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Child Brides: Clutched, Clipped and Caged

Child marriage is a global problem with an estimated 14 million girls given out in marriage before they turn 18, some as young as 9. 14 of the 20 countries with the highest rate of child marriage are in Africa
For representational purposes only

“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

“Many women I know are marrying their daughters even younger than 16 to protect them”-Um Ali, Lebanon

It was around 2 pm. I had taken a day’s off from work, and was relaxing at home after having lunch, deeply engrossed into one of my favourite novels. My enthrallment broke suddenly with a constant shrill of doorbell. Hurriedly, I ran, opened the door to observe ‘Bela’ shuddering and sweating profusely. The moment she saw me, she started wailing and kept repeating ‘Didi, Gudiya ko bacha  lo (Sister, please save Gudiya). Bela was my former house maid, who had worked at my place for over six years. She had five children – a month old son and his four sisters. She was always worried about her children, especially girls, so, I took an initiative at least to provide aid for the education of her daughters along with her monthly salary.

She always insisted on marrying off her eldest daughter Pushpa, aged 13 years, against which I always warned her, and tried to make her aware and convince her of the fact that it was neither good for her daughter’s health, nor it was legal. But brushing aside all my words and concern, she used to say…’Didi, abhi to byaah ho jaayega, koi oonch-neech ho gayi, to kaun karega meri chori se byaah’ (Sister, it’s the best time to marry her off… if some ‘mishap’ occurs, who will marry her). A year later, she took a month leave to visit her native village. When she re-joined, she seemed quite contented. When enquired, she told me that she had married off Pushpa to a ‘tenth-pass’ boy!! Out of frustration, I asked her to leave my job, but still, continued to aid her remaining three daughters’ education.

So finding her at my doorstep unexpectedly, and that too in such a state, was not a good sight. I couldn’t connect things. I tried to calm her down. What she told me sent chills down my spine. Pushpa had succumbed to complications raised during her delivery. Now, her in-laws were insisting on marrying off Pushpa’s younger sister Gudiya, a 12-year-old, to Pushpa’s widower. What happened later is not necessary to mention, but Gudiya was finally rescued and is currently studying in class 6th.

Farhana, my friend’s 30-something house-maid, belonged to West Bengal. Most of the time, she was absent from her work due to various health issues. During one of my recent slum visits, I happened to meet her. She took me to her one room accommodation where her four children, aged between 5-14 years, were playing. She told me that she was recuperating from her recent miscarriage. On further enquiry, she told me that her uncle had married her off to one of their relatives because she was an orphan and was about to reach her adolescence. It was mandatory for a girl to marry before teens otherwise it became difficult to look for a ‘suitable’ match. She was 12 when she conceived her first child and went through nightmarish experiences during all her pregnancies. Now, she is anemic and looks double her age, but still works hard to feed all her children. Her husband is an alcoholic and beats her badly for money. But despite all this, she was busy finding a ‘good match’ for her eldest child, a daughter.

We all can’t actually ‘wait’ to have a daughter to imagine the impact of child marriage on her. We need to feel and understand its repercussions and consequences on a child’s health. Can’t we understand how these children are robbed of their childhood, denied their rights to health, education and security, trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty? It must be viewed within a context of force and coercion, involving pressure and emotional blackmail. Child marriage must, therefore, always be considered forced marriage because valid consent is absent – and often considered unnecessary. Poverty, protection of girls, fear of loss of virginity before marriage and related family honour, and the provision of stability during unstable social periods are suggested as significant factors in determining a girl’s risk of becoming married as a child. Statistics show that child marriage is most common among the poorest groups in society.

Surprisingly, the decision to wed girls are mostly taken by those responsible for their protection – their own parents and guardians – sometimes in the name of tradition. Child marriage is a global problem with an estimated 14 million girls given out in marriage before they turn 18, some as young as nine. Fourteen of the 20 countries with the highest rate of child marriage are in Africa. It cuts across countries, cultures, ethnicity and religions. It is a common practice in Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nepal, Uganda and Cameroon, where over 50 per cent of girls are married by the age of 18. More than 30 per cent of girls are married by the age of 18 in another 18 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa.

In India, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal are among some of the states where this practice still exists. The issue of Yemen’s child brides got widespread attention when an 8-year-old girl boldly went by herself to a courtroom and demanded a judge dissolve her marriage to a man in his 30s. She eventually won a divorce, and legislators began looking at ways to curb the practice there.

Child marriage is a violation of human rights. The WPF (World Population Foundation) and IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) have urged all governments to end child marriage: a practice in which the parents of a child arrange a marriage with another child or an adult. In most cases, young girls get married off to significantly older men when they are still children. The body of a young girl is not yet ready for pregnancy and childbirth, which leads to complications such as obstructed labour and obstetric fistula.

The motivation among impoverished families is to get rid of a mouth to feed at an early age and to replace it with a possible share in a generous dowry. Once a girl is married, she experiences a lack of autonomy to make personal decisions about her life. Early marriage, together with its relation to low levels of education, high levels of violence and abuse, severe health risks and harmful power dynamics, results in increased vulnerability to poverty for girls and young women. Girls and women who are married younger, especially when married as children, are more likely to experience domestic violence and, to believe that it is justified for a man to beat his wife. In addition, child brides are least likely to take action against this abuse. Domestic violence seriously endangers the physical and mental health of women and girls, and can even put their lives at risk.

Gender inequality is both a cause as well as a consequence of child marriage. Child brides usually have lower levels of education than girls who get married at an older age. Education, is therefore, seen as a way to prevent child marriages.

Children growing up in the world today face many virtually unavoidable obstacles. They may be affected by poverty and political instability. They may suffer from the loss of a parent. They face dangerous diseases and often lack access to adequate health care. But why should a girl child be further handicapped by being forced into marriage far too young and denied even the limited opportunities available to others in her society? – Article 31 of Convention on the Rights of the Child (Joint written statement by WPF and IHEU)

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