Combating Child Marriage in Uttar Pradesh

Statistics can help to unravel some harsh truths. Like many social indicators in Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh, they only confirm that the district is one of India's worst places for girls to live.

Some 73.6 percent of females marry before the legal age of 18 years and female literacy is a mere 28 percent. There is a child bride in almost every other home. While poverty, human trafficking and low birth registrations are some of the other major issues which the residents are battling, child marriage undoubtedly tops them all.

Tales of torture and trauma abound. Early pregnancies result in health complications, single men marry several girls at same time and bring home other women. They all happen here. Ill-treated by husband and in-laws, often these girls are forced to have relations with other male members of the family.

But there is now a ray of hope. The concentrated efforts by workers of Gram Niyojan Kendra, a national level NGO, and Plan India to tackle the menace are paying off. Lifestyle changes can be seen in some of the families living in the Indian hamlets.

GNK aims at facilitating the process of rural development and empowering this marginalized section of the population, especially women, by initiating development action based on justice and equality, while Plan India is a nationally registered child-centered community development organization which has been operating in India since 1979.

Today one can find a 14-year-old girl (name withheld) - a child bride who was forced into marriage when she was just 11 years old, refusing point blank to go to her in-laws house before she turns 18. She plans to complete her intermediate schooling. There is another woman aged 21, now in the final year of obtaining her bachelor's degree, who wants to do a B-Ed and become a teacher. She is adamant that she will only marry a man who understands her social commitments and knows how to respect a woman. Then there is a 20 year old girl hailing from a minority community, who after witnessing the plight of her elder sister, who was forced into an early marriage, is determined not to marry till she completes her graduation.

All three are brave girls, beacons of hope in a society dried up with suffocating customs and social norms. All are setting an example and leading a silent revolution against early marriage.

The 14 year-old mentioned above lives in a nondescript village on the Indian side of the porous Indo-Nepal border in Maharajganj district. Although she was married at the age of 11 to her maternal cousin three years ago, at 14 she is determined not to go to her husband's house before she is 18. She is studying in class eight and is keen to finish at least her intermediate examinations before she steps into her in-laws' house. Her mother supports her fully. She said to Citizen News Service - CNS that her daughter's early marriage was chiefly because of emotional reasons as her maternal aunt was not keeping good health and wanted her only son to be married off in her lifetime.

"My son-in law, who is also my nephew, was going off to Saudi Arabia for work and my sister insisted on the Muslim marriage vows. But even then I had felt I was being unjust to my daughter but it was the menfolk who had arranged everything and I could not say anything," said the mother, holding the youngest of her six children in her arms. She said her great consolation was when she learnt that Ruksati - the marriage ceremony would only take place when the son-in-law returned from Saudi three years later. She called it divine intervention.

Some members of the GNK-Plan India came to the village who have been working on addressing such social evils as child marriage. The group after counselling inducted girls and boys into a leadership program called Babu Bahini group. The 14-year-old convinced her parents to allow her to join the group, a decision that proved to be the turning point in her life. She gained confidence and decided that while she could not undo her past at least she can postpone her ruksati till she turns 18. She declared this to her family who accepted it after some resistance.

She has been trained in the program for a year. Her husband is due to return to India after completing a three year period this summer. Earlier she would have had to go to his home after the traditional ruksati ceremony but now she is confident that she will have her way and convince him and her in-laws to delay this for a few more years.

Another 20-year-old lives a little further away in Pahuni village and is graduating in Arts. Her elder sister was married at an early age and had only studied Urdu and Arabic with no formal education. Her husband not only ill-treated her physically but despite all her pleading and even when she delivered two sons he married yet again. The girl recalls the horror of how her ‘baji' used to run back to their house drunk, and physically and verbally abuse her and drag her back home, beating her all the way.

Some miles away in Kailashnagar, there resides another flag bearer of gender justice. Working with GNK-Plan India for the past few years, 21 year old Kiran who comes from Schedule Caste community, is in the final year of her graduation and wishes to pursue BEd and become a teacher. Her mother who is an assistant teacher gives her full support and will talk to the boy and family about letting her continue her interests. If he agrees only then will she marry him. Kiran and her family are exceptions in their community. In their caste no girl would dare take such a bold step and give so much importance to studies over marriage. When asked whether Kiran will openly try to dissuade girls from child marriage she is frank and says 'no' but hopes girls will learn by her example.

"Girls should resist and not get married off at the age of 10-12 years and spend the rest of their lives as adults when they are still children," says Kiran, adding that early marriage leads to early pregnancy and complications. Let us hope gender justice dawns in the lives of young girls and women in this region.

(Kulsum Mustafa is based in Lucknow, India and writes for Citizen News Service - CNS. Website: www.citizen-news.org)