TOPICS : Breaking shackles of child marriage

Shanta was only 13 when her parents forced her to leave school and married her to a man twice her age. At 15 she gave birth. Now 17 and emaciated, she is back in her parent’s home after her marriage collapsed: Her husband is in prison for a serious crime that Shanta didn’t want to reveal, just as she didn’t want to reveal her real name.

More than one-third of all brides in India are below the age of 18; an estimate that activists say could be low, as many marriages — both child and adult — seldom get registered. A Supreme Court decision in February now compels couples to register. Nevertheless, this month, on Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious festival for Hindus, child marriages were reported to have been solemnised in parts of the country, under the nose of police and despite a 1929 law that sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Child-welfare activists are pushing for tougher legislation and enforcement. But it’s an uphill battle in a nation where much of the population is rural or poor, and the societal values are shaped by sparse resources, limited opportunities for women, and family traditions that are slower to change than those in India’s more cosmopolitan centres.

“It has been a well-accepted social norm for centuries,” says Anjali Bapat, a volunteer working with Swadhar, a NGO dealing with underprivileged children and women in Pune. The city is known more for its high-tech parks, malls, and multiplexes, but it also is home to Shanta and other residents of the Chaitraban slum.

Nanda Lodha, an elderly woman, got married even before she hit puberty. She says she grew up in a feudal society where the presence of young unmarried girls is a potential invitation for social disaster. “A girl’s virginity is prized and associated with family honour,” she says. Besides such social pressures, financial compulsions, too, were a big reason for early marriages, she says. “Early marriage meant an additional earning member. Besides household chores, I needed to work in the fields with my husband, to supplement the household income.”

These days, to evade the eye of activists or the police in urban India, a common modus operandi is to solemnise weddings in villages where the presence of the law is less conspicuous.

In December 2004, a parliamentary committee led by Sudarsana Natchiappan tabled a report recommending changes to the current law. These include: voiding child marriages and making the crime punishable with up to two years in prison — up from the current three months. If these changes are adopted, the question remains whether enforcement will happen even though the bill might be passed within this year.

The activists say the absence of an effective law makes it hard to change habits and structures ingrained in Indian society, particularly in rural areas. To help girls break free from the shackles of well-established social norms, Bapat and others point to the

need for better education opportunities. — The Christian Science Monitor