‘Child Marriage Shame for Developed State like Tamil Nadu,’ Say Rights Activists
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A recent report released by the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) revealed that at least 511 minor schoolgirls in Tamil Nadu got married during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It cited that 37 girls in Class IX and ten in Class VIII were married.
The Government of India implements the SSA in partnership with state governments to universalise elementary education.
An RTI report from the Department of Social Welfare and Women Empowerment of Tamil Nadu revealed that 2,209 cases of child marriages were stopped in Tamil Nadu in 2019, and with the pandemic in 2020, it increased to 3,208.
There has been an increase in child marriages across the country since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns. Internationally, the number of vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage has shot up as well.
Child rights activists say that it is a shame that even a highly developed state like Tamil Nadu is witnessing so many instances of child marriages.
WHY IS IT STILL PREVALENT?
Activists and government employees working in the field say that many reasons are cited by family members for why they want their daughters married off at an early age.
Devaneyan, a child rights activist, told NewsClick, “Parents want their children married at a young age because they fear the child will fall in love with a person outside their caste, elope and bring shame to the family.”
He also said, “Parents fear their daughters will be sexually abused if left unmarried after puberty. Also, the older the bride, the higher the dowry they have to pay, so they get their daughters married before they reach marital age.”
“In tribal communities, the tradition is to marry the daughter soon after attaining puberty,” he added.
Notably, the Punjab and Haryana High Court recently upheld that puberty and majority are one and the same according to Muslim personal law.
Rajammal, an employee at the Department of Social Work in Villupuram district, said that in the case of child marriages, “parents and close relatives usually say that they fixed the wedding without the knowledge of the minimum age for marriage.” Further, “they also give other reasons such as ‘the girl’s grandmother is unwell, she wanted to see her granddaughter married’,” she added.
Many child marriages were recently stopped in Villupuram, and some were reported after the marriages took place. An RTI revealed that 52 marriages were stopped in 2019 and 90 in 2020 in the district.
Rajesh Kumar of the Child Rights and You organisation said, “If we are able to intervene before an underage marriage takes place, it is possible to convince the respective people and postpone the wedding. But, if the marriage has already taken place it is not easy to do anything.”
He further said, “Although such efforts to stop child marriages are good, they will only give short-term results. More needs to be done.”
‘INCREASING BRIDAL AGE NOT LOGICAL’
In December 2021, the BJP government introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha to raise the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years and bring it at par with men. Commenting on this, Kumar said, “Increasing marital age from 18 to 21 years for women is a good move, but logically and practically, it is not feasible at present. It will only lead to more marriages in secret and forging the age of the bride.” Kumar is based in Kodaikanal in the Nilgiris district, which has a high tribal population and is known for underage marriages.
While conceding that raising the marriage age of girls is good in theory, Devaneyan questioned its practicality. “What are the girls meant to do? Will they be pursuing higher education? Is there a guarantee of safety from abuse and harassment for these girls?” he asked.
“Merely increasing the age without creating a dialogue on patriarchy is meaningless. Child marriage is a cultural problem, and that has to be addressed,” said Devaneyan, adding that, “When we intervene in instances of child sexual abuse, the local people welcome us and praise our activities, but when we go to stop child marriage they look at us as criminals and shoo us away”.
SOME POSITIVE STEPS
Tamil Nadu has recently taken some initiatives to stop underage marriages and encourage girls to pursue higher education. The attendance of public school children is digitised and if students do not show up for more than five days, an alarm is raised.
“It is a shame that a developed state like Tamil Nadu is still witnessing cases of child marriages. The reporting of child marriages has increased and the government is accepting that, that is a positive step towards solving the issue,” said Devaneyan.
“Some positive steps are being taken by the present DMK government. Rs 1,000 for girl students is a good initiative. It is better than gold for thali, which is the same as dowry,” he said.
In March 2022, the Tamil Nadu government announced that it would provide a monthly assistance of Rs 1,000 to all girl students who studied from Class VI to XII in government schools, until the completion of their graduation or diploma.
Rajammal said, “If we receive information through the child helpline, we check if it is a valid report and then go on site. If the wedding has not yet taken place, we stop it and take the girl to our centre to give her a week’s counselling before. If the marriage has already taken place, we file FIR against family members”. She added that it takes a year for the case to get to the court.
“We have abolished the practice of Sati, similarly we have to abolish the culture of underage marriages,” said Devanayen.
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