" Patna, 20 April 2006: Girls are generally married off early in the Indian state of Bihar. Most of them are still children, unprepared to bear either the burden of marital responsibility or childbearin "
Patna, 20 April 2006: Girls are generally married off early in the Indian state of Bihar. Most of them are still children, unprepared to bear either the burden of marital responsibility or childbearing. Early marriages, early childbearing, prematurely born underweight infants and complications during pregnancy and childbirth are not uncommon. Most of the girls who are married off early seldom get an education.
Support for girls’ education is one of the major areas of UNICEF’s work in Bihar. The autobiographical essays below depict the plight of girls who did not get an education as children, but got an opportunity to study when Nari Gunjan, one of UNICEF’s partners in education, led by Sister Sudha Varghese, winner of the Padmashri medal, started a learning centre in their village. These girls can now read and write but have lost many precious years. Will they be the skilled workers of tomorrow in a world of growing opportunities, or will they be only wives and mothers?
Rinku Kumari, Ramji Chak, Bata
My name is Rinku Kumari. My father is Jitan Manjhi. We are four sisters and my mother passed away when I was 12 years old. Since then, my father has taken care of us. I was keen to study right from my childhood but there was no opportunity. It was only when a Nari Gunjan centre opened in my village that I joined it with the permission of my father. After the day’s work I attended the centre and, apart from studies, I learnt useful skills.
Though my mother-in-law allowed me to attend classes at the centre, my husband stopped me from going there. He threatened to “break my legs” if I disobeyed him.
My time at the centre was cut short when my father got me married at the age of 15 with a boy from a neighbouring village. My husband’s behaviour toward me was very bad. Everyday, he would return from work, drink heavily and beat me up. There was a Nari Gunjan centre near my married home too. Though my mother-in-law allowed me to attend classes at the centre, my husband stopped me from going there. He threatened to “break my legs” if I disobeyed him. I returned to my father’s house and told him about my husband’s brutal treatment. Thankfully, he did not let me go back to my husband’s house after that. Now I go to the Nari Gunjan centre in my village everyday. I pray that all parents should give a proper education to their daughters and never marry them off at a young age.
Buna Devi, Kurkuri
My name is Buna Devi. I was born to extremely poor parents. I was barely a teenager when I was married off to Baijnath Manjhi of village Kurkuri in Phulwarisharif area of Patna district. I was thirteen then. I started living with my husband and parents-in-law.
When I went to the Centre, my neighbours would comment, “Look at this old woman with two children. She is going to study now, at this age!” I never replied to them but silently pursued my goal. I had my first child almost a year after my marriage. I am eighteen now, and my eldest child – a boy – is five. I have another child who is three years old. It never crossed my parents’ minds that I needed an education. They thought that education was not for the poor. However, when Nari Gunjan opened a centre in my village and girls and women below 21 were given an opportunity to study, I got myself enrolled. It was quite difficult for me initially. When I went to the Centre, my neighbours would comment, “Look at this old woman with two children. She is going to study now, at this age!” I never replied to them but silently pursued my goal.
What bothered me most was that my mother-in-law too did not support me. She refused to take care of my children while I was away. It was my elder son who helped me. He started taking care of his younger brother and played outside the Centre while I studied. My younger son troubled me a lot at the Centre but I never gave up my studies. After spending a few hours at the centre, I also had to work in paddy fields, or thrush crops to supplement the family income. It was a hard life, but I never gave up my determination to become literate.
There were many other skills I learnt at the Centre, apart from studies. For example, I learnt about health and hygiene, cleanliness, sanitation, child-rearing, stitching and cutting. I also learnt about the position of women and girls in society; ills like child labour and the consequences of child marriage. I also learnt about other people at the Centre who had faced difficulties but had overcome them.
I had never imagined that some day I would be a literate person. But I did become one, and I am so proud that I cannot talk about my sense of achievement in words. I want to convey to the Manjhi family that they should all become literate and also make their children capable and literate. I support my children in every way so that they can become educated and good human beings. I feel that the jewelry women wear is superficial. Our real adornment is education.
Phulwanti Kumari, Centre Babhanpura
I always wanted to study but my mother discouraged me and said, “What will you do with an education? After all you have to take care of your home and family and work in the fields?”
I tried to convince her that I would study after finishing my day’s work but she never listened. Instead she would ask me to take care of my younger brothers and sisters.
Now, my parents-in-law have sent for me, which means that I have to drop out of the Centre. I cannot describe how disillusioned I am.
Then one day a Nari Gunjan centre opened in my village and an instructress, Madhuri didi (elder sister) came to my house. She convinced my mother about the benefits of literacy and I was allowed to join the centre. Sometimes, I also walked to the school situated on the outskirts of the village, but boys would tease me on the way. One day, my mother decided to get me married, and within no time I was married. Fortunately, I was not sent to my husband’s home immediately and could continue my studies at the Nari Gunjan centre.
