Nipped In The Bud
By Kathyayini Chamaraj
Child marriage still flourishes, as a recent public hearing revealed. How should the problem be dealt with? By making all marriages under the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys invalid, instead of only those resulting from force or trafficking as at present? Or by public education the way 12 dalit women who bring out a monthly magazine in Andhra Pradesh called Navodayam do it?
Tamavva (all names have been changed) was married when she was one year old and still in the cradle. Today, at eight years of age, she is already a widow, having lost her husband two years ago. Sitting on the stage at a public hearing on child marriages, she looks blank when asked what she understands by “marriage” but only knows that her “husband” is dead.
Mangala, a 10-year-old, was married to her 24-year-old disabled maternal uncle two years ago. She is still in her natal home studying in the fourth standard. She too has no idea what “marriage” means. Shobha, married at eight, is now 30 years old. Her husband died of ill-health just a year after they were married.
At the ages of eight and nine, Tamavva’s and Shobha’s lives practically came to an end. They were subjected to the traditional stigma attached to widows in the social environment in which they live. These girls dare not have dreams about their future like others. This in a country in which Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the social reformers of the 19th century, fought against the evil of child marriage all their lives.
Balavva, now 23, was married at 12 during a mass marriage while she was still studying in the fourth standard. Her first child died at birth—a result of her bearing a child when she herself was still a child and her body was not mature enough to bear one. Her opinion or consent was not obtained before the marriage. She was not allowed to continue her studies at her in-laws’ home. She became just an extra pair of hands tending to the elders, household and farm all day long. In addition, her husband started beating her after coming home drunk. After four years of marriage, Balavva returned to her natal home. She would like to learn tailoring and stand on her own feet but no one has helped her in this regard.
Yallavva, now 35, was married when she was 15, but was deserted soon after by her husband and she now lives all alone eking out her livelihood as a farm labourer. Most of the adult women say they have had enough of married life and are not interested in ever marrying again. These women have nothing to look forward to in life except dreary drudgery.
Lakshmavva’s case is unique as she is trying to live on her own terms and doesn’t want to get into the ‘victim’ mode. Now 18-year-old Lakshmavva was married when she was 12. She was harassed by her in-laws and her husband used to get drunk and beat her. She returned to her natal home but now that her father is dead, her brother is resentful of her return and so she does not feel welcome there either. Her husband keeps asking her either to return to him or give him a divorce, so that he can marry again. Lakshmavva is however insistent that she does not want to end her marriage to him or
marry someone else. She says that she will return to him if he pledges on bond-paper that he will not drink or ill-treat her. Though only 18, she displays her “feminist” outlook by her insistence that she be treated with respect, a trait uncommon and difficult to hold on to in the traditional environment that she lives in.
According to the 2001 Census, three lakh girls aged less than 15 had given birth to at least one child. In Karnataka, two out of five girls are married off before they are 18. In the districts of Bijapur, Raichur and Koppal, this figure is 50-59 per cent. Child marriage is merely a more hidden form of child abuse, child labour and child exploitation these have only been given a respectable façade and the sanction of society.
Pankaja Kalmat, chairperson of Karnataka Integrated Development Services (KIDS) in Dharwad, which organised the public hearing, says that many parents “fear that their girl children may lose their chastity if they remain unmarried after attaining puberty. Parents desire to get over the responsibility of conducting their children’s marriage and also hand over the responsibility of protecting girls to others. Parents believe that once children become adults, they may not agree to marry those whom the parents choose for them.”
Often, parents are unaware of the ill-effects of early marriage on girls that adolescent girls bearing children have higher chances of dying during childbirth and that their children too are born weak and have a higher likelihood of dying before they reach five years.
Poverty plays quite an important role in these decisions. Marrying off several children together reduces the cost of repeated marriages. Sometimes, aging grandparents wish to see the weddings of their grandchildren before they die. Often these marriages are fixed between close relatives of the girls, such as maternal uncles, so that property remains within families.
Marriages affect girls more than boys as they are uprooted from their natal families and bear the burden of having to ‘adjust’ to their in-laws’ ways of living. Patriarchy rules in the way decisions are made on behalf of girls. Marriage robs them of their childhood and imposes adult responsibilities on young shoulders but gives them practically no freedom to express their opinions, play a role in decision-making, or decide when to have or not have a child. Child marriage very conveniently curbs their levels of awareness, self-confidence, education and skills. It circumscribes their mobility and freedom, tying them to the home and its accompanying drudgery. The same may not apply to boys who undergo child marriage.
Girls who become widows at an early age face increased neglect and decreased respect in families. They are prevented from participating in festivities and auspicious occasions such as weddings, are targeted by men as easy sexual prey and often commit suicide unable to face the ensuing disgrace.
The Child Marriage Abolition Act of 2006 says an adult male marrying a child, or persons solemnising such child marriages, are punishable with imprisonment of two years or fine of Rs 1 lakh or both. Section 10 says persons promoting or permitting solemnisation of child marriage are punishable with imprisonment of two years and fine of Rs 1 lakh. Section 11 makes all such offences cognisable, non-bailable and punishable under this Act. Section 3 says that child marriage can be voidable at the option of either of the contracting parties, i.e., the children. Only child marriages resulting from force or trafficking are automatically void. But those happening out of custom and traditions are not void.
The lacuna is that there is nothing in the law which imposes punishments on officials allowing such marriages such as those designated as child marriage prevention officers. The law neither prevents the child bride from living with her husband nor her physical and sexual exploitation. A favourable provision is that the Act provides for
maintenance and residence to a child bride. But women’s activists are urging the government to “abolish” child marriage so that marriages involving under-18 girls or under-21 men become automatically invalid. But the government believes that this will in practice be seen as “divorce”, which often carries a stigma in Indian society. It would make it particularly difficult for the girl to get married again later. The Act, though, allows a child bride or groom, after they become adults, to seek divorce on the grounds of being married while under-age.
KIDS makes some recommendations for improving the situation. It calls for punishment of officials who violate the child marriage law. Poor families engaging in early child marriages need to be provided incentives to wean them away from these traditional practices. The central government scheme, Balika Samruddhi Yojana, and the Karnataka government’s Bhagyalakshmi scheme are good examples of this.
The Bhagyalakshmi scheme provides a lumpsum amount of close to Rs 1 lakh to the girl when she turns 18 if she has completed eight years of compulsory schooling and remains unmarried until she turns 18. Girls need to be provided with education and vocational skills to delay the age of marriage. They require life skills to develop self-esteem and lay a solid foundation for a healthy married life. They need to be provided time and opportunities to gain a strong sense of identity and set their own goals in life. Delayed marriages of girls will mean three to four million fewer births per year; currently these births constitute more than 12 per cent of total births. The government needs to partner progressive groups in undertaking massive community awareness programmes on the ill effects of child marriages.
The 205th Report of the Law Commission submitted in February 2008 dwells at length on the issue of child marriage and has made several recommendations: that marriages of children less than 16 years of age can be automatically declared void; that the age of consent for sexual activity needs to be raised to 16 years; that the law should provide for the maintenance of a child-bride until her re-marriage; that all marriages should be compulsorily registered; and that the age of marriage should be 18 for both girls and boys as there is no rationale for fixing different ages for the different sexes.
If Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar had been present at the public hearing and saw child marriage still flourishing in this 21st century, they would certainly have shed tears at the futility of their life-long struggle.