by Urmila Chanam
I had heard about the prevalence of child marriage in India, but Nikita, 11, personalized the institution for me. I met her in a government school in the remote village of Doodiya, eight kilometers from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Tiny, fragile-boned, and inhibited, she is a student of class six. In other parts of the world, Nikita would have lived the life of a growing child, but here in the heart of India, Nikita behaves like a small lady. She is soon to be married. A child bride at 11 years, soon to tie the knot with a 15-year-old boy, also in school, but certainly not an adult himself.
In the school where Nikita studies, I notice many girls, younger or her age, with vermillion or mustard-colored paste on their foreheads. To my surprise, I also see the mustard-colored paste on the foreheads of a few boys. I later find out that these children are either engaged or already married. According to a teacher here, out of the 200 students in her school, 30 are married, but another source fears that the percentage may be much higher.
When I get the chance to talk to Nikita at her school, I take extra caution not to scare her off by asking too many questions. She is my getaway to another world, another time. She surprises me with her composure and maturity beyond her years, and I feel that she had been compromised by what lay ahead of her. She shows no resistance, no second thoughts, and no trace of regret. Regardless, the expectations placed upon her are too much.
I try not to sound too eager when I ask, “So are you happy to be getting married or you don’t want to?” I was hoping the answer would be the latter. She smiles and replies, “I didn’t think about that. I only know everyone gets married in my village when they are much younger. My uncle’s daughter got married when she turned five. In fact, I am late.”
Now this is something.Nikita tells me she saw the boy she would soon marry once at a family get-together, as is the tradition. The families of the prospective couple meet informally over tea to mull over the possibility of marriage. A decision is made after the boy sees the girl and agrees that she is “fit” to be his wife.
Child marriages are so rampant and commonplace in central India that no one gives it a second thought. The tradition is that the child bride continues to live with her parents after the wedding until she begins to menstruate. In a ceremony that marks this stage in her life, she then moves into her husband’s house. Whether the conjugal rights of the boy over his child bride exist during the time she lives with her parents varies from community to community.
Parents worry that a girl will not find a good husband if she is not married by the normal age. Girls who do not marry early usually end up marrying men who have been divorced, widowed, or are physically challenged.
Most people who engage in this practice do not do it with bad intentions. Behind this age-old tradition is the ignorant and uncivilized father who wants the best for his daughter, not knowing any other way, not questioning its implications on the lives of these young children.
Mohan Dom from Bettiah in Bihar, father of a 5-year-old girl, says, “In my community it’s necessary to get our daughters married by eight years at the latest. Any delay in that means that we have not been able to find a match for her. If we do get a match, the man would have been married earlier and lost his wife to an ailment or accident. This is why we marry off our daughters very young, though they continue to live with us till they turn 18. In the final send-off, we do not compromise.”
Also from Bettiah, Bihar, Mohan Rawat is the grandfather of a 10-year-old girl. He says he is now paying for his decision not to marry off his granddaughter earlier. “I had decided that my granddaughter will not be married off at a very young age like it is done here, but today she is 10 and now when I am looking for a match I am unable to find one for her because in our Dom community, girls are married at four or five years.”
I also saw child marriages in almost all the government schools I visited in Bettiah, Bihar. There were some Muslim girls who were married and did not have any outward indication of their marital status, but whose names had “Khatun” added to the end.It was easy to identify which girls were married due to the vermillion on their foreheads, but how many boys were married was difficult to ascertain. Though Indian law has made child marriage illegal, it is still reported widely from the rural parts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgar, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. Though some other third world countries practice child marriage, India alone houses one-third of all child brides.
This practice adversely affects the emotional, mental, and intellectual growth of children, affecting the education of girls directly. Child marriage is one of the major reasons why girls in India drop out of school and never return to pursue further studies.
Burdened with traditions, responsibilities, childbirth, child rearing, and domestic chores, child marriage is truly a violation of human rights. The nutrition, growth, and development of child brides are remarkably stunted. Maternal death is on the rise because girls who marry early in life are less likely to be informed about reproductive issues, making pregnancy-related deaths the leading cause of mortality among married girls between 15 and 19 years of age. These girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth than girls between 20 and 24 years of age. Girls younger than 15 years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth.
Infants born to mothers under the age of 18 years are more likely to die in their first year than to older mothers, making infant health another serious impact of child marriage. If the infants survive, they are the most likely to suffer from low birth weight, malnutrition, and delayed or stunted physical and cognitive development.
A study conducted in India by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International in 2005 and 2006 showed low fertility control within child marriages. Ninety percent of young married women reported no contraceptive use prior to having their first child. 23.9 percent reported having a child within their first year of marriage, 17.3 percent reported having three or more children over the course of the marriage, 23 percent reported a rapid repeat childbirth, and 15.2 percent reported an unwanted pregnancy.On top of all this, young girls are more likely to experience domestic violence in their marriages. They are twice as likely to be beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands and three times more likely to experience sexual violence. Young brides often show symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, according to a study conducted in India by the International Centre for Research on Women.
After spending some private moments with Nikita, I realize it is not right for me to goad her out of her environment and destiny, but at the same time I have trouble letting go that easily. I doubt whether I would ever return to that place and meet her again. I wonder to myself what I can do under these circumstances. I need a promise from her.
“Will you promise me that you will not leave school after marriage, and that you will never give up on your education?”
The small lady rises to my words. She turns serious and quietly says, “I promise.”
About the Author: Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in northeastern India. She is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'