When child brides fight back

SMALL CHANGE

When child brides fight back

 There are signs that India’s child brides are ready to put up a stiff fight against the injustice they have been bearing in the name of tradition and family honour, writes, Aditi Bishnoi.

The incidence of child marriages nationally is coming down. But the pace of change is excruciatingly slow: From 54 per cent in 1992-93 it came down to 43 per cent in 2007-08. According to the District Level Household and Facility Survey (DLHS)-3, 2007-08, in India, 43 per cent women aged 20 to 24 have been married before they turned 18.

These are girls who drop out of school, who are vulnerable to sexual violence and who may not survive their first pregnancy. The figures are self-explanatory: DLHS-3 reveals that 66.6 per cent girls aged between 15 and 19 are more likely to experience complications during childbirth as compared to 59.7 per cent women in the age group 30-34.

The story of Mallamma from Andhra Pradesh’s Muddanageri village in Kurnool district puts this threat in perspective. At 15, Mallamma was married off against her will. Initially, when her husband pestered her to have a child she resisted. But later, she gave in. Mallamma’s first child did not live for long. She then gave birth to two more children, neither of whom survived. Severe health complications followed, which resulted in a hysterectomy. Mallamma can never become a mother now.

Depressing though all this may be, there are also signs that ‘balika vadhus’, or child brides, are ready to put up a stiff fight against the injustice they have bearing in the name of tradition. Earlier this year in Jodhpur, when Laxmi Sargara, 18 stood in front of cameras with a court order that annulled her child marriage, she provided an insight into the transforming mindset of adolescent girls.

After her grandmother passed away, Laxmi, 1, was married off to Rakesh, 3, as per a local custom that dictates that when an elderly relative dies a younger relative should get married to keep away the bad spirits.

This April, Sargara’s world was turned upside down when her “husband’s” parents showed up to claim her. Although she opposed the move, Sargara knew her parents would not be able to stand up to the social pressures, so she ran away and took refuge with a local civil society organisation, which managed to get her marriage annulled under The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.

Sargara’s is one of the first cases of its kind in India and the fact that it happened in Rajasthan, where more than 50 per cent girls marry before they turn 18 (DLHS-3), is good news. Media reports quoted Sargara as saying, “I feel light and free since the annulment. …I would like to learn tailoring and start my own boutique... Eventually I will trust my parents to find me a good match… But it would be my choice. And as a human being I have that right.”

Sargara certainly does, as do others like her. According to Dr Shanta Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), “Girls detest child marriage. During my interactions, I have found each one revealing how they hated being alone with the man, how scared they were.” Sinha further points out that a child bride bears the trauma of becoming a mother even before she has lived her own childhood.

Yet, such marriages continue to happen. “There is always a grandparent in the family who is dying and who wants to see the child married. There are always parents who have ‘given their word’ and leave their daughters with no choice. Thankfully, this is a declining trend. Girls who get support are willing to speak up now,” she comments.

Sinha was part of a panel of eminent Indians and international personalities, who agreed to become champions to end child marriage at an event jointly hosted by The Elders and the Population Foundation of India (PFI) in Delhi earlier this year. Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Chair of The Elders, had then memorably commented, “India is a great nation and will only benefit from enabling girls and women to play their full part in building the future of the country. Let girls be girls, not brides.”

Today, both encouragement and assistance is readily forthcoming, whether it’s through government initiatives or NGO networks. Experts and activists concur that the way out lies at two levels. There are long-term measures, like enforcing the laws on the right to education and the prohibition of child marriage.

There are also effective short-term solutions. Take Rajasthan’s successful campaign in the run up to Akha Teej this year. Deepak Kalra, Chairperson, Rajasthan State Commission for the Protection Child Rights, elaborates, “In Rajasthan, marriages are solemnised as per auspicious dates, called ‘savas’. This year, we asked a Hindu priest to give us the dates for these ‘savas’ in advance. Akha Teej, one of the eight major ‘savas’, fell on April 24. We collaborated with the Women and Child Development department and mounted a large-scale campaign.”

From District Collectors to the police to anganwadi workers, everyone was involved. Control rooms were set up and the 1098 number was used to register calls of complaints. Local control room numbers were also publicised in schools. Complaints were accepted even in cases where the complainants were unwilling to reveal their identities. Reveals Kalra, “That week, we were able to prevent 1,400 weddings, which was the total number of weddings stopped in the whole year in 2011.”

Although Kalra is satisfied with this effort, she knows that the pace of activity and advocacy could slacken over time, so she emphasises the importance of providing quality education to girls. “Girls today want better opportunities in life. We need more schools at the village-level that give good education,” she asserts.

R Venkat Reddy, National Convenor of MV Foundation, a Hyderabad-based NGO working on education and protection of child rights in Andhra Pradesh, underlines the hurdles faced by girls accessing higher education, “In many villages, there are still hardly any schools for girls beyond Class 5 in the immediate vicinity. This, combined with deficiencies like the lack of toilets and proper transportation, make parents reluctant to send their daughters to the higher classes.”

A possible solution to this problem has been found from within the community. Helping to keep girls in school are youth groups that have come up across the country. For instance, Andhra has balika sanghas, Rajasthan has bal manches and Bihar, Jagriti youth clubs.

The NCPCR, too, has created a force of ‘bal bandhus’ (child rights’ defenders) in nine districts across the five states of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, that are facing acute civil unrest. Had it not been for the timely action taken by Mukesh Paswan, the Bal Bandhu of Parsauni Kapoor gram panchayat in East Champaran district, Bihar, Jyoti Kumari, 13, Class 5 student at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhayalaya in Patahi could not have escaped the common fate of illiterate child brides battling domestic violence.

In Andhra, besides rallies and public meetings, MV Foundation initiated an unusual youth group in 2006. In Rangareddy, Warangal, Kurnool and Nalgonda districts, it has mobilised the community with the help of young boys chosen because they were also potential grooms. “We were able to convince these boys to support us after child brides talked to them about the impact of such marriages on underage couples.

Today, they go into different villages and convince panchayats to take action,” informs Reddy.  Stopping underage marriages is very much a work-in-progress. But there is hope because girls are increasingly seeking their own version of ‘Happily ever after…’ Sinha concludes, “Child marriage has been stubborn to change.

But greater bounce in the society, in terms of development, opportunities and education, will help girls to exercise agency and say, ‘No, I don't want such a marriage’.”
Ultimately, says Sinha, every girl is capable of fighting her own battle, provided she has a life after it.

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