Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Reluctant mothers

The baby on Bharati’s lap could easily pass off for her kid brother. The sari and full sleeve blouse failing to make her appear any older than she really is. Sitting in the small anganwadi centre in an urban slum with a fancy name, Dubai Colony, in Kalaburagi town, Karnataka, she narrates how she got married and ended up with a child when most of her friends have just about finished schooling.

Bharati is the eldest child in a landless family that migrated from Savalagi, an arid village a few kilometres from the district headquarters to Kalaburagi city in North Karnataka about 15 years ago in search of work. Her father became an electrician and mother a construction worker. The area in which she lived and continues to live in — is a warren of houses, open drains, narrow lanes and where pigs forage through dirt — enough indication that migration did little to improve the fortunes of the family.

With four children to take care of, the father was keen to shed the responsibility of his firstborn as soon as he had some money to arrange for her marriage. Before she turned 17 she was married to a relative and became a mother within a year. “My husband Nagaraj is also young. His aging mother wanted a woman to take care of the household,” she says.

The consent of the girl was clearly not even a consideration, given the “necessity” of the two families. Hesitating to give it the tag of a “forced” marriage, Bharati says, brushing away her tears, “My parents convinced me it was necessary because we were really poor. I had to accept.”

Reluctant mothers

Six districts, one story

Bharati’s is not an isolated case in the blighted Hyderabad-Karnataka districts of North Karnataka (Kalaburagi, Ballari, Raichur, Bidar, Koppal and Yadgir), a region marked by arid farms, harsh summers and sparse rains and poverty. Social and economic backwardness here has resulted in thousands like Bharati being pushed into marriage, and subsequently, underage pregnancies. Child marriage is more a norm than an aberration in Hyderabad-Karnataka marked by persistent poverty, migration because of agrarian crisis, lack of education and awareness. None of the six districts in the region matches the State literacy average of 75.60%. Of the seven districts that are at the bottom of State’s literacy grid, five are from this region.

The D.M. Nanjundappa-headed High Power Committee on Redressal of Regional Imbalances constituted by the government of Karnataka, says 21 of 31 taluks in the region were most backward in 2002. According to the Centre for Multi Disciplinary Development Research, Dharwad, that studied development status by using similar data and methodology adopted by the Najundappa panel, 23 taluks of the 31 taluks were most backward in 2014.

This is corroborated by data from the Department of Health and Family Welfare. In 2016 alone, over 1,600 girls in the six districts of Hyderabad-Karnataka in northern Karnataka have delivered babies before they turned 19 in government hospitals. The number is much larger if deliveries in private establishments and non-institutional deliveries, still rampant here, are taken into account.

“I will say for every reported teenage pregnancy and delivery, there are a hundred unreported ones,” says Kavita Hushare, a Dalit leader and women’s rights activist in Bidar. Officials do not contest her. “We have statistics saying there are around 125 underage deliveries in Bidar district last year. I am not surprised if there are 125 such deliveries in each of the primary health centres that cater to a population of 20,000,” says a senior officer in the Health and Family Welfare Department.

Amlan Aditya Biswas, Regional Commissioner of Kalaburagi division, who oversees the six districts of the region, does not dispute the high percentage of child marriage in the region as compared to the rest of the State attributing the problem to historical backwardness — both economic and cultural.

“The problems of child marriages and underage deliveries are serious in Hyderabad-Karnataka as the region is economically and culturally backward. Some studies like the human development index and the multi sectoral development programme background paper have indicated the low levels of health and education indices for the region. Among these is the tradition of getting girls married before 18. The State government is committed to reversing such trends through development schemes, awareness programmes on one hand, and regulatory measures on the other,” he told The Hindu.

One stumbles upon stories similar to that of Bharati in every pocket of poverty in the region. Savita, a 23-year-old Dalit woman in Shah Bazar colony in Kalaburagi, is already a mother of three. Sixth of seven siblings, she discontinued schooling after Class 7 due to acute poverty and was “convinced” to get married to a man 12 years her senior. “I don’t know whether it was right or wrong to get married when I did. We are just moving on,” she says stoically, as her children aged between 5 years and seven months play around her.

‘Safety’ leads to abuse

The growing agrarian crisis is rendering a large number of rural population jobless every year. The handful of industries in the urban centres within the region are unable to accommodate the army of unskilled rural labour. As a result, farmers in distress migrate to Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa, Hyderabad and other faraway places to find work in the burgeoning construction sector. They feel “safer” getting their daughters married before migrating rather than leave them behind or take them into the big bad cities.

Ironically, such marriages which were meant to provide “safety” to the girls have more often than not left these young brides and mothers vulnerable to various forms of abuse. The desperation of poverty has also spawned practices like “Gujjar ki shadi” where underage brides are “bought” into Gujarat. The modus operandi is simple: a group of people from Gujarat — with female members and even kids — posing as family approach poor, ignorant and illiterate parents in the region through mediators and “make an offer of marriage” to young girls against payment to the parents. The first such incident surfaced three years ago, and the problem continues to persist despite intensified vigilance by law enforcement agencies.

A wedding is fixed

Take, for instance, the case of the 17-year-old daughter of Fatima and Mehabub in Sedam, a city where the coarse locally-sourced Shahabad stone is smoothened into floor tiles. Their family of seven children lives in a ten-feet-by-ten-feet tin shed near one such unit.

Fatima has not gone to work for a week now, after a heavy stone slab fell on her feet. This week, she will not get paid; her husband will take home ₹500 for a week’s work — not enough to reduce the ₹1 lakh debt owed to their employer.

