Reluctant to act

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

Child marriages took place as usual on Akha Teej this year in Rajasthan despite the State government going through the motions of enforcing the law banning them.

Bande ke Balaji is a temple tucked away in Dudu Tehsil of Jaipur district in Rajasthan. On the day after Akha Teej (Akshaya Trithiya), the day considered auspicious for marriages, which fell on May 11 this year, newly weds come here to take the blessings of the deity. From 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., couples arrive with their families mostly in hired jeeps and cars to participate in the brief rituals and the nondescript ceremony. Everyone has to be given a fair chance and there are no long lines. The couples come and go in droves, but there are no queues and all efforts are made to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance.

One can spot among the couples several youngsters below the age of 18, who have tied the knot the previous day. The girls walk with their heads obsequiously lowered and some of them are wearing high-heeled slippers to add height to their tender youth. The boys look sombre in suits; some of them are not even adolescents. The priest blesses the couples and gives them prasad, and is in turn given a token offering. Everyone makes a killing that day: the priest, the flower-seller, the sweet vendor and the transporter. All that is left at the end of the day is the dusty trail of the vehicles. The Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) is nowhere in evidence.

THE events at Bande ke Balaji on May 12 happened despite the steps taken by the Rajasthan government to curb the practice of child marriages on Akha Teej. Several marriages, including child marriages and community marriages, take place on this day. The practice is prevalent mainly in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The Rajasthan government published advertisements in leading dailies, with a message from Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Women and Child Development Minister Kanak Mal Katara asking individuals and organisations to report instances of child marriage to the district authorities. It urged the people to recognise the evils of child marriage and be aware of the consequences of violating the CMRA, 1929. It also pointed to the fallout of such marriages, especially on the educational, physical, mental, social and economic development of the girls.

Akha Teej draws the attention of almost everyone in varying degrees. The States where child marriages occur on a large scale get alerted, the media get more than their share of child-marriage footage, and for a day or two the image of India marching towards the acme of modernity suffers a setback. All the appropriate noises are made and, as always, the event is soon forgotten until it returns to haunt all concerned a year later. This year the event got more attention than usual as pressure to prevent child marriages came from, among others, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

On March 17, the NHRC wrote to Chief Ministers and administrators on the need to educate people to shun child marriage and make them aware of its consequences. It suggested that Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police in the various States should take appropriate measures to prevent such marriages. The NHRC also swung into action after a newspaper report in April stated that 24 child marriages took place in Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh in the presence of State Tribal Welfare Minister Ram Vichar Netam and Sanskrit Board Chairman Chintamani Maharaj.

Meanwhile, the Forum for Fact Finding, Documentation and Advocacy, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking directions to make the registration of all marriages, including child marriages, compulsory. It also urged the court to direct State governments to take strict disciplinary action against officials, including the Collector, the Superintendent of Police, the Chief Executive Officer, the Gram Panchayat Pradhan and the Patwari, who failed to prevent or prosecute child marriages.

A three-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Chief Justice V.N. Khare and Justices S.B. Sinha and S.H. Kapadia, directed the States and Union Territories to implement strictly the provisions of the CMRA to prevent marriages of minors. The court also asked the States and Union Territories to consider enacting a law for compulsory registration of marriages to prevent child marriages.

DID all this prevent child marriages from taking place? A field report from Bande ke Balaji confirmed that such marriages did take place. Sudhanshu Pant, Collector of Jaipur district, claimed that not a single child marriage took place in his district. When Frontline pointed out the instances at Bande ke Balaji, Pant said he was certain that the cases had come from outside "his" district. "According to our information, there has not been a single child marriage in the district," he said. In Dudu tehsil, where Bande ke Balaji is situated, there was only one such instance and that marriage was prevented by the district administration, he said and added that the administration had in all prevented 46 child marriages from taking place.

"Child marriages do peak around the time of Akha Teej. We prepare a month in advance. The emphasis is on sensitisation, right down to the village level," he said. The administration used NGOs as a source of information and the results were "very good" this time, Pant said. He pointed to the limitations of the CMRA, under which the administration had to approach the Judicial Magistrate for a restraining order whenever it got wind of an impending child marriage. The procedure was time-consuming whereas what was needed was immediate intervention, he said.

