



Rukhmabai, victim of child marriage who opposed the practice.

"I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women whose hard lot is to suffer the unnameable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others - study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner."

- Extract from a letter written by Rukhmabai, a victim of child marriage, to The Times of India on June 26, 1885, and reproduced in the book Child Marriages in India by Jaya Sagade (Oxford University Press, 2005).

ONE hundred and twenty years later, India is still unable to stop this feudal practice. This is evident from the recent attack on an anganwadi (welfare centre) supervisor in Madhya Pradesh who tried to prevent three young girls from being married off in a mass ceremony.

Shakuntala Verma, the official, went to Bhangarh village in Dhar district on May 11 after a tip-off that a family there was planning to marry off its young daughters. As instructed by the Sub Divisional Magistrate she asked for proof of the girls' ages, but was forced to leave after members of the family threatened her. Later that evening a person armed with a sword came to her house and began slashing at her. As she tried to protect herself, one hand was severed and the other severely cut. Even as Shakuntala was fighting for her life in an Indore hospital after a nine-hour operation to re-attach her hand, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Babulal Gaur announced that "no serious action" would be taken against those who conduct child marriages. "Social customs are stronger than laws," he said.

The shocking incident renewed the debate on child marriage, which, though outlawed, is continuing openly in places such as Dhar district and Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu. Most child marriages in northern India take place on an auspicious day - Akha Teej (Akshaya Trithiya). But in the south there appears to be no special occasion for such marriages.

SANDEEP SAXENA

A child couple, who got married on May 11, Akha Teej, outside the Bande ke Balaji temple near Jaipur the next day.

Although the illegality of the practice and the fact that such marriages are not registered make the exact numbers hard to determine, some estimates put the number of child marriages in the country at several thousands every year. In some cases, the bride and the groom are said to be little more than toddlers, though the majority are in their teens.

There is considerable evidence that child marriages contribute to virtually every social problem that affects women.

According to Jaya Sagade, who has done extensive research on child marriages in India, marriages in the Vedic period were performed when the couples reached a mature age. The girl's consent was always sought. She even had the freedom to choose her life partner. This practice, says Jaya Sagade, continued until the sixth and seventh centuries. But there appears to have been a reversal thereafter. The patriarchal social structure that emerged seems to have given its sanction to the practice of child marriage, if one goes by the fact that ancient scriptures and customs suggest early marriage for the girl - preferably before puberty and certainly immediately after her first menstruation. According to some sociologists, the ancient erotic text the Kama Sutra talks indirectly of this practice when it warns that a girl who has "fully arrived at puberty" should be avoided as a wife.

SANDEEP SAXENA

Teenage brides with relatives at the Bande ke Balaji temple, a day after they were married on Akha Teej, May 11.

Some people also trace the practice back to foreign invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. The invaders were said to have carried away young girls as war booty, forcing local communities to marry off their daughters very young. To protect the women from sexual exploitation and to preserve their chastity, pre-puberty marriages began to be considered the best option. Over time, this became a custom, the violation of which was met with social disapproval and disgrace. It was even considered a sin to keep a girl in her parental home after she had attained puberty.

Among the other reasons cited for the continuance of the practice were: tradition, family and societal pressure, feudal set-up, and poverty. Based on the view that `virginity' is essential in a bride, girls are married off at a very young age, beginning five years. As a result, these girls are traumatised by sex and are forced to bear children much before their bodies are fully mature.

Many parents say they are scared to keep their daughters unmarried after puberty as they have a big responsibility of protecting them. Most parents cite poverty as the reason. They find it so difficult to feed everyone in the family that they prefer to "send off" the daughter as early as possible to some other family. As for the boy's family, it gets an "unpaid servant" to do the household chores, often along with dowry.

However, according to Rajeev Gupta, Professor of Sociology in Rajasthan University, the reasons for child marriage today go beyond custom and poverty. The oppressed classes and castes, with the encouragement of the landed castes, emulate this feudal social practice as it ensures for them a source of cheap family labour. He believes that it is in the interest of the dominant classes to keep this system going.

It is also the observation of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) that poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. UNICEF is of the opinion that there may be several reasons why parents get their daughters married off early. They may think that early marriage offers protection from the dangers of sexual assault or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian. Early marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage. But there is no doubt that these notions get an impetus in an environment that basically goes against the girl child and women. There is no doubt that the affluent and the well off do not indulge in this practice, as the system is favourable to them in every sense.

