Childhood interrupted

Childhood’s end…   | Photo Credit: Photo: AP


Everything around us tells us that we have stepped into the 21st Century. Until you see a 10-year-old bride on the TV screen…

When glitzy malls, packaged drinking water, instant foods, supermarkets, loud entertainment and all the trappings of “modern” life surround us and create the illusion of a 21st century lifestyle, it is extremely uncomfortable to be brought up short before a television image of a 10-year-old bride taking the seven steps around the sacred fire, signifying marriage with the glum 16-year-old boy beside her. To much of the world that takes this lifestyle for granted, child marriages are a thing of the past. But suddenly, as recently as early November this year, this uncomfortable snitch in the social fabric surfaced again on one of the news channels. The shabby finery of a child in almost adult wedding vermilion holding the hand of a turbaned teenager. Childhood rudely interrupted, adulthood thrust on them long before they were ready for it.

Not enough

What good are the 1929 Act fixing the legal age of marriage as 18 for girls and 21 for boys, the Child Marriage Restraint Law of 1978 tightening earlier provisions but giving the police no powers or the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, making such marital arrangements cognisable and non-bailable offences? That these take place in backward, rural areas regularly compounds the ills they bring to communities. UNICEF calls it “a gross violation of all categories of child rights.” The organization also gives shocking data — 82 per cent of girls in Rajasthan are married by the age of 18, 15 per cent of girls in rural areas are married before they are 13 and 52 per cent of girls go through their first pregnancy between the ages of 15 and 19.

The National Family Health Survey [NFHS] 3, coming at a later date, records an overall decline in the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the age of 18, from 54.2 per cent to 44.5 per cent in 2005-2006 but adds that it is still a disproportionate number of girls in comparison to boys being married off too young. The same year many press reports record that Shakunthala Verma, 48-year-old social worker, lay in hospital with both arms broken above the wrist for trying to stop child marriages in Madhya Pradesh, showing the violent resistance to acts of reform . In the 1990s, the Bhanwari Devi case caused a stir for the crude and drastic punishment meted out to her for trying to stop the Thakur’s daughter being married off. Her courage and dignity and her husband’s bold and unflinching support to her won many hearts. But full justice still eludes her.

The objective here is not so much to go into the already well-documented socioeconomic pressures that support these retrograde steps or the tendency of villagers to move into more obscure areas to escape the law, but to point out the injustice done to children unaware of their rights, and the limits on the law itself that can do nothing about such unions once they have taken place.

Not in their hands

Children are helpless because they are a group for whom most decisions are taken by others. A girl’s virginity and family honour are not separable and “protecting daughters from rape or the lure of premarital sex”, according to Anuj Chopra writing in the Christian Science Monitor, takes precedence over all else.

November is also the month when Children’s Day is celebrated. I would like to add my voice to that of a reader who suggested that it be celebrated as Child Rights Day rather than just the blanket Children’s Day. How much can be gained by focusing on this to raise awareness can be computed from what a study by the Centre for Social Research, New Delhi, put out earlier this year: “Child marriages contribute virtually every social problem that keeps India behind in women’s rights. Unless enforcement issues are addressed efficiently and awareness regarding legal mechanisms created, problems like soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy and infant mortality and low life expectancy will continue.” Not to mention childhoods interrupted and the griefs perpetrated.