CHILD MARRIAGES -
Need for Better Understanding of Customs
A few months ago, National Commission for Women decided to hold Public Hearings on child marriages. Everything seemed perfectly clear. Custom of child marriages was a problem that had remained in spite of decades of legislation. Out there in wilderness lived some ignorant and backward people who did not understand that child marriages led to early pregnancy and poor health for young mother and offspring. There seemed to be no question of any debate. Therefore it seemed to me that as a Presiding Officer at public hearings across the country my job was simple. I was looking forward to preaching about the evil of child marriages.
After having attended almost half a dozen public hearings across the country in states as diverse as Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, I realize that the reality is more complex than what it seems to be when one sits in one's office. It is clear that child marriages exist in various communities across the country. The surprising thing is that almost all communities where this practice is prevalent are well aware of the fact that marrying a child is illegal. NGO's as well as Government agencies have been working for decades to root out the evil. Yet, the reality is that the evil continues to survive.
Is it the case of devil being more powerful than God? Or is it something more fundamental? Have we, the educated urban middle class, failed to understand some sociological facts? Has our tendency to view our own lifestyle and customs as the best and the most desirable clouded our ability to understand some truths? Do we start all our studies and arguments with the presumption that the man (or woman) in dirty clothes is an idiot? These are questions that have kept bothering me even as I traveled across the length and breadth of the country exhorting women to take pledge against child marriage.
No one has so far refused to take the pledge. It is a great sight to have hundreds of women and men stand up with their hands stretched out and repeat the short pledge. TV as well as newspaper cameramen love it. But one cannot be too sure about the ones parroting the pledge. Probably they take it as one of the many official rituals that a common man in the country is forced to undergo. It is not unlikely that strong presence of officialdom and their caravan of cars with blaring hooters and flashing red lights plays its part.
These doubts refuse to go away for a very simple reason. Poor women have put to me questions that I have been unable to answer satisfactorily. In Pachor (MP) a woman got up from the crowd. Her daughter aged about fifteen had been gang raped. The culprits were behind bars. She wanted me to help her get the girl married. An impossible task in almost any part of India!
Would it have been any different if the girl had been married? At least the mother believed so. She was not very articulate but my guess is that a married woman is less susceptible to attack. After marriage a girl gets the protection of two families even though she continues to live with her parents. This can mean a lot in villages and small towns where the fear of reprisals rather than police and courts ensure protection of citizens.
A marriage in rural India is not just a relationship between two individuals. Marriages form the backbone of the networking that is essential for survival in a world where the idea of state providing protection seems an alien concept. Urban mind tends to ignore this concept of marriage and looks at marriage in its western form. In Europe and America, marriage is a license to have sex and procreate. In all communities where child marriages are prevalent, the sexual aspect of marriage is absent at the time of marriage.
In fact a child marriage is so essentially different from a normal marriage, that it should be called an engagement rather than a marriage. After such a marriage, the girl does not go with her husband. She continues to live with her parents. The marriage is not consummated for many years. When the girl and the boy attain maturity, another ceremony (called "Gauna" in North India) is held. It is only after Gauna that the girl can meet her husband. The marriage is consummated only after Gauna.
The custom of Gauna has not been recognized by Indian lawmakers who treat marriage as a one-step process while in many communities of India, it is a three-step process. The first step is primary fixing up of the marriage. At this stage some token gifts are engaged between the two families. The second stage is marriage where the rituals of sapta-padi and seven circles of holy fire are performed by the bride and bridegroom. The third step is Gauna or Bidaii when the bride is sent to the bridegroom's house. In urban India, the second and the third steps are held in quick succession say within a few hours time. But in rural India, the three stages are distinct and often have a time gap between them.
Almost all problems that one mentions about child marriages seem to be a result of the inability of the law to come to terms with the customs prevailing in society. If child marriage is regarded as a legally binding arrangement between two families (since the bride and bridegroom are children and cannot consent for a contract), it will be possible for one family to enforce the arrangement against the other. At every public hearing, we were told of the cases where the boy's family refuses to accept the girl on attainment of majority. In other words, the boy refuses Gauna and marries elsewhere. In such a case there is no legal remedy available to the girl. She cannot even get compensation or maintenance from the person to whom she was married.
In Pachor, a girl aged six years came to the stage. She was married. After marriage, she had lost both her parents. She wanted her in-laws to take care of her. The in-laws were refusing any relation under the changed circumstances. Morally, the action of the in-laws is condemnable. But, legally the girl has no rights. Would it not be proper to treat the girl as a beneficiary of a contractual arrangement and to penalize the defaulting party?
In many cases after reaching maturity, the boy refuses to accept his wife in spite of family pressures. The boy should not even be compelled to accept a life partner against his wishes. But does it not make moral sense to ask the family that contracted the arrangement to compensate the girl?
The bias against child marriages is so strong that the law has refused to treat them even as contracts thereby hurting the rights of the girl child. The bias is indeed baseless if one realizes that such a marriage does not mean sexual relations. The arguments about girl not being physically capable of reproduction have no meaning if one realizes that the physical capability is needed only after Gauna and not after marriage. Providing a legal minimum age limit for Gauna can, of course, be justified based on the arguments of physical capability.
It seems most logical that a minimum age limit be prescribed for Gauna. While doing so the anomaly in Indian laws about the permissible age for sexual relations should also be corrected. A girl cannot marry before she is eighteen and a boy cannot marry till he reaches the age of twenty one years. On the other hand, a girl can have sex after she is sixteen years old and there is no such minimum age limit for boys. In effect, the law legalizes pre-marital sex. This ridiculous state of affairs should be corrected and the minimum age limit for Gauna should also be the minimum age for legal sex.
There is no doubt that early motherhood is most harmful for a girl's long-term health and that this should be discouraged. However, this should be done with empathy and understanding about Indian society, customs and rituals, rather than with arrogance and haughtiness. Let us learn to listen with compassion instead of preaching and making laws that ride roughshod over everything traditional.
K. Santhaa Reddy
National Commission for Women,
4, Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg,
7 March 2002
Please write to Anil Chawla your comments about the above article.
ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.
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