Pant said his officers "had gone beyond what was there in the law" in order to prevent the marriages from taking place. In Chaksu tehsil, where the largest number of child marriages were prevented, the Sub Divisional Magistrate is said to have "physically prevented" the act from taking place. Incidentally, 22 of the 46 reported cases in Jaipur were from Chaksu.

In several States attempts to stop child marriages led to violence and open hostility. Besides, tracking down child marriages was not easy, as Frontline found out. With all the hype and the media campaign about the practice, people had become more vigilant about displaying such marriages openly. Everyone admitted that such marriages took place and that there were ways of camouflaging them. "Even if the administration parks itself right in front of a wedding, it won't be able to find out that a child marriage has taken place," said a Rajasthan government employee. Printing the name of the older sibling on invitation cards, organising the rituals in a neighbour's house or even conducting the marriage a day before Akha Teej were some of the methods used to hoodwink the administration.

In parts of rural Jaipur no one would volunteer information about child marriages. Anyone wanting to know anything about child marriage was not welcome. In Samoda village, the Frontline team was threatened openly. "We know you are from the Social Welfare Department and are here to find out about child marriages. If you want your car in one piece, get away as fast as you can. We also cannot guarantee your safety beyond a point," said a villager, despite assurances that Frontline was not there to report to the government.

However, the attempts to understand the factors behind child marriages yielded some results. Poverty and rising marriage costs were the main reasons. Custom and tradition were hardly mentioned as reasons. But in Markhi village, where the sex ratio is said to be 700 females to every 1,000 males, people said they were forced to perform child marriages because of the serious deficit of girls.

Said Nathulal Yadav, a government school teacher in Samoda: "The farmer here faces three shortages - kheti, paani aur bacchi" (arable land, water and girls). According to him, child marriage will continue as long as there is poverty. He said it was his job to inform the government about child marriages but he would not do so as he had to live in the same community. "What could a man who had more than one daughter do, but marry them off together" seemed to be the dominant view.

"Each marriage costs a farmer at least Rs.80,000. Where can a poor farmer cough up more than a lakh of rupees for the marriage of two daughters? That is why people get most of their children married off on one occasion," said Nathulal Yadav. To spend less than that was impossible as it was a question of prestige in the village community even for the poorest of individuals, he said.

Most of the villages did not have a higher secondary school. So girls dropped out after completing middle school as parents did not want to send them to schools that were far away. "We are poor farmers. We cannot afford to send our children to Jaipur to study in public schools. The only option is government schools where the children lose interest very fast," said Girdhari, a farmer in Markhi. Pointing to several youngsters who were hanging around, he said that even they were literate "illiterates", as their education could hardly fetch them jobs. "They just hang around doing nothing. Owing to the shortage of girls, most of them are unmarried as well," added Suresh Chaudhary, a government employee.

Son preference is very strong in these parts, said Sohanlal Yadav, a physical education teacher. "If a woman does not give birth to a boy, life becomes intolerable for her," he said. Banwari, a farmer, had the last word. A father of five daughters and one son, he said he had no option but to marry all his daughters at the same time once his eldest daughter came of age.

Insecurity and rising expenses may be forcing mothers who themselves married after the age of 18 to marry off their daughters before they were 18, as a survey in West Bengal indicated. The recent survey by the Centre for Women's Development Studies among 900 women, all mothers from a tribal community in West Bengal's Midnapore district, found that they had married off their daughters aged between 13 and 16. Sixty-five per cent of the mothers had not been married until the age of 18 and quite a few of them had attended school. The State does not have the problem of a gender imbalance and neither are child marriages all that prevalent. The reasons for the declining age of marriage need to be explored. (According to Census 1991, in the age group of 10-15 only 1.9 per cent of girls were found to be married as a proportion of total girls in that age group.) The feeling of insecurity had increased and so had marriage expenses, respondents in the survey said. Also, dowry had replaced bride price, which had been the custom. A generation earlier the practice was bride price and a generation later it had changed to dowry.

CUSTOM may no longer be the reason for child marriages in India. Rajeev Gupta, Professor of Sociology in Rajasthan University, believes that child marriages exist in feudal societies, where the Nagnika concept was prevalent. Parents were made to believe that if they did not get their daughters married off before puberty, they would go to hell. Though, historically, this may have existed in all communities, with the advent of modernity, the ruling classes gradually gave up this practice. With Sanskritisation, the oppressed classes and castes began emulating feudal social practices and were encouraged to do so by the landed castes.

