Marriage in India is illegal under the ages of 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Any marriage of a person younger than this is banned in India under the Child Marriage Prevention Act of 1929. But the practice of child-marriages is still prevalent in many parts of rural India, particularly in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. Few marriages in India are formally registered, religious ceremonies are regarded as socially if not legally binding, even if the people concerned are mere innocent kids. Kids who are forced to grow-up and take care of responsibilities that come along with marriage.
I am 25 years of age, for me the word 'marriage' still gives jitters, I simply can't even imagine the plight of these young girls who are forced by their parents into marriage just for the sake-off few old customs and traditions. Couple of days ago a saw a special report covered by NDTV, about a girl who fought all the odds and made an example of her victory for other girls in similar situation to follow.
Chenugapalli Susheela from Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh got married at the age of 12. It took a six-month-long battle, for her two-year marriage to her teenage husband annulled to pursue her dream of getting an education. The reason why the case is even more significant is because Susheela is a dalit, a low-caste. Dalits traditionally stay uneducated and often suffer serious human rights abuses. In the extremely backward region of Telengana, where Susheela comes from, child marriage, though illegal, is widespread.
Susheela pleaded to her parents that her husbands would get drunk her and beat her up infront of the village people and no one would come to her rescue. She also claimed that her husband was having an affair with other women. Finally the parents gave in and took her home 6 months ago.
A council of village elders agreed to grant Susheela an annulment after she went to the police, threatened to commit suicide and enlisted the help of a child protection organisation--the M Ventaramaiah Foundation. After granting her a 'divorce', under the watchful eye of the media, the police, local revenue officials and members of the MV Foundation, the council ordered her husband to return any valuables, including gold and money, he may have received as dowry.
Dalit parents often marry their daughters off early to protect them from the advances of upper caste men. "Our womenfolk are always insecure as the feudal culture of the Reddy farmers (the landed gentry in Telengana) continues even today," says Venkaiah, Susheela's father. He admits that he shouldn't have married his daughter off without her consent.
The MV Foundation has promised to help Susheela pursue her dreams of getting an education. "We are trying to put children in school. As part of the effort we have stopped several child marriages. But they are still happening because the administration is not very sensitive and proactive on this issue," says Rajendra Prasad, coordinator, M V Foundation.
Susheela's act of defiance has inspired her friends Mayina and Archana, as well as four other child brides, to walk out of their respective marriages too.
What shocks me is that the reason often given in support of child marriages, is that it protect the girl from other men who, once she is married, may see her as being unavailable and belonging to someone else. Child marriages give the impression that, like sati, women and girls are seen as property that 'belongs' to someone - her family, her husband, her in-laws. A woman/girl is either a burden or can be 'traded' and used in any way the others see fit. If her marriage is left too late, it may mean that no one wants her and then she will be seen as being not valuable and no one will want to marry her (its horrifying that even in big cities and among educated families this is believed). She is a burden to her own family because she is an extra mouth to feed and they have to find money to spend on her dowry. Her only role in life is to do housework and to bear children.
In any case, child marriages are worse for girls than for boys, since the girls are usually younger than the boys. Marriage also puts an end to any education girls may have been receiving. And if they get pregnant while still young, their health gets much worse since their bodies are often not ready to bear children. According to the United Nations, maternal mortality i(which indicates the number of women dying in childbirth or from pregnanct-related causes) is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15-19-year-olds.
To stop such child marriages, governments and civil society organisations are trying to get laws against child marriage made stronger, since it does not seem to be working in its present state. Right now the police cannot make arrests without applying for a magistrate's order, which may take days. The punishment, a maximum of three months in prison, and a fine is not enough to stop people.
Proposed changes include more punishment, a compulsory registration of all marriages rather than just religious rites, the appointment of anti-child marriage officers in every state, and making it a law that anyone who attends a child marriage has to report it.
The government appears unwilling to crack down on the practice with any great energy, however, and its ambivalence toward the issue is echoed with equal lethargy at every level.
"People have never taken this issue very seriously," said Jaya Sagade, the author of "Child Marriage in India," published this year by Oxford University Press. "No political party has taken proper action against it; neither has anyone in the legal fraternity.
There's a sense that it won't be possible to uproot such an entrenched custom."
The law itself is weak. Parents can theoretically be sentenced to three months' imprisonment, but they very rarely are; a survey in 2001 found that there were never more than 89 attempted prosecutions across India in any one year.
The police do not have the authority to arrest anyone about to take part in a marriage, and the bureaucracy involved in preventing one is so complicated that most weddings have already gone ahead by the time the papers are ready.