Published: 08th March 2019
Why we need to rethink the law that's 'aiding' child marriage
Social activists say that one of the main reasons children are married off is because mandatory education is only upto 14 making it easier for students to drop out
A day before Women's Day, it's horrifying that there are no less than three reports from across the country related to child marriage in some way.
And we say, welcome to 2019. Like advancement, societal evolution and an Instagram handle are large enough to make society look at child marriage like it's an evil whose best days are behind us.
Like Sati. Like colonialism. Like war. Or untouchability.
Let's take a look at why our child marriage issue isn't going away any time soon, before we wish ourselves a Happy Women's Day again. Let's go back to the rule book.
Article 21(a): Every child between the ages of 6 to 14 years has the right to free and compulsory education. This is stated as per the 86th Constitution Amendment Act via Article 21A
Article 24: No child below the age fourteen years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment
When the country itself is giving up its children at the age of 14, why are we surprised that parents think it is okay to get their children married off at that age? The government is refusing to keep them inside a classroom and parents think the world is too dangerous for their young girls to survive. So what do they do? Tie them in (illegal) matrimony to a man, a stranger who promises to keep her safe and happy.
Except, that's almost never the case.
Tamil Nadu holds the rather terrible dishonour of ranking among the top Indian states when it comes to the prevalence of child marriage. States like Rajasthan and Bihar are some of the other states, but there is difference when it comes to the reasons as to why they are at the top. In the northern states, the prevalence of child marriage is majorly attributed to the fact that it is a part of their culture and an ongoing tradition. In Tamil Nadu, it is not entirely a matter of culture or tradition. Parents often choose to get their daughters married because they feel that marriage would mean security. Something that they themselves feel they will fail to provide.
To this day, when we think of child marriage, the image that pops up in your head is the same sort of images that pops up on Google. Children below the age of 10, some as young as 6-7 who are getting married off to other children or to older men. Those in the ages of 14-15 might pass of as 18, but they are, after all, only children.
Teens, if you're big on tags.
In Tamil Nadu, the marriages premoninantly happen in that age group. And a large number of marriages happen when there is only one parent in the picture, "Usually, single mothers tend to get their children married off because they don't think they can provide for them. In other cases, the boy's family comes from a higher income background and offers money to the family too if they are in dire need," Virgil D'Sami, Executive Director, Arunodaya Centre for Street and Working Children.
Show them the money, honey
Like most other things in life, this also comes down to money. Or the lack of it, "In many instances, the boy's family says they will not expect any dowry and will conduct the marriage themselves. When offers like that come, parents who are economically deprived accept the it and give their daughters away," said Girija Kumarbabu, Indian Council for Child Welfare.
The social workers believe that in a lot of the cases the parents push their children into marriage thinking that it will help them have a secure and safe future. She also informed us that many affluent and rich people from neighbouring countries like UAE also come to India and marry underage girls to their boys by promising them a financially stable future.
This is apart from those families that want to ensure that their children to remain in their own castes by forcefully marrying them off to a relative. Then there are also those grandparents on their deathbeds who insist on seeing their grandchildren get married, even if it means they give their entire future.
Because love is not bae. It is evil
Another major reason that parents rush to get their children married is because they are worried that their child will fall in love. Or get pregnant. When they see the slightest hint of their daughter showing interest in the opposite gender they immediately find a boy from their caste to get her married too. However, even in these cases, it is the government that should be held accountable, it is a failing on their part.
Which brings us back to the education question.
When education stops being compulsory, it is easier for parents to pull their daughters out of school. If the student is not doing too well in school then the parents are all the more keen on pulling them out. Also, since the children are allowed to work after they turn 14, many parents ask their children to discontinue and start working. But when do students themselves drop out of schools?
When they don't have toilets to go to.
In the lead: Virgil D'Sami is the executive director of Arunodaya
This is not toilet humour. It's way too dark
"Despite the Swacch Bharat campaign, a large number of our schools don't have toilets. When you are unable to use a toilet during the time that you get your period, how will you be able to focus in class?" Virgil said. Leaving a stain or staining your clothes can be embarrassing for even aware and 'progressive' people, we can only imagine how tough it might be for young girls.
"Even if there are toilets, there won't be any water. Yet the child will try very hard to manage. They will try for two or three months and then they are forced to give up. Then when the child is sitting idle at home, the parents think it's best to get them married," Girija said. The activists also said that besides the financial aspects that come into play when it comes to this issue, the safety of the child remains a prominent factor. "When the parents go out to work, they fear the safety of their child who usually remains at home and many times completely alone. Parents have a genuine fear," Girija added.
Due to the fact that the schools are so distant from their homes, the girls have to walk for hours. This means that they have to walk alone at odd hours, "Some of the girls reach home very late and so the parents get worried that something might happen to them on their walk. They don't want to take such risks," she explained. The activist explained that in Chennai, which is the district with the most number of child marriage, almost 90 percent of the parents get their children married just because of safety issues.
