Child Marriage continues to haunt this country when it is marching ahead in indicators such as Ease of Doing Business.
It was May 2018. Revathi (name changed) a lanky 16-year-old girl loved going to the cream coloured building nearly five km away from her house. Her favourite subjects were Kannada and Social Sciences. She had no idea her life was going to turn upside down in the next few days.
Turn to next month she was amid a mammoth crowd in a local devalaya, where people from all over Kushtagi (a taluk of Koppal district in Hyderabad-Karnataka) gathered. Along with Revathi, 30 other people’s lives were going to change forever that day. But unlike her, others were not forced into the setting.
Revathi, draped in a red bridal saree was waiting impatiently for the members of the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) and Child Welfare Committee (CWC) to come and rescue her before the commencement of the rituals of the marriage. Within half an hour, Nelofar, Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee along with her team arrived and rescued the troubled 16-year old.
Revathi was among the 79 other girls in Koppal who were timely rescued by the organisations such as Child Line 1098, Child Welfare Committee, and District Child Protection Unit that year.
Note: The Data was obtained from District Child Protection Unit (DCPU)’s office Koppal.
UNICEF’s website states that India is home to the most number of child brides in the world, which constitutes of an alarming rate of 33.3 % of the world. The average age of a person involved in a child marriage ranges from 15-18 years.
“Around 8-10 child marriage cases come to us every month. The numbers increase, especially in summers. Reasons range from societal pressure to get girls married early to economic problems being the hurdle,” said Netravathi, Councillor, government Children’s Home for Girls, Koppal.
Koppal, which falls under the Hyderabad Karnataka region is home to several beautiful architectural sites including the Mahadeva temple. It is also known for being the breeding ground for Kinnal Craft, which has recently given the Geographical identity tag and Ilkal sarees, a traditional South Indian saree, but the shadow of child marriage looms over the district.
Koppal has witnessed a total of 413 child marriage prevented cases in the past eight years from 2011 to 2018, whereas 24 FIRs have been filed during the same period of time.
According to a study carried out by UNICEF, there has been a sharp decline in occurrences of child marriage in the country with the numbers going down from 47 percent to 27 percent, within the span of a decade. But this number does not provide the true picture as there is a huge variance in the national average and the rate of child marriage across states and rural areas.
Note: The audio clip contains conversations among the councilor, government Children’s Home, Koppal, Netravathi, Revathi (name changed), a girl who was rescued from child marriage and ‘The Softcopy’ team.
According to a data of National Family Health Survey 2016, Karnataka accounts for 23.2 percent of the women aged between 20 to22 who were married before the age of 18.
When at one place Revathi’s fate was hanging in balance. Ashna (name changed), another girl of the same age was also undergoing similar circumstances. Ashna, a shy school going girl, studying in standard 9, was the apple of the eye of her grandfather. The 82-year-old was counting his last few days and it was his last wish to see her granddaughter get married. But Ashna wanted to continue her studies and the marriage was being conducted against her will. Fortunately, a complaint was filed by Nelofar, Chairperson, CWC, and Police came to Ashna’s rescue.
Stories of Revathi and Ashna compel us to think and asks us to ponder upon issues which are very much present in our country and affecting a large number of lives. To answer the question: Why an archaic tradition like child marriage is still very practiced in the country we have to dig deep and first try to know the crux of the problem.
“Child marriages are practiced based upon three to four major reasons. Tradition is among the biggest reasons for the action to take place. In parts of Karnataka, there is a tradition that is still being followed that the elder brother cannot marry leaving behind the younger brother, i.e either both brothers will get married or neither will get married.
For example, if there are four brothers, the fourth and third brother have to marry together and so on and so forth. This sometimes leads to child marriages as it does not consider age as a criterion,” said Ravi Pawar, Social Worker, District Child Protection Unit, Koppal.