Now, my parents-in-law have sent for me, which means that I have to drop out of the Centre. I cannot describe how disillusioned I am. If I had been educated I would have become a doctor or a teacher. There is some consolation in that I can write my name and address. I can also write an essay about a cow, I know opposites, names of India’s and the state capitals. I also know about my state, names of the months, understand the difference between living and non-living things, about the rotation and revolution of earth, full moon and darkness. I have also been to Patna where I saw Gandhi Setu, Golghar, Zoo, the ruins at Kumhrar. I want to earn a living using skills rather than labour. I hope someday I can do that.
According to a United Nations report, India has the second highest number of child marriages. For a nation which is touted to be the next emerging superpower nation, it is a disturbing reality that evils like child marriages still persist. Marriage is considered to be a sacred union between two mature and consenting individuals who are ready to accept each other and share responsibilities for a lifetime. With respect to this context, child marriages happen to be an unsound institution. The fact that it is still prevalent in India explains that it is a Herculean task to devise measures to eradicate this social evil.
What is Child Marriage, its Concepts and Causes of Child Marriage
Child marriage as a concept can be defined as the formal or an informal union between two individuals before attaining the age of eighteen years. This institution should be seen as an abuse of human rights since this is one form of a forced marriage. As per the law in India, a child marriage is one in which the girl is below the age of eighteen years and the boy is below the age of twenty one years.
Child marriages have a history in India. They have existed from the times of the Delhi Sultanate when the monarchy system was prevalent. Indians also used child marriage as a weapon to protect girls from rapes and abduction by foreign rulers. Another social reason to initiate child marriages was that the elders wanted to see the faces of the grand children.
Impact of Child Marriage
Once married, the girl child is forced to leave her home and inhabit another place altogether wherein she is forced to take up roles that she isn’t mentally prepared for. Huge responsibilities like that of mother and a daughter-in-law are too much for a minor girl. It eventually leads to isolation and depression. For the males, taking up a responsibility as critical as that of wife as in to take of her finances and share your own finances also becomes taxing.
Childhood is lost and the freedom to play and learn is also snatched in the process. Early marriages also carry with them excessive risk factors. There is a greater risk of contracting sexual diseases like HIV. Also, girls who marry early are less likely to be updated about pregnancy and related subjects. Infants born to such mothers are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, low birth weights.
In India, child marriages are still prevalent in the state of Kerala, the state with the highest literacy rates. According to a UNICEF report, in India there were more child marriages in rural areas than urban. Bihar has the highest incidence of child marriage at 68 per cent while Himachal Pradesh with around nine per cent has the lowest incidence as per the report.
Laws to prevent Child Marriages in India
The Indian Constitution provides for prohibitions against child marriage through various laws and enactments. The first law that was designed was the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 which extended to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir. This act defines the ages of an adult male and female. If there is a marriage taking place between a boy who is aged between eighteen to twenty one years and a girl below the age of eighteen years, it implies an imprisonment up to fifteen days along with a fine of one thousand rupees. The act was again amended in the year 1940 to rise the ages of male and female children.
Another law that exists is the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. This act addressed the flaws contained in the child Marriage Restraint Act. Thus, this act was meant to strictly prohibit the marriage rather than merely restricting it. Under this law, the children have the choice to declare their marriage as void up to two years of reaching adulthood. But, this law does not extend to the Muslims which is a major shortcoming of the law as this law is binding to all citizens of India. Also, sex with minors is a criminal offence under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code. The issue of confusion over marital rape is also a factor which proves as a hindrance to curb this menace as marital rape is not illegal in India.
Again, the laws are not without criticisms. A major obstacle in curbing the evil is that most of these marriages are carried out informally and thus remain unregistered. Most of the times, it become an uphill task to decipher the correct age of the children as they do not have birth certificates as proofs or even if they have, that happens to be a fraudulent one since it establishes the age inappropriately as an adult. There needs to be mechanisms much stronger than these laws in order to put a stop on child marriages. Immediate reporting to the police needs to done as and when one hears of child marriage taking place.
How to Increase Social Awareness regarding Child Marriage
Children need to be made aware of their human rights and must be taught to refuse and speak up once such an incident is taking place or is about to take place. The media also needs to adopt a more proactive role in generating awareness towards this heinous ritual. A popular mainstream show like “Balika Vadhu” was definitely a step in the right direction but then again somewhere in the midst of gaining TRPs, the main issue of combating child marriages took a backseat. Proper media sensitization is required for a major change to take place.
While on one hand, it is stated that child marriage will still take nearly fifty years to be eradicated, genuine efforts, strict enforcements of the legal provisions and change the scenarios to a great extent. Child marriage has been declining at a rate of one per cent per year in the last two decades but this pace is slow.
UNICEF has partnered with NGOs and government organizations to accelerate the process of curbing the rampant practice of child marriages. Organizations like CARPED and Child line have proposed setting up for social homes for the victims of child marriage victims and provide them with funds till the time they are not mature enough along with their education. It needs to be understood that poverty and lack of education are the major factors that undermine the efforts to end the menace.
Social Reformers of India