Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Many factors interact to place a girl at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honor, social norms, customary or religious laws that condone the practice, an inadequate legislative framework and the state of a country’s civil registration system. Child marriage often compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence. Child marriage also affects boys, but to a lesser degree than girls. Despite modern times and a massive awareness program, child marriages continue to take place in Odisha.
Children who have resisted parental and societal pressure to get married before the legal age have joined hands to bring an end to the regressive practice in Odisha. As many as 33 boys and girls recently formed the ‘Odisha Child Marriage Resistance Forum’ and resolved to prevent untimely marriages and spread awareness among parents.
“As per the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)’s data released in 2013, Ganjam district has the highest number of child marriages in Odisha with 63 percent of girls getting married before 18 years,” says District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) Subodh Kumar Sarangi.
In February this year, a 12-year-old girl of Chandanpur village under Golanthara Police station in Odisha’s Ganjam district was rescued by the Childline from being married off to a 21 years old boy. After the NGO stopped the marriage, the guy started threatening the girl’s family of abducting her and therefore the girl is now being kept at children home. She is one of five daughters of her parents. In a similar case, the NGO had, in June last year, saved a 12-year-old girl belonging to a tribal community from being married off to a 22-year-old guy in Jhagadei village of the district.
These two cases are among the many cases of child marriages being reported from Ganjam district.
The first question that comes to my mind is ‘Who is responsible when a girl is wedded before she turns 18 and becomes a mother — Is it the parents, the in-laws, neighbors, teachers, government or the child herself?’ Does anyone think on how marrying early and giving birth to a child at such a young age affects both the physical and mental health of the young girl?
Adolescent girls becoming mothers at an early age are most vulnerable to health problems and pregnancy-related complications. India has the world’s largest child population at 400 million. As per the 2011 census, around 253 million children in India are adolescents (in the age group of 10-19 years).
India also has the highest number of child brides in the world. UNICEF’s State of World’s Children 2014, ranks India 12th among 20 countries with a high rate of child marriages; India ranks first in absolute numbers though. Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have the highest incidence of child marriage. In Odisha, around 37 percent children marry before the legal age and this is rampant mostly in the southern districts.
||1,473 (Boys-389, girls-1,084)
||29,965 (Boys-7,940, Girls-22,025)
||926 (Boys-251, Girls-675)
||41,925 (Boys-8,319, Girls-33,606)
||833 (Boys-270, Girls-675)
Source: Census of India 2011
Taking a stand:
ActionAid, an international voluntary organisation, and UNICEF have come forward to support the initiative of these brave children. Odisha is home to 3,232 children aged between 15 and 17 who have lost their spouses; 66 percent are widows, most of whom, by anybody’s guess, will remain widows for the rest of their lives.Early marriage, besides its several ills, also poses severe health risks to young girls, with premature childbirth leading to death is the single biggest risk of all.
What can be done to eradicate child marriages?
Sarangi opines that child marriages can be eradicated if various stakeholders including Child Development Project Officers, Police, Anganwadi centers and Child-line take stringent action against any case of child marriage before them. “Similarly, the society needs to accept that a girl is also a citizen of free India and has equal right to live her childhood,” he adds. On the other hand, director of Child-line (Berhampur) Sudheer Sabat suggests that leaders of different communities should be made aware and sensitized regarding the disadvantages of child marriages.
“These leaders can play the major role in changing the mindset of the people in their communities as people would listen to them. Besides, the youth committees can organize orientation programs at Anganwadi centers to create awareness among people about different schemes of the government related to women and child development,” he says.