India tackles child marriages

New legal efforts try to curb a practice rooted in the daily realities of the poor.

Shanta was only 13 when her parents forced her to leave school and married her to a man twice her age. At 15, while most of her peers were in school, she gave birth. Now 17 and emaciated, Shanta is back in her parent's home after her marriage collapsed: Her husband is in prison for a serious crime that Shanta didn't want to reveal, just as she didn't want to reveal her real name.

"I didn't even understand what marriage meant at 13," she says, her eyes brimming with tears, as her 2-year-old lolls in the background. Shanta hadn't even seen her husband, let alone known him, before she tied the nuptial knot.

More than one-third of all brides in India are below the age of 18, an estimate that activists say could be low, as many marriages - both child and adult - seldom get registered. A Supreme Court decision in February now compels couples to register. Nevertheless, this month, on Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious festival for Hindus, child marriages were reported to have been solemnized in parts of the country, under the nose of police and despite a 1929 law that sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

Child-welfare activists are pushing for tougher legislation and enforcement. But it's an uphill battle in a nation where much of the population is rural or poor, and the societal values are shaped by sparse resources, limited opportunities for women, and family traditions that are slower to change than those in India's more cosmopolitan urban centers.

"It has been a well-accepted social norm for centuries," says Anjali Bapat, a volunteer working with Swadhar, a nongovernmental organization dealing with underprivileged children and women in Pune. The city is known more for its high-tech parks, malls, and multiplexes, but it also is home to Shanta and other residents of the Chaitraban slum.

Here, as in rural parts of India barely touched by the industrial revolution let alone the information age, many Indians see early marriage as in the best interest of young girls. Ms. Bapat explains that, in their view, marriage ensures security - financial and social - for girls. Also, parents prefer to marry girls off early - one of the biggest social obligations if they have a daughter - before the costs of marriage, including dowry, surpass their means.

A matter of honor and money

Nanda Lodha, an elderly woman, got married even before she hit puberty. She says she grew up in a feudal society where the presence of young unmarried girls is a potential invitation for social disaster.

"A girl's virginity is prized and associated with family honor," she says. "Getting girls married early, then and even now in most cases, is a way to protect daughters from rape or the lure of premarital sex. Parents prefer to get them married early before their family honor is breached."

Besides such social pressures, financial compulsions, too, were a big reason for early marriages, she says. "Early marriage meant an additional earning member. Besides household chores, I needed to work in the fields with my husband, to supplement the household income."

Weddings in out-of-the-way places

These days, to evade the eye of activists or the police in urban India, a common modus operandi is to solemnize weddings in villages where the presence of the law is less conspicuous. Kamala Sargare, a diminutive 12-year-old in Chaitraban, recently got engaged to a man old enough to be her father, locals say. Her wedding, they say, is scheduled in a neighboring village next month.

The young girl returned blank looks when asked what marriage means. Her mother, noticing the line of questions was veering toward early marriage, hollered and pulled Kamala in, shutting the door firmly behind her.

"There are [loopholes] in the present law," says Jaya Sagade, a legal expert on the issue and the author of a book called "Child Marriage in India: Socio-legal and Human Rights Dimensions." "This act can only prevent child marriages. Once the ceremony is conducted, it can't hold it to be void. So even the police cannot do much."

Tougher approach proposed

In December 2004, a parliamentary committee led by Sudarsana Natchiappan tabled a report recommending changes to the current law. These include: voiding child marriages and making the crime punishable with up to two years in prison - up from the current three months.

If these changes are adopted, the question remains - as with the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage registration - whether enforcement will happen.

Mr. Natchiappan says further consultations with NGOs and child rights activists were needed to make the act stronger, causing some delay. He says the bill might be passed within this year.

Activists say the absence of an effective law makes it hard to change habits and structures ingrained in Indian society, particularly in rural areas. Last May, villagers in an obscure part of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh fatally attacked a child welfare activist trying to stop child marriages. The villagers saw her as interfering with their ancient traditions.

To help girls break free from the shackles of well-established social norms, Bapat and others point to the need for better education opportunities. Currently, some girls from poor backgrounds are forced to drop out after they hit puberty for reasons as petty as the schools having no bathrooms.

What's heartening, however, is that more and more resistance to child marriages is coming from children themselves.

Ragini Dimle, an 18-year-old training to be a beautician at a school run by Swadhar, was pressured to marry a man, chosen by her brother-in-law, when she was just 14.

"I simply refused," she says, parsing her remarks with the precision of a girl forced to become too wise, too soon. "'I want to study and stand on my own feet first,' I told my parents firmly."

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