In Tonk, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Ajmer and Bhilwara districts of Rajasthan, inexpensive mass marriages of children are held each year on Akha Teej (Akshay Tritiya), a Hindu festival. Ask the local policemen why they do not intercept these illegal marriages, and they’ll tell you sheepishly that in the lives of the poor, a daughter’s marriage is a most holy moment. On Akha Teej, hundreds can perform their god-given “duty” at a minuscule cost. It’d be sinful to intercept matches that are made in heaven and celebrated on earth. “After all, we too have children,” a few of them will add. So strong is this bias that when a village saathin, a Dalit potter’s wife named Bhanwari Devi, tried to prevent child marriages in her village, she was brutally raped by upper caste men as punishment. Later, when the matter was taken up by urban women and a case registered after much stalling and came up for hearing, ministers in the Rajasthan government bad-mouthed the urban do-gooders who, they said, had no idea what custom meant.
The medical journal, The Lancet, recently described child marriages in India as a crippling medical and social burden. But despite an age-old law banning child marriage, at least 44% of Indian girls and boys are still married off before they reach the legally stipulated minimum age of 18 and 21 years, respectively, and most become parents soon after. Such couples are less likely than their older counterparts to have access to contraception and due to repeated and poorly spaced pregnancies, the young mothers are far more likely to have complications during and after childbirth .
Question is, if the parents, particularly the mothers, have suffered the ill-effects of being married very young and realized how it damages their health, why do they marry their own progeny at a young age? How come the law in this matter has been less successful than against sati or dowry?
There are multiple reasons for this. As we discussed earlier, mostly the local police comes from the same cultural pool that sanctions child marriage and is reluctant to enforce the law. Secondly, women have very little say in these matters. They are usually decided by family elders. And thirdly, since a post-puberty unmarried girl is usually viewed as a ticking time bomb, most parents heave a sigh of relief if they are able to transfer the “burden” of bringing up a girl in “these times”. The mean age of marriage has been steadily going up in many urban areas and also in villages in more developed states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. So one could say the phenomenon is now more north India centric and there it has multiple roots, not all of which lie in custom.
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The biggest reason for child marriages is poverty. Ask parents in poor rural areas or the slum dwellers in cities and the answer will be the same. Their lives are uncertain and money is scarce. Early marriage is less expensive. In fact, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where most families still live jointly, once the eldest girl reaches the age of 11-12, parents try to marry off all the girls from their family at the same time; ditto for boys. If a number of boys are available for marriage in a single joint family, several of the girls from another family will be married to them, so parents on both sides incur a one-time expense. The young brides and their mothers are happy as the sisters can continue to live together. Sometimes, in very poor communities in Rajasthan, a child may be married when a feast is held to mark an old family member’s death.
Another reason for early marriages is the threat of violence that the poor live with, in villages and urban slums. Their boys and girls must start working early. They work in the fields or take cattle out to graze or, if they live in urban slums, the children are sent to factories or as domestic help. School drop-out rates are particularly high among girl children touching their teens. So the brothers may go to school, but girls will be asked to stay back and care for siblings and cook, while their mothers work outside the home. Since apart from domestic work there is nothing to keep a young girl gainfully occupied, an unmarried young teenager sitting at home, or walking around in the fields, is highly vulnerable to being raped or coerced into sexual relationships. Research has revealed a fairly high degree of sexual activity among both the rural and urban young, cutting across caste and class lines. Unwanted pregnancies and/or elopements that follow may result in the girls’ death by botched abortions or honour killings, or worse, her being sold into a brothel. Communities in villages are tightly knit and there is a pan-Indian custom that if one girl in the family brings dishonour, her sisters’ marriage proposals will be turned down. A mass marriage of pre-pubescent boys and girls, the families feel, precludes that possibility.
Given this ground reality, a change will not take place until poverty is eradicated and a female-friendly school system set up as well as a personal safety net to girl children. Messages in the media describing the evils of child marriage and changing media images of girls as empowered citizens rather than helpless victims would help, but it is not enough.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org