Discussions on the evils of child marriage began as early as the last century. But a law - The Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) - was introduced only in 1929. In fact, the Indian political class woke up to the reality when Census 1921 reported that there were 600 brides between the ages of one and 12 months. It is said that a shocked Mahatma Gandhi urged a member of the Central Legislative Council, Harbilas Sarda, to introduce a Bill restraining child marriages. Thus was born the CMRA, popularly known as the Sarda Act. It was amended in 1978, when the minimum age of marriage was fixed at 21 for boys and 18 for girls and offences under the Act were made cognisable. The provisions of the Act are only to restrain and not to invalidate such marriages (see separate story on legal issues).

Several decades later, child marriages still take place with brazen impunity. The Central government does not have any records of child marriages; the argument is that the CMRA is administered and implemented by State governments and Union Territories. Therefore, the only institutions that do such tabulation are the Census of India and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS).

According to Census 1991, the percentage of married females in the total number of females in the age group 10 to 14 was 13.2 in Rajasthan, the highest in the country. In second place was Madhya Pradesh at 8.5 per cent, followed by Uttar Pradesh at 7.1. For the country, the percentage of married women under the age of 18 stood at 53.3. The situation did not change substantially in the following decade. Census 2001 reports that there are nearly three lakh girls under 15 who have given birth to at least one child.

K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Geetha, 12, of Thirtham, a remote village in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu, was married four years ago to a relative and lost her first child in May, a week after it was born.

Villages such as Kottaiyur Kollai, an interior hamlet in the Aiyyur forest range in Krishnagiri district, contribute substantially to this number. An economically and socially backward village, it is inhabited by Poojari Irula tribal people, who were shifted to government-built group houses there from the remote forest caves in 2003. Most middle-aged women here said they were married off when they were four or five years old. Their marriage with a relative was usually decided as soon as they were born. According to the women, "the age of marriage for girls has now risen to eight".

Many women in this village have delivered 10 to 12 children. M. Muthamma is just 20 and has five surviving children. She was married at 10. Mallamma Malli is only a year older to Muthamma and has eight children, having married at the age of eight. Mallamma is also 20 and has six children; she was married at 12. Most of the children go to a school, run by Myrada, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), mainly because they get at least one meal a day. Bethamugilalam panchayat, which comes under the Kelamangalam Panchayat Union in Krishnagiri district, has a school with 300 children and two teachers, said S. Chennappan, the Panchayat Union president. The teachers come from Denganikottai, 25 km away, by the 11 a.m. bus and return by the 2 p.m. bus. After taking into account the lunch break, they teach hardly for an hour. Said Chennapan: "Poor transportation is an important reason for poor education in several interior villages."

The women are keen that their children study and live better lives than theirs. But they are not sure how many generations it will take for their dream to come true. No one can be sure how long it will take, given the conditions prevailing in these villages. They have no infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools worth the name and some of the villages are not even accessible. According to Muthamma, the nearest hospital from Kottaiyur Kollai is in Denganikottai. The hospital, according to V. Nagarathinam of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), has had no gynaecologist for several months; only recently was a woman doctor appointed after protests by AIDWA. According to Mallamma Malli, nearly 99 per cent of the deliveries happen at home and the rest, which are complicated, mostly end in the death of the woman.

Thirtham village under Veepanapalli Panchayat Union in the district is home to about 30 families, most of whose breadwinners are petty traders. Each family, on an average, has five surviving children. Everyone is surprised that child marriage, the norm in the village, should be an issue at all. Rani (12) of the village was married to Shankar (14) on February 3, just 10 days after she attained puberty. Shankar's mother K. Rathnamma alleged that after media reports on the marriage, the district administration and the police harassed them and Rani's family. As a result, they sent away Rani to her parents, who refused to take her in. Rani was literally on the street, ostracised by the entire village, when G. Geetha of the Village Reconstruction and Development Project (VRDP), an NGO, took her under the organisation's care and later, with the consent of Rani's family and the police, admitted her in a children's home in Omalur. Shankar continues to live in the village and he told Frontline that he may consider another marriage if Rani does not return.

Whether she does or not, the Ranis of Krishnagiri and elsewhere have no say in the decision, victims as they are of an abominable practice that takes away from children their childhood in the quest of a life that virtually has no future.

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