The relentless campaign by officials has made parents realise their mistake

“I was not interested in marriage at all. But my mother and grandmother forced me to accept. I do not like the bridegroom. I am happy that the district administration has stopped my marriage because I was only around 16,” says a girl from Melapuliyur, who is one of the 167 girls in Perambalur district whose marriage was stopped under the Child Marriage Act 2006.

In most of these marriages, the bridegroom was the relative of the girl, more often than not a cousin. Another common strain is that the parents were hardly educated.

Most of them were farmers or labourers. In some cases, both the parents were daily wage earners. Asked whether they were consulted by their parents before fixing the marriage, most of the girls said: “We were just told of the wedding. Of course, we have seen the bridegroom because he is related to us.”

The girls admitted that they did not pressure their parents to permit them to continue their studies. “Our parents are poor and it would be impossible for them to educate us,” said a girl from Marvanatham. Another girl said: “I have two sisters. How can I say ‘no’ to their proposal because they can feed one less.”

Most girls were interested in continuing their education. Some of these marriages were finalised even without giving them a chance to complete SSLC\HSC.

Asked whether they were aware that getting married before the age of 18 was illegal and physically it could lead to complications when marrying at such a young age (even resulting in death at the time of childbirth), most of the girls either confessed ignorance or chose to keep silent.

Similar was the response from the parents too when asked whether they were not risking the life of the girl if she was to be married at a young age. Most of them remained downcast admitting they were at fault. However, a woman said: “I also got married when I was less than 16 and I am perfectly all right. I had no complications at all.” Her worry is “who will marry my daughter whose marriage has been stopped after the betrothal?”

And how about the expense that the family has incurred for the wedding? But she did not reply when asked if she was aware of the welfare schemes aimed at girl children.

The overwhelming impression from the girls and also their parents is that the district administration had done them a favour by stopping the marriages. “Initially it was a shock as we lost some money. But soon we realised we were in the wrong,” the parents admit.

Perambalur District Collector Darez Ahmed says: “My conviction is that these children should be saved from death because as a doctor I know how complications could develop both for the child and mother when the girl becomes pregnant at such a young age, especially in districts like Perambalur where malnutrition level is high. The survival of mother and child is my only mission irrespective of caste and community.”

That is why Chief Minister has granted a special programme for the district with regard to nutrition. “Besides,” he says, “child marriage should not be treated as a stand-alone issue and considered in isolation. This has a direct bearing on maternal mortality, infant mortality, and sex ratio and I was happy when the Chief Minister was kind enough to congratulate me in this regard.”

He laments that girls suffered “inequality at birth and even in death”. While nobody forces a boy to marry before he is 21, why should the girls be forced before they are 18, he asks.

District Social Welfare Officer K. Pechiammal says that if puberty alone were to be taken as the threshold for marriage, many girls attain puberty at the age of 10 and 11 due to various factors including lifestyle and food. “What will happen to these children if left to such ignorant parents?”

Thanks to the unrelenting campaign and counselling for the past two years, there is some awareness among the people of Perambalur district that they would have to face the consequences if they were to violate the Child Marriage Act.