But debt is a constant companion, and it is perhaps this that forced their hand — and they found themselves on the wrong side of the law — in November last year. With no money to pay for dowry, they believed their eldest daughter who is 17, would never marry. Three months ago, a relative, who works in Gujarat, brought them an offer they found difficult to refuse: a suitor from Gujarat, willing to get married not just for free, but by paying the parents’ a seemingly handsome amount.

“We are struggling to survive. When the offer came, we thought it was god-send. My daughter accepted the proposal when we told her about it,” says Fatima, who keeps a watch on her children keeps playing outside the shed. They gave little thought to the consequences of what is called ‘Gujjar ki Shadi’. The tradition of suitors buying out young girls from depressed communities had survived through decades and there was little reason for the daughter to disagree with her parents.

The wedding was fixed, the arrangements made. And then, members of the local Child Welfare Committee (CWC), police and civil society members swooped in to shut the programmes down. “Others had got their daughters married in the same way. But, only ours has been prevented,” says Fatima whose tone lowers with sadness. It is a mystery as to what happens to these young girls. The CWC members say these girls double up as agricultural labourers, and are sometimes even forced into prostitution.

Fatima and Mehabub remain fortunate, however, that they were let off with a warning, and all they had to do was sign an undertaking that they will wait till their daughter turns 18 before she is married.

Thirty-eight-year-old Mariyamma is in jail for giving in to a similar proposal for her 15-year-old daughter. Her husband died six years ago, leaving her to bring up six children alone — the youngest 6 years — on her meagre earnings as a construction labourer.

The appearance of a “family” from Gujarat carrying a proposal seemed to be a solution for the anxiety of her daughter’s marriage. The setting up of the wedding in November saw officials descend on their slum in Bapunagar in Kalaburagi, and she was whisked away to Central Jail on the outskirts of the city under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.

Her children are now housed in the Girls’ home, and for the past three months, they have not seen their mother. “She did this for our good. Please get her out of jail,” weeps her 15-year-old daughter at the Girls’ Home. With the trial yet to gather steam, her pleas for a “new life” are bound to echo emptily.

Vittal Chikani, a CWC member in the district, says that the ‘Gujjar ki Shadi’ often comes as a panacea to the poverty engulfing these families. Amounts ranging from ₹15,000 to ₹1 lakh are enough to coax parents into agreeing — even if their daughters are under-aged.

Many of these weddings go unnoticed, and Jagathi would have been bonded in marriage if not for a chance tip-off. In June 2015, she was married off to a Gujarati man by her single mother struggling to sustain them. The marriage happened at the house. It was a simple affair. No dowry was exchanged. Jagathi would have left for Gujarat almost immediately if the Gujarati family had not stayed back searching for another bride for the younger one in the group. It was during this period that the CWC was informed. Houses in Ramnagar in Gujarat and Kalaburagi were raided. Now, Jagathi stays in the Girls’ Home while her mother is behind bars. “I just want to stay with my mother. There is no one who can get her released,” she says.

Unlike Fatima’s daughter, Alina, a Dalit in Yakatapur in Bidar district and mother of three, was not rescued by anyone. Though not married off to an unknown man and whisked off to an unknown destination, her husband deserted her, leaving her to take care of two children. Married when she was in Class 8 (approximately 14), she now lives in a hut outside her brother’s house and goes to work in the fields, with her two younger children in tow. The eldest daughter attends the village anganwadi. “I don’t even remember the wedding. It was in the evening and I slept through it,” she says with a wry smile. Not interested in dissecting her past, her life’s mission is now to ensure her children do not go to sleep hungry.

In the Dande household in the same area, there is pervasive gloom. The son-in-law Sharanappa died in a road accident in Bidar eight months ago. His bride, 17-year-old Vishala, is pregnant and is counting the days for the delivery of her baby. “I will stay here till my parents are alive. Nobody knows what will happen to me later,” she says. Gayatri David, who lives close to the Dande family, is less articulate; perhaps she is too caught up with making ends meet. Married at 12, a dozen years ago, she lost her husband five years ago. She has three children, the eldest 10.

Shattered dreams

Many of these girls were hoping to complete their education and eventually find jobs, when the harsh reality crushed them for good. Rashmi at Ramji Nagar in Kalaburagi was planning on becoming a schoolteacher, but ended up a mother before she could even finish schooling. “My father was ill and my mother’s earnings were never enough. I left school after class 8 to start working. Two years later I got married,” she says.

Despite their dismal lives, not all of them have given up on the future. Bharati hopes to continue her education from where she left off. She dreams of doing a computer course once she stops breastfeeding her child, probably in a year. She believes that learning to operate the computer is her ticket to a job and a better life. “My husband, a construction labourer, earns ₹250 a day. He doesn’t have a problem if I study and find a job,” she says with a faint hint of a smile.

Rashmi is determined that her children do not go through what she did. “I have suffered enough. I will not let history repeat itself,’’ she says.

Accepting the possibility of underreporting of child marriages by the victims or authorities, for various reasons, Mr. Biswas is of the view that the incidences of child marriages have fallen compared to the past due to increasing awareness and developmental initiatives. “Even if the number of reported cases is smaller, it is a matter of grave concern. We will continue to remain focussed on the issue and officials of departments concerned will jointly work towards eradicating them,” he says. He adds that institutions such as the child helpline, district child protection committees and designated child welfare officers, who are duty bound to protect children in distress, are in place. “Whenever such incidents occur, officers and civil society members of child welfare committees rush to the spot and counsel the parents. School headmasters and Panchayat officers have been requested to inform the committees about possible underage marriages,” he says.

With inputs from Rishikesh Bahadur Desai in Bidar, Ravikumar Naraboli in Yadgir and M. Ahiraj in Ballari. Names of the girls have been changed to protect their identities.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 12:52:07 PM |

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