Children forced into marriages are caught in a vicious cycle that prevents them from realising their full potential and also adversely impacts their families, communities, and the country at large
Fifteen-year-old Anita Kumari roams around the lanes of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur’s Neknampur village flaunting a line of vermilion powder over the parting in her hair. Forced into marriage before the legal age of 18, Anita had to compromise with her dreams of becoming a doctor as her parents disapproved of the idea of a girl ‘dreaming’. Born to illiterate parents, Anita somehow managed to study till class eight, but after getting married to an illiterate man, she sees no scope of reviving her dream.
Child marriage, wherein a girl is married before the age of 18 years and a boy before 21, has been rampant in India since time immemorial. Even today, Anita isn’t alone. As the recent report by the United Nations reveals, one out of every three child brides in the world is in India, putting the country to global shame for its inability to stop this social malpractice. The States of Bihar and Jharkhand have the highest prevalence of child marriage.
Even after this embarrassing revelation, many Indians prefer to ignore the reality. A visit to Anita’s Bihar provides testimony to the recorded facts. Dalit bastis of Bhairon Ganj in Bagha like Juda Pakdi, Kadamhawa tola, Manjhariya, Bhainshi and Nadda have traditionally married off their girls at an early age.
Young girls and boys who don’t even understand the meaning of marriage are made to tie the knot, follow every tradition and in the process, and lose their innocence. It is a heart wrenching moment to see vermillion in a little girl’s forehead, loaded with accessories she can’t even bear the burden of, taking ‘saat pheras’ behind an equally young boy with maudis on their heads.
Soni, Meena, Seema and Pratima are not just girls, who before attaining puberty have been married, but also precious lives that trapped in a vicious cycle where, at every step, their physical, mental and reproductive health is compromised.
The reasons behind child marriage are as unacceptable as the trend itself. Paying a higher dowry, ensuring the chastity of women, considering girls as a liability and poor emphasis on girls’ education are some of the excuses ‘unfortunate’ parents of a girl child give while marrying them off early. Weak laws and their poor implementation are also part of the problem.
In its report, Ending Child Marriage — Progress and Prospects, the UN placed India in the sixth position among the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage. South Asia is home to almost half (42 per cent) of all child brides worldwide, with India alone accounting for one-third of the global total, the report stated.
“In India, about 27 per cent of women aged between 20 and 49 years were married before they turned 15. About 31 per cent of women in that age group were married after age 15 but before they turned 18. The median age of the first marriage among girls is 19 in India”, it added.
This deep-rooted social evil is, for several years now, being fought by a number of Governments and non-Government organisations. A Google search shows a long list of national and international NGOs fighting child marriage in different parts of India. It is due to their constant efforts that the prevalence decreased slightly
Between 2007 and 2008, the percentage of child brides was 42.9, as per the district-level household and facility survey. In over a decade between 1992 and 2006, the percentage of child brides in the age group of 20 to 24 years decreased by 6.8 percentage points — from 54.2 per cent in 1992-1993 to 47.4 per cent in 2005-2006.
It is not only the girl child who bears the consequences of early marriage but the lives of those around them are also impacted. When girls marry young, before their minds and bodies are fully developed, they usually become pregnant before they are ready for parenthood.
Research done by Plan International shows that pregnancy is the number one cause of death among girls aged between 15 and 19 worldwide. It also shows that child marriage reinforces the gendered nature of poverty, with limited education and skills reducing the potential of the girl, her family, her community and her country. Child marriage hinders a girl throughout her adult life and into the next generation.
With India contributing more than 40 per cent to incidences of child marriages in the world, one can only imagine the number of teenage mothers this nation is home to. One in six girls in the age group 15 to 19 years in India is a mother. The percentage of teenage mothers varies from 19.1 per cent in rural areas to 8.7 per cent in urban areas.
Child marriage has been a part of Indian society for several centuries now and has forced millions of girls into the vicious cycle of illiteracy, poverty, weak physical and reproductive health and eventually, untimely deaths. It is high time that the practice of child marriages in India ends.
The malice isn’t State specific; little children across our country are being affected, jeopardising India’s future. The time is right to support our Government and NGOs in spreading awareness towards the cause. Any little help can give back girls like Anita the right to dream.
(The writer is the Editor of ‘Appan Samachar’, a community channel & monthly Chittha run by village women in Muzaffarpur, Bihar)