Pawar added: “The phenomenon of group marriages is the other big reason for child marriages in rural areas. Group marriages are conducted in Devalayas, a name for temples in Kannada. The aim of people who arrange these group marriages is to increase the number of marriages every year. For e.g, if in 2015 they have managed to arrange for 10 couples, the next year they at least try to reach the figure of 11. The problem here is documentation is not done properly. Hence a few couples sneak in between and thus some of the instances of child marriage occur this way.”
According to data gathered from DCPU, in 2012, there were 48 cases in which child marriage was prevented and three cases where the First Information Report (FIR) was filed in Koppal. The numbers have significantly gone up and now stand at 79 and 9 for Child Marriage Prevented Cases and FIR’s registered respectively.
“A new crisis has arisen these days. A lot of young boys and girls are getting involved in love affairs. Having a love affair is still considered a taboo in rural parts of the country. Thus, to avoid facing social alienation these families marry off their children at an early age,” explained Netravathi.
Head Constable, Kushtagi, Athek Ahamad, says that Gram Panchayats, local self-governance systems in villages, sometimes take decisions in favour of the parents or relatives of the child whose marriage has been fixed, keeping in mind social and economic factors.
“Poverty is a major reason in many cases of child marriage as a few families don’t have enough money to arrange for their daughter or son’s wedding. As a consequence of that, they try to sneak in their wards in group marriages, where documentation is not processed properly at times,” added Ahamad.
According to a report published in ‘Star of Mysore’, the Southern state of Karnataka, is home to a high percentage of Child Marriage cases. It accounts for 23 percent of the cases in the state.
As established earlier, occurrences of child marriage depend upon geographical, social and economic factors and thus witness variation across states and districts. Some districts of Rajasthan and Bihar account for numbers as high as 47 percent and 51 percent for child marriage in girls, which is a high mark even considering the national average.
It is not that the government of India is not striving to curb this practice. There is a Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 in place which criminalises child marriage and offers punishment according to the involvement of the person.
Any person who is involved in the crime or is helping can be held for abetment of crime. Even the people who cook food in the wedding functions or photographers can be held guilty for possessing knowledge of the child marriage taking place and not informing the concerned authorities.
The punishments offered are under section 3, 9, 10 and 11 of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The government of Karnataka made a few changes in some sections of the act and on 26th April 2017 The Prohibition of Child Marriage(Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016 was passed.
“There are several schemes in place which look to empower women and children in Karnataka. There is Bhagyalakshmi scheme which was launched in the state in 2006. The scheme ensures girl child education especially from children belonging to Below Poverty Line up to the age of 18. Bhagyalakshmi scheme also ensures a benefit of Rs 1 lakh in case a girl does not marry up till the age of 18,” said VirendraNavadagi, District Child Protection Officer, DCPU, Koppal.
“To ensure girl child education, there is a system of child tracking, wherein we seize the financial support given to them in case they drop out of formal education. This is done to encourage education among young girls,” added Navadagi.
The Government of Karnataka has appointed Child Marriage Prohibition Officers at State, District and Taluk levels.
“As a remedial measure, several awareness programs are launched by Gram Panchayats and Anganwadi teachers. There are Child Helplines, which are an emergency service and are for any child who is in need of help. You have to make a call to Child helpline and the child is rescued within an hour of the call being made. The child who has to be taken care of is then handed over to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC),” said Ravi Pawar.
According to the 2011 census, there are 25 CWCs in Karnataka. To prevent child marriage focus has to be given to motivate Balika Sangas at Anganwadis and mass marriage needs to be monitored and protocols should be there to prevent all mass marriage organisers.
In India, the legal age for a girl to get married is 18, whereas it is 21 for a boy. Child Marriage is one of the biggest human rights violations and can have serious implications on both a girl and a boy but more so on a girl as she could be subjected to risks of teenage pregnancy. Early marriage can also take a toll on the emotional health of a child. Cases of domestic violence are also high in cases of child marriage.
Illiteracy, poverty, dowry, religious and social pressure, and regional customs are some of the biggest factors contributing to the menace of Child Marriage in the country.
For India to move ahead as a nation it is imperative that they overcome social ills like Child Marriage as its development will only have meaning if it reaches every nook and corner of the country.