Children in many parts of India continue to be forced into marriage despite a decades-old law banning girls under the age of 18 – and boys under 21 – from marrying. This has been a longstanding problem that has lead to widespread exploitation of young girls, as well as stealing their childhood.
Take the case of 13-year-old Jasmeena (not her real name). She was married off to a man seven years older. By 16 she was a mother of two children. When she turned 18, her husband abandoned her. With no means of support, she returned to her father’s home. The husband showed up months later and tried to rape Jasmeena, who fled trembling and traumatized. “I don’t ever want to go back to him,” she said.
Such instances of trauma inflicted through forced child marriage are common despite the custom being illegal.
Peeping over 16-year-old Haseena’s shoulder is her seven-year-old sister Nazma, who said: “I was only a breastfeeding infant … I did not even know what was happening when they married me off.”
Nazma is worried about her fellow child bride, Haseena, who will be sent to her husband’s house. “What will happen to her education? We want to go to school! We want to study,” Nazma says.
Early marriages affect many more girls than boys – they constitute 76% of all child-marriage victims. An analysis of Census 2011 data by IndiaSpend shows that 12.7 million women were forced to become child brides in India.
Some children resist as best as they can. Aarti is a prime example. When her parents tried to get her married at 14, Aarti defied everyone and refused. She is now pursuing her studies in the 10th standard year at high school.
While the law has failed to stop child marriage, activists can intervene through close engagement with communities and by talking to parents to make them understand how much the practice harms their children, Indira Pancholi, whoruns anti-child marriage campaigns in Ajmer with Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), said.
According to the 2016 National Family Health Survey, about 42% of women aged between 20-24 years, were married before reaching the legal age of 18 in the state of West Bengal. But Haq Centre for Child Rights said the figures were far higher – 61% and 58% for the West Bengal districts of Murishidabad and Birbhum districts respectively.
Many village elders still endorse child marriages. One explained: “All this dressing up and the make-up that the girls do are to lure boys. Parents must ensure that they send the girl to her in-law’s house before she gets her period,” an elder told Asia Times.
However, there is hope, as “survivors” of child marriage take up the responsibility of fighting to end it.
“If I could have my way, I’d ensure that nobody could be married before they were 18,” said Mamuni – a mother herself – who attended school despite taunts from her neighbors in a village in West Bengal.
(The author visited over 40 villages across Rajasthan and West Bengal in the course of his research on child marriage).