Child marriages are practically the norm in certain communities in about 750 villages in Tamil Nadu's Krishnagiri district, and the brides, often divorced when they are young, are not allowed to remarry.
LESS than a two-hour drive from the hip and happening city of Bangalore is Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu, one of India's most socially and economically backward areas. Child marriages seem to be the norm among certain communities in about 750 villages spread across five of the 10 panchayat unions in the district. In the other five, too, the practice is common among some communities. While the bride is almost always eight to 12 years old, the groom in many cases is much older.
The panchayats with the dubious distinction, said Krishnagiri district counsellor M. Boothathiappa, are Veepanapalli, Kelamangalam, Bargur, Krishnagiri and Sulagari. The main communities involved are the Poojari Irula (a Scheduled Tribe), the Lingayat and the Valmiki Naidu (Most Backward Castes), and the Kuruba and the Boer (Scheduled Tribes).
In the Kelamangalam panchayat union, 48 villages of Bettamugilalam panchayat lie in a 35-square kilometre area and have over 4,000 families. Most of the villages are not accessible easily by road, and the main castes are Poojari Irulas and Lingayats in the interior villages and Valmiki Naidus, Kurubas and Boers in the villages near Hosur and Denganikottai towns.
Generally, the marriages happen within the family and the girls, as a rule, are married off before they attain puberty, as early as at the age of eight, said D. Baby, district secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). A family with a daughter who is not married even after she has attained puberty attracts social stigma and it is widely believed that such a family is cursed by the gods.
M. Muthamma of Kottaiyur Kollai, an interior village inhabited by Poojari Irulas in the panchayat union, was married 10 years ago at the age of 10 and is now the mother of five children. Girls bear their first child usually when they are between 11 and 13 - a year after they attain puberty - and by the age of 20 many would have given birth to eight or more children. According to V. Nagarathinam, AIDWA district treasurer, each family has, on an average, at least five surviving children. The infant mortality rate is high as is the number of deliveries per woman. Predictably, most of the women are anaemic and hence maternal mortality is high.
Most of the people in Bettamugilalam panchayat are farmers, cultivating poramboke (freehold) land. With an average landholding of less than two acres (0.8 hectare), they grow ragi, mustard, samai and castor, mostly under rain-fed conditions. Some work as farm labourers, and when work is available, that is, for about 40 days a year, they earn Rs.15-20 a day. In the last three or four years, crop productivity has fallen sharply on account of drought-like conditions and family incomes have dropped to less than Rs.100 a month. In the past few years, most families in the area have harvested ragi hardly enough for their own consumption.
Poverty is the main reason for the child marriages in Kottaiyur Kollai. A typical family of eight has just half a kilo of ragi to eat in a day and many are the days when whole families go without food. Many of the women wear only half a sari; the other half is used as loincloth for two children.
In a situation where survival is a struggle, protecting their daughters is a daunting task for parents. Marrying them young is a good option: there is one mouth fewer to feed and the girl is less likely to object to the boy they choose.
At Kottaiyur Kollai village, Mallamma (above) and Eramma (below), both of whom married as children, at home with their children.
V. Geetha (12) was married four years ago to a physically challenged relative who runs a petty shop in their village, Thirtham, in the Veepanapalli panchayat union. She lost her first child in May, barely a week after it was born. According to G. Geetha of the Village Reconstruction Development Project (VRDP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), all the deliveries in the village happen at home. The nearest hospital is at Nachikuppam, 15 km away. The girl's father, Srinivas, said he got her married because once she grew up she might refuse to marry the boy.
Mangamma (11) of the same village is married for the last two years to Karnan (16) in Thiruvannamali in North Arcot district. She has not yet attained puberty and is with her parents. According to her mother, K. Deivamma, she spent about Rs.5,000 two years ago for the marriage. After Mangamma attains puberty another ceremony has to be performed, which means more expenditure. The family receiving the girl is happy to get an "unpaid servant". Some of the girls also bring in dowry.
There is a school in the village. But the attendance is poor. Asks Deivamma: "What is the use of education? How will knowledge help us? Can anyone guarantee a job or a better life after our child completes school?" There are no answers to her questions. Asks Rathnamma, whose daughter-in-law is just 12: "This is our life. We have been like this for ages. What is the fuss all about now?"
MANY of the marriages end in divorce and only the men can marry again. "That is the custom here. What is wrong with it?" said Muniamma (65) of Jagannathapuram village, also in Veepanapalli panchayat union and dominated by the Boer community. "Widowed or divorced women marrying again is taboo," she said. Muniamma herself was married at the age of five. Her husband, Muthappa, she said, carried her to his village to marry her.
Lalitha of the village is a divorcee at 18. She was married seven years ago to Chinavelappa of the neighbouring village after he had divorced his first wife with the panchayat's consent. Lalitha's family paid Rs.1,000 for Chinavelappa to divorce his first wife. But three years ago Chinavelappa divorced Lalitha, who had a baby by then, to go back to his first wife. Lalitha now lives with her parents along with her daughter.
Amaravathi (21) was married 10 years ago to Chandrappa, of the neighbouring village. He divorced her four years after the marriage to marry again and Amaravathi now lives with her child in her parents' house. Radha (20) was married to Thimirayappa when she was 12. But he "left her" for another woman when she was 15. All of them now live with their parents, for that is their destiny.
K. Lakshmi (15) of Periamanavaranpalli village wants to change her destiny. She has studied up to Class VIII and was married to a relative, Laganappa (27), two months ago. But within a month of marriage she was back in her parents' house as Laganappa married again. In fact, Lakshmi was Laganappa's second wife and her family had to pay him Rs.4,000 to divorce his first wife with the panchayat's consent. Lakshmi appears to have taken it in her stride when she says: "I will be different from the rest of the girls and marry again if a man is willing to marry me."
The divorce rate is very high in these villages. Most couples split after three or four years, either because the husband is unable to cope with family pressures or because his family has zeroed in on another girl who would bring in a bigger dowry or because he finds another girl interesting. Usually, the split happens with the panchayat's consent and the girl's family has to pay Rs.2,000 to Rs.5,000 to the husband's family for signing the paper that declares the marriage "null and void". According to AIDWA district treasurer V. Nagarathinam, dowry, usually a part of the land cultivated by the bride's family, is common.
Interestingly, while the feudal system, which is at the root of the problem, is severe on women in the villages near the urban areas, it is lax in the interior, remote villages where the Poojari Irula tribes live. For instance, in Kottaiyur Kollai divorced women marry again and, in most cases, do not pay the groom's family during divorce.
According to M. Boothathiappa, ending this social evil is an uphill task. "It took us decades of struggle to force the government to get the Poojari Irula tribes out of the caves and build group houses for them," he said.
Said D. Baby: "The root of the problem lies in patriarchy and the feudal set-up. Women's lives are considered to be lowly, and are easily manipulated for the benefit of men." According to Nagarathinam, law has its limitations and any move to end this social evil has to begin with awareness and education. "It will take a long time. But, surely, it will be a wait that is well worth it."
According to Boothathiappa, everything depends on the will to bring change, whether social or political.