Child brides are exposed to higher health risks

Child brides are exposed to higher health risks

Mala has a hazy memory of how her life metamorphosed overnight: from a 12-year-old taking good care of her siblings into a bride meeting the needs of a hitherto unknown family. She is the victim of ‘Yaadi me Shaadi’, a tradition widely practised in the northern districts of the state. Generally, this marriage is arranged within hours of the prospective groom’s family visiting the girl’s house.

Many a time, the child bride’s parents fail to trace her whereabouts after the marriage. The groom’s family prefers such a flash marriage when the boy has a questionable character, divorced or physically challenged. Poverty is the main reason for the girl’s parents to consent to such an alliance. “Soon after my brother-in-law’s divorce case was settled, we, along with a marriage broker, went straight to Mala’s house. Though the idea was to meet the family of the prospective bride, it so happened that the wedding took place the same night,” recalled Suma.

Lakki was married off early because her parents feared her safety at home when they migrated to cities for six months every year in search of work. Poverty not only deprived Mala of education but also thrust her into a marriage with a divorced and physically challenged person, who was much older than her.

A couple of years have passed by and now she is the mother of a nine-month-old child. “She found it difficult to adjust. I had to guide her — from cooking to understanding a man’s needs. Now I help her in taking care of the child, too,” Suma spoke for Mala who seemed to have gone into her shell. Suma is not fortunate either. At 25, she has a 12-year-old son, and she underwent uterine fibroid surgery last year.

This is one of a host of health problems that early motherhood poses. The haemoglobin level in 90% pregnant adolescents is as low as 7 to 8 g/dL. Miscarriage, postpartum haemorrhage, stunted child, urinary tract infection, white discharge, menstrual and uterine complications are some other risks child brides face. Depression, mental stress and low confidence level are common psychological problems seen in these girls.

Violence and unhealthy sexual behaviour from partners puts these young girls at a greater risk of diseases. Take the instance of Lakki (14). When DH met her in a village near Belagavi, she was leading a herd of goats to a grazing site. This three-month pregnant was clueless about staying healthy and safe during this period. All she knew was that her family wants a child soon. More unsettling details unveiled as we engaged in a conversation: she had to undergo an abortion four months ago after a complicated pregnancy and the doctors had strictly advised the couple to delay pregnancy until the girl becomes an adult. “We didn’t discuss this at home because we hardly talk to each other,” she revealed. Her spouse is in his early twenties and he doesn’t find the need for birth control measures as he feels, “The younger the better.”

The visibly malnourished Lakki has been issued a card under the state government’s ‘Thayi Bhagya Scheme’, where the age column declares she is 20. “We don’t have a choice. We can’t specify a lesser age as it is against the government’s policy. We try our best to educate them on the negative impacts of early pregnancy. But it falls on deaf ears because of the social and family pressure on a girl to deliver a baby within a year of marriage,” says an accredited social health activist worker. This is a pointer to show how the administration ensures an ‘all-is-well image’.

Manifestation of violence

A sense of anger and resentment overcomes Priya, 18, in Bagalkot, when she shares how her partner cheated her. “It was over one year into the marriage when I realised that he had another wife. I was made to carry out household chores but was not given the rightful place of a wife. During the period, he had taken around Rs 50,000 from my parents citing several reasons.” She lives with her parents now and is trying to get back the money. These girls are in a precarious situation as none of the child marriages is registered.

Halavva, in Bagalkot district, was married when she was in Class 5 under pressure from her paternal uncle who wanted to help his sister save money by marrying her four sons at a single ceremony. “I was married to the youngest, who was a high school student,” she said. A girl with rare guts and high educational ambition, she returned home one week after she was sent to her in-laws’ house. When the family decided to send her again, she fled home to save herself from a ‘marriage of convenience’. The police rescued her and now she lives with her parents on the condition that she is allowed to continue her education.  

“What makes them believe that marriage brings happiness to their daughters? We wouldn’t even know what a marriage is and they make decisions for us,” says Anjum, another victim.

“By the time they realise that their daughters are considered as free labour and experience higher levels of violence after marriage, it will be too late. For most of these women, the prime life ends at 30,” rued Latha Lobo, a counsellor at SEVAK, an NGO working with early married girls.“Deserted, widowed, indisposed, weak adolescent girls are the manifestation of the evils of child marriage.”