The caste factor is most evident in the community marriages held on Akha Teej, according to Rajeev Gupta. He says that these marriages are organised by the well-to-do among the dominant castes for the purpose of marrying off the poorer members in their community. Philanthropy aside, these marriages are caste mobilisation opportunities and ensure that the poor are forever obliged to the rich in their community. Caste identities get reinforced and it becomes a ground for the glorification of caste leadership. It also gives an opportunity for the political leadership to come closer to their caste constituencies. In the community marriage of the Adi Gaur Brahmin community, the chief guest was BJP State president Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi. And in Diggi, Tonk district, Vasundhara Raje was the chief guest at the group marriage of 69 couples organised by Rajputs.

Poverty may be one of the reasons for child marriage but it is not the real reason, says Rajeev Gupta. It was in the economic interests of the dominant classes to keep this system going. There was sufficient evidence to show that even poor families desired to educate their children but they could not do so because of the fundamentally oppressive nature of social relations in the village.

Apologists for child marriage often argue that the child bride stays at her paternal home until she is 18 and is sent to her husband's house after gauna, that is, after she attains puberty. Therefore there was no conflict between child marriage and the legal age of marriage for girls, they claim. But in reality, there is no link between the legal age of marriage and the period of gauna. The latter can end before the bride is 18 and she is then sent to her husband's family. According to the State Women and Child Department, nearly 30 per cent of girls were married off at the age of 13 and 50 per cent were mothers by the time they were 15. The gauna system, therefore, was not operational, it said.

Child marriages may have come down, but not because of the interventions of the State, says Rajeev Gupta. The larger issue, he says, is whether sexual relations and procreation are the only objectives of marriage. "Child marriage is a pervasive kind of institution legitimised by patriarchy. It permits the element of dependency of the female on the male. It deprives the person from choosing one's life partner based on the values of freedom," he says. The female child then is homeless in every sense: being married she is unacceptable in her father's home, and until the gauna period is complete she is an untouchable in her husband's family.

SUKHRAM of Bhagwatpura village in Dudu tehsil of Jaipur district wants the system to change. He is a Kumawat, a member of the potter community. He arrived at Bande ke Balaji accompanying a distant relative who got married. Now 18, he had been married along with his elder brothers when he was 10 and studying in Class V. His wife, he says, was just about his age or slightly younger. He has no job and wants to study B.Sc. in Biotechnology from Jaipur but is unsure if his finances will take him there. "The law is not enough to control child marriages. The dowry law itself is only on paper. If these politicians implement even 40 per cent of what they say, something can happen. The people who are in a position to put a halt to these trends are not involved," he said.

Sukhram is also critical of the growing trend of putting the onus on anganwadi (welfare centres) workers for all matters concerning women and children. She is in no position to prevent social evils like child marriage from taking place, he said. In his village, girls attended school only until Class VIII, after which they had to walk at least 6 km to study further. "They discontinue their schooling as their parents do not find it safe to send them so far away," he said. Most of them were then married off.

"The law cannot stop these things," said M.S. Khangarot, a home guard with the Rajasthan Police, whose duty it is to ensure that no untoward incident took place at the Bande ke Balaji complex when the marriages were going on.

It is evident that the existing law to restrain child marriages and even the proposed Prevention of Child Marriage Bill, 2004 - which would annul child marriages and provide more protection to the girl child - will come to nought unless accompanied by structural changes at every level. Where casteism and feudalism are deep-rooted, what is required is political will. Where these two maladies are not entrenched, it is a question of State intervention on a large scale, for instance, in education.

Despite increasing levels of enrolment in schools, the dropout rate at the elementary level is as high as 53 per cent (National Curriculum Framework for School Education, 2005). Though 82 per cent of habitations have a primary school within a radius of one kilometre, there is an upper primary school only within 3 km for 75 per cent of the habitations. It is evident that secondary and higher secondary schools are at even greater distances. For the law to take its own course, a major structural transformation is required and it cannot happen in a land where Dalits are not even allowed to mount horses on their wedding day.

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