Child marriage in India: Being burnt by the matrimonial fire

Last Updated: Sun, Oct 20, 2013 01:40 hrs

In Lupung village, which falls in Jharkhand's capital, Ranchi, a young girl and her father are working hard to build a case against child marriage. "Learn from our experience," is their advice to people of their community who marry off their daughters soon after they attain puberty. The girl and her father have experienced the misery that child marriage can bring upon a family.

The girl, the eldest of five daughters, married in August 2012 when she was barely 13 years old. Her parents told her that her in-laws had assured them she would be allowed to continue studying after marriage. She was then in Class IX. Instead, domestic violence and demands for dowry followed. Finally, her parents decided to step in and bring the girl home. She is now back in school and studying in Class X. The family has pledged not to get its other four daughters married until they attain the legal age of 18, and the young girl is now doing her bit to lobby against child marriage.

India has 24 million child brides like the teenager in Lupung, which translates into 40 per cent of the total number of child marriages in the world. Practically one in two women in India marries before the age of 18. Disturbing figures like these meant India found itself in the eye of a storm last week when reports emerged that India had chosen not to co-sponsor a unanimous resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against early, forced and child marriage passed last month.

International advocacy groups decried this, pointing out that 107 other countries, including Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Honduras, Yemen and South Sudan, had come forward to co-sponsor the resolution, and suggesting that this made India's commitment to abolishing child marriage questionable.

The issue created a kerfuffle in India as well, amplified by a misleading news report that India had "refused to sign" the resolution (India had supported the resolution, which was passed unanimously, though it was not a co-sponsor). TN Seema, Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticising the country's stand and terming it "perplexing". "Considering we have national campaigns against child marriage and that India has committed to achieving the Millenium Development Goals, why did we merely support the resolution instead of being a co-sponsor? This requires a full explanation" says Seema, who plans to raise the issue in Parliament when it convenes.

The MP, who is also the state president of the All India Democratic Women's Association in Kerala, says it seems to suggest that the government is not ready to address the issue in its entirety. Though child marriage itself is not an evil restricted to any particular community in India, the move also raises questions about vote-bank politics in the background of recent incidents, such as efforts by the Muslim League in Kerala to have the marriageable age for girls lowered to 16, she says.

The external affairs ministry, meanwhile, has been at pains to point out that India fully supported the resolution which was passed unanimously, and choosing not to co-sponsor it did not in any way suggest lack of support to the issue. Syed Akbaruddin, the MEA spokesperson, has been tweeting furiously ever since the controversy broke out, emphasing (in 140 characters) that it was "entirely wrong" to say India did not support the resolution. The statement of the Indian delegation, a copy of which is with Business Standard, does in fact say "the prevalence of child, early and forced marriages is of deep concern and concerted efforts must be made to tackle such practices."

Former diplomats familiar with the nuances of UN negotiating procedures feel the issue is being blown out of proportion, since India has supported the resolution. "When you co-sponsor a resolution, you are proposing it and endorsing every word. As someone who was in the UN for 20 years, I know for a fact that India rarely co-sponsors resolutions even though the main idea might be acceptable to us because unlike some other countries, we take these resolutions very seriously," says TP Sreenivasan, former permanent representative of India to the UN, Vienna. While refusing to comment on the controversy as it was outside his domain, Union minister Shashi Tharoor, who was also under-secretary-general at the UN, clarified that choosing to support a resolution instead of co-sponsoring it "means you agree with the thrust and intent of the resolution but don't want to seek ownership of every word of it."

So why did India not want to endorse every word in the resolution, though it supported it? Government officials say the term "early marriage" would have been contentious. Ranjana Kumari, the director of the non-profit Centre for Social Research, explains "The Western concept of what is 'early marriage' differs from ours. Many girls in India get married before 28-29 which might be considered 'early' in the West." The UNHRC resolution that was passed does not define early marriage anywhere. However, Kumari also says the need for politicians to appease their vote banks, whether khap panchayats or minorities, may have played a role in India's decision not to co-sponsor the resolution.

While there might be arguments over the merits of supporting a UN resolution against child marriage while not co-sponsoring it, there can be none over the gravity of the issue in India. The numbers speak for themselves. In Bihar, for example, 68.2 per cent girls are pushed into marriage in childhood. "Many of them are barely 12. And in Jharkhand [where 55.7 per cent girls are married before 18], the maximum cases are among 15- to 16-year-olds," says Chandranath Mishra, the Jharkhand-based project manager of Breakthrough, a human rights organisation which has launched a campaign titled 'Nation against Early Marriage' in these two states in coordination with the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The reports from the ground are not encouraging, even though there are laws that prohibit child marriage. There is the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 under which the punishment for a parent or guardian includes imprisonment of up to three months or a possible fine. And there is the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 under which anyone who directs or conducts a child marriage can be imprisoned for up to two years or fined. "But law alone is not the solution. This problem has to be understood in its complexity and contextual reality," says Sonali Khan, vice-president and country director, Breakthrough. "Which girl will lodge a complaint against her father? Besides, if the father, possibly the sole earning member of a family, is thrown in jail for forcing his child to marry, the family will become more vulnerable," she says.

Anti-child marriage campaigners have had poor farmers countering their argument with: "This year I have had a good harvest. I can afford to get my daughter married. Next year who knows what the situation will be?" The families are driven by social and economic reasons. "They believe that the earlier they get their daughter married, the sooner they will be free of the responsibility and economic burden of raising her and ensuring her security," says Khan. For the groom's family, she is often no more than an extra domestic hand. Besides, she brings dowry and it is easier for the boy's family to mould a young bride into their ways.

In a society with 50 per cent child marriage, nuptials of minors is viewed as normal, says Mishra. Alok Bharti, a Breakthrough member involved in community mobilisation activity in Jharkhand for the last two years, says he hasn't come across a single family where at least one child marriage has not taken place. His team uses the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology to make a case against child marriage in communities where this practice is rampant. "We act out a two-hour play, Chanda Pukare, based on the story of a 14-year-girl named Chanda who exists in every village," says Bharti.

In the play, Chanda's father is arranging her marriage. When she resists and argues with him, he invokes traditional, social and cultural norms to convince her. When she continues to protest, he becomes aggressive and tries to coerce her into marriage. At this stage, the play stops and the ball in thrown in the court of the villagers who are viewing it. "How would you want this play to end?" they are asked. From there on, it is for the villagers to take it forward and look for an alternative to child marriage which many of them, until now, did not even think existed. Once they have deliberated on and discussed the issue among themselves, one from among them has to take the stage and enact the climax as Chanda. The play has so far been performed in over 200 villages. And its climax varies from village to village.

Sometimes girls have come forward to say that as Chanda, they will seek the help of the village head and even go to the police. Boys too have come up to say that even though they aren't as badly affected by child marriage as the girls, they too would not know how to navigate the responsibility and complexity of marriage and would also be affected by the domestic violence which is so prevalent in these alliances. Told about the high incidence of maternal mortality in underage brides, many realise that such an occurrence could take an emotional toll on them as well. "When the boys come on our side, it really helps as they can build community opinion against child marriage," says Khan.

The real reason India has such a poor record in abolishing child marriage despite stringent laws against it is lack of political will, say activists. "Politicians don't want to upset their vote banks, so they don't take action against child marriage. They attend child marriages in their constituency and even negotiate these marriages," says Centre for Developing Societies' Kumari. "Nobody wants to disturb the social equilibrium."

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