I want to go to bed," she cried. "Please, mum, dad. Let me sleep!"
Geeta was married at the age of 10 and widowed at the age of 14. Her husband, whom she barely knew, had died while working as a migrant worker having to repay a loan to his father. This loan, incidentally, was for the childâ€™s marriage expenses. Now, due to her status as a widow, Geeta has been shunned by all members of her family and is considered unlucky and useless by all of society.
Rita was married off by her family at age 12, became a mother at age 14, and was divorced at age 16. Although hardly cognizant of her first marriage, Rita is considered undesirable and will most likely remain alone and unmarried, having to raise her child completely on her own.
Meanwhile, the author recently met Chetram, a 56-year-old man residing in a rural village of the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh, who gleefully boasted of marrying six girls to date, all between the ages of eight and 16 years when he was 10, 14, 17, 23, 25, and finally 47 years old.
Chetram was not the only villager in the district of Surguja to have married young girls multiple times. The author interviewed 10 other men whose ages ranged between 40 and 50 years old, all of whom had been married at least four times.
These stories illustrate the crime of child marriage. Although illegal, the practice of child marriage is widespread and accepted by the majority of Indian society, especially in the many rural areas of the country.
, the ancient Greek philosopher, affirmed an obscure maxim: "Women should be 18 and men 37 years old when they get married." Today 6.4 million Indians under the age of 18 are married and 130,000 girls under 18 have become widows.
In India, children are forced everyday into a relationship, of which they have only the faintest knowledge and for which they are not at all prepared. To push two physiologically and emotionally ill-prepared individuals into marriage is a compassionless way of looking at relationships. India's Parliament adopted the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1978 (a revision of the British Child Marriage Prevention Act of 1929 and the following amendment of 1949) setting 18 as the minimum age for women to get married and 21 for men. Nevertheless, like in many other Indian social spheres, the law seems inconsequential when it comes to protecting the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
Women and girls are the main victims of child marriages. Sati is a Hindu practice which consists of the widowâ€™s immolation on her dead husbandâ€™s funeral pyre. Women are seen as property with ownership rights to someone else, her parents, her husband or her in-laws. In some cases, husbands sell their wives, even their unmarried daughters, as sexual partners to other men.
Religion plays a key role in such harmful traditions and practices. Akhai Teej is an annual festival and an auspicious day for marriage in India. It is not uncommon for political leaders and government officials to attend these ceremonies to bless newly- married children and impart legitimacy to the practice. The society in turn, instead of playing a watchdog role, is an enthusiastic participant in a deliberate perpetuation of entrenched interests, including property and social considerations, all which make child marriages so common.
The origin of child marriages may be found in the Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. Legend says that the invaders raped unmarried Hindu girls or carried them off as booty, prompting Hindu communities to marry off their daughters almost from birth to protect them. Today, these invaders have been replaced by superstition: the local view that any girl reaching puberty without getting married will fall prey to sexual depredations, some from men imbued with the common belief that having sex with a "fresh" girl can cure syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
Tradition and superstition are further reinforced by necessity. The benefit of child marriages for poor people is that it is cheaper for the family than adult marriages, since a child marriage does not need to be as prestigious and costly as an adult marriage. It is said in Hindi that "chhota chhora dahej kam mangta" ("the younger the groom, the smaller the dowry"). Rural poverty similarly puts pressure on families to transfer the economic cost of a daughter to another family as early as possible.
The practice is particularly rampant in the populous northern belt where child marriages are most deeply rooted: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, with a combined population of 420 million, about 40 percent of all India. In Rajasthan alone, 56% of the women have been married before they were 15.
Married girls are generally separated from their immediate families, taken out of school to be "transferred" to her new-husband home, where they are expected to be used as free labor, sex objects and procreative machines. The teenagersâ€™ health is put at risk. They are much more vulnerable than mature women when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases.
Since their bodies are often not prepared to bear children, early pregnancy leads to more extreme peril, including death, during delivery and jeopardizing the health of these young mothers as well as their babies. As first-time mothers, girls face high risk in their pregnancies including obstetric fistula. This is a disease usually caused by several days of obstructed labor, without timely medical intervention. The consequences of fistula are life shattering: The baby usually dies and the woman is left with chronic incontinence. Because of her inability to control her flow of urine or faeces, she is often abandoned or neglected by her husband and family and ostracized by her community.
Statistically, it is translated into soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy, a high infant mortality rate, and a low life expectancy, especially among rural women. According to the United Nations, maternal mortality in India (which indicates the number of women dying in childbirth or from pregnant-related causes) is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15-19-year-olds.
In view of this data, we can consider these marriages crimes not only against the children to be married but also against all of humanity.
Ending child marriage is challenging because even parents who are aware of its negative impact may find it too difficult to resist the economic and social pressures as well as the heavy weight of the tradition.
To stop such child marriages, the Indian government is aiming to create stricter and more easily-enforced laws, since the current legal atmosphere is not having a widespread enough effect. Currently, the police cannot arrest the organizers of mass child marriages without applying for a magistrate's order, which may take days. The punishment (maximum three months in prison) and fine are also not severe enough to stop the practice. Proposed changes include stronger punishment, a compulsory registration of all marriages rather than merely religious rites, the appointment of anti-child marriage officers in every state, and making a law requiring anyone who attends a child marriage to report the marriage. A further recent proposal is to administer campaigns to encourage poor families to participate in mass marriages of sons and daughters who are over the legal age to get married, in order to save costs of dowries and wedding arrangements.
However, the law alone cannot curb this harmful social practice. A change in psyche of the backward and illiterate people is required. Education and the empowerment of women are, beyond a doubt, two of the best remedies in a largely male-dominated country.
The Supreme Court, after hearing a petition filed by Forum for Fact-finding, Documentation and Advocacy, recently ordered the compulsory registration of marriages. This comes as a beacon of hope to hundreds and thousands of women and girl who are illiterate, widowed or abandoned and are unable to fight for their rights.
The development of an easily-accessible grass-level network of social workers and centers is necessary for this fight. The centers could provide emergency support for girls who have run away from marriage or from parents who are attempting to force them into unwanted marriages. Such centers were one of the key measures that lead East Asian "miracles" like Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand to successfully eradicate this practice.
We cannot ignore the vital role of the media. Indian newspapers like "The Time of India," "The Telegraph," "The Tribune," or "The Hindu" are aware of their responsibilities regarding this issue.
Governmental negligence on the subject and the publication of cases of child marriages en masse should be visible and transparent to the people. If the Indian society wakes up every morning to articles discussing the fatal consequences of this senseless tradition, the perception of this barbarous practice to a huge percentage of this population will change. Since the act of child marriage is so deeply-rooted in the peopleâ€™s belief systems, the seed of real knowledge and awareness must be scattered from inside the society.