Tying Us Up In Knots

Date : - Location :

Tying Us Up In Knots

Gita, an immigrant from Bihar, has been working in Delhi as a domestic worker since as long as she can remember. Although 40, she is petite and looks severely malnourished. A year ago Gita sent her youngest daughter to work in her place because she was sick and couldn't afford to miss a day's salary. All of 15, this girl had studied till class 8, carried the latest mobile phone and had aspirations like most of us do at that age. However she was forced to drop out of school because, according to her, she could get 'free' education only till class 8, had to look after her younger siblings (read brothers) when they came back from school, and had been engaged to be married to another 15 year old in Bihar. To me, however, there appeared to be only one reason: our half-hearted investments in the lives of our children, whether it is their education, health, marriage or work. Today, when political parties are fighting a closely contested election in Bihar amidst another 'development' rhetoric, I am forced to think of Gita's story again.

India has many such more Gita's who are forced everyday to marry their daughters much before they attain the legal age of marriage and can choose for themselves or exercise agency. Our country has the highest number of child brides in the world and the lowest political will to confront this social evil (India's refusal to sign global resolution on child marriage raises concern, The Hindu, October 26, 2013).

Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) 2006, 18 years is the permissible age of marriage for girls and 21 years for boys. The Act, however, has several limitations. For one, it fails to declare that all child marriages are illegal. Second, the Act makes child marriages voidable only when children or guardians seek annulment of the marriage. Third, in doing so, it (mis)places the onus on the child and the parent to seek annulment and not on the State. Given the context of child marriages and the wider culture of marginalization, parents are not used to sending their children to school and getting them married or sending them to work becomes the obvious choice. Here the State has to take on a proactive role instead of holding the parents responsible. Fourth, the Act presumes that the child is able to exercise her agency to say 'no' to child marriage. And last, it takes for granted the presence of appropriate support structures and institutions which are essential for a child to defy marriage and also to rehabilitate her. (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, 2013)

In reality it is unlikely that the parent/ guardian will take the initiative and risk of terminating a marriage and as a result the numbers of child marriages reported and stopped under the Act have been negligible. For instance, in 2010 there were only 60 registered cases of child marriage under the PCMA (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2012). Even the National Crime Records Bureau 2012 records have shown that the conviction rate concerning child marriage is low. Another reason for this is often attributed to the institution of Child Marriage Prohibition Officers (CMPO) which exists in every State to prevent child marriages, and ensure protection of the victims as well as prosecution of the offenders. "In the data received by the NCPCR from the States regarding the implementation of the PCMA, it was found that in most cases the CPMOs were officers with additional responsibilities such as the DM, SDM, CDPO or BDO and thus could not address several issues pertaining to the prevention of child marriage in the State" (NCPCR, 2013).

Further, the cash transfer schemes introduced by the Central and State governments to help in delaying the age of marriage among girls in the country by incentivizing birth and sustenance of girl children have not been adequately tested and evaluated. These programmes are mainly driven by supplies. Schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana and Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana exclude girls below 19 from maternity benefits thereby penalizing and victimizing child brides further, which is in contravention of the PCMA, and adding to the smugness and denial of our law and policy makers.

According to the 2001 census there were 1.5 million girls in India under the age of 15 already married. Of these, 20% or approximately 300,000 were mothers to at least one child. At the national level, one in every five girls aged 15-17 years and slightly more than half of girls aged 15-24, were married. In all, 47% of India's girls aged 20-24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56% from rural areas. Similarly, one in every 17 boys aged 15-20, and more than 80 percent of boys aged 15-24 were married. 40% of the world's child marriages take place in India, resulting in a vicious cycle of gender discrimination, inter-generational poverty, illiteracy and high infant and maternal mortality rates. The risk of domestic violence, abuse and exploitation inherent in child marriages is well known. Being married early they conceive at a very early stage in their life. In the three years preceding National Family Health Survey-III (2005-06), there were 90 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 and 209 births per 1,000 girls aged 20-24, the highest of any age group. (NCPCR, 2013)

Interestingly, the inverse correlation between the attainment of education and the odds of getting married has been pointed out by NFHS-III. An analysis done to identify the determinants of early marriage revealed that "the higher the education the lower the odds that a girl aged 15-17 would be married and the lower the odds that a girl aged 18-24 would have been married before age 18". Similarly, the proportion of girls who had begun childbearing was about three times as high among girls who had no education as girls who had 10 or more years of education. (NCPCR, 2013)

All of this therefore points fingers at the current legislative and policy framework for child marriage prevention and prohibition. It underrates the importance of education in disrupting the link between work and marriage for young girls and the inter-generational cycle of poverty and marginalization. Parents of these young girls, especially mothers like Gita, who have experienced the impact of early (and untimely) entry into workforce on early marriage and childbirth, and vice-versa, are found to be making an unprecedented demand for education for their children. They are willing to make investments in their children's education, provided there exists a series of social security measures which ensure the retention of children in schools, and not their sudden drop-out, and enables them to exercise agency.

The last time I met her, Gita's daughter told me that even if she was to get married, she would make sure that her children continue to study till the time they want and marry as per their choice when they were ready. Silver lining?

© Chawla Publications (P) Ltd.