Sex Ed 101, please
There are occasions of course, when minors themselves decide to get married or if one of them is a minor. But in these cases too, the government has the opportunity to prevent it. How? Through sex education. "Children get all their information from material online. They might assume that infatuation is love and there is no one to guide them. Schools don't have counsellors to advise them either," Virgil said.
In the forefront: Girija Kumarbabu is the secretary of Insdian Council for Child Welfare, Tamil Nadu
Children are not taught to develop healthy relationships and so they are secretive about it and that pushes them to take drastic steps. "For children to share a healthy relationship, they need to be encouraged to interact with each other. That itself is not allowed in our society," Girija pointed out. Parents who suspect their children of having affairs marry them off became 'marriage is a sanction for sex'.
"It is a license for sex, so parents think that before the child gets pregnant it's better to marry her off. Such things would not happen if we had sex education in schools and not just a Biology teacher who is too embarrassed to teach the chapter," she added. She also stressed that to this day, girls are unaware of menstruation, often falling into depression because they don't know what it is ad don't tell anyone about it.
In some instances, Virgil says, even lawyers give wrong information to their clients. "Recently we found a lawyer who had told the parents that it was okay to get married below the age of 18 because of some loopholes in the law. Parents also get their children married thinking they can always find a loophole to justify their decision," she explained.
The biology can take a beating
Another important aspect of this problem, is that parents fail to realise the medical implications that they put their daughters through with an early marriage. "There is usually a mortality when the girl goes into labour and because of their young age they become anaemic and the child has the same problem too," she said. But in their hurry to secure their daughter's futures, they compromise on their health.
Help is only one call away
However, thanks to the work of people like Virgil, Girija and several other social activists, many young girls are aware of the legal age for marriage and so they reach out for help. Over the last few years, more and more children have also becomes aware of the ChildLine. Many children ring up 1098 and are brave enough to stop their own marriages. Even school teachers are trained to call 1098 when a student approaches them with such a problem, in case the student herself can't access a phone.
I ask the activists if boys ever call the number, "Sometimes boys call and complain because the girl they are in love with is getting married to someone else. But otherwise boys don't really call," Virgil said smiling.
The wedding crashers
Manivannan from Avvai, an NGO in Nagapattinam tells us that his organisation also helps stop such marriages, "But as soon as the call comes, the District Social Welfare Officer is intimated. Along with police offers and other social workers, he will put a stop to the wedding," he said. If the wedding hasn't happened yet, the officers go and try to counsel the parents and cancel the wedding, "Though that doesn't always work, recently a father took his daughter to another village and married her off," Girija said. But it is mostly easy to convince parents to stop the wedding. Sometimes the call comes quite late, so the officers reach on the day of the wedding which is not easy to stop but they ensure they do it. "The officers have to go to the magistrate and get an order to stop the wedding," Manivannan explained.
"In cases where the marriage is already done, a case is immediately filed and the parents are taken to task," Manivannan said. He also added that the calls are quite regular during the month of January, which is a season for marriages. Virgil tells us that besides the parents and the attendees, even the marriage hall owners and also the 'poojari' are taken to task by the police, "In fact, we also make it a point to educate marriage hall owners about the legal age and we have seen a positive impact from our initiative," she said.
It's a matter of education, dummy
So, how do we prevent child marriage? By keeping the children in class, say social activists.
"Mandatory education at least till Class 12, till the children reach the age of 18. It's the absolute need of the hour. That is the only way we can prevent child marriage," Girija said. This also does mean that the government should do more to provide clean toilets with running water for their students. The students should also have a school counsellor they can approach incase they are facing such an issue.
I ask Virgil if she thinks that the complete eradication of child marriage would be possible anytime in the near future. She shoots back a question — "How do you think we eradicated small box? How did we do away with polio?' The only reason that these campaigns worked is because the government took the initiative to spread awareness and they intervened in matters.
"The government has to strictly deal with those going against the law. They have to spread awareness and take legal action. That's when we can see this problem come to an end," Virgil said. Girija also pointed out that in many cases some of the workers in the grassroot levels usually don't report child marriage because the perpetrators might be their relative or maybe from their own caste, or a neighbour. This also must be taken care of, she said.
However, all these issues put aside, the activists believe that serious steps must be taken to overturn the law that allows for children to drop out of school and start working at the age of 14. "We're drafting a bill to bring the age to 18. Children must stay in schools atleast till they are 18. It's the only way that we can keep them safe and they can keep themselves safe too," Girija said.
On the one hand, the law says you're a major only when you turn 18. Another law allows for 14-year-olds to work. The only way we can eradicate child marriage is if we begin to treat children like children.
And its about time we do it.