In India, if you are poor and illiterate, the odds are pretty much stacked against you. And if, added to this, you are a young girl living in an obscure village, it’s possibly worse.
You’d probably slog all day, working at home and in the fields, while your brothers would go to school. Yet, you’d barely have enough to eat. Then, one day, much before you even turn eighteen, your parents would marry you off, probably, to someone much older, who’d expect you to serve him all his life. That’s what life is for millions of rural women in India today. Most do not have the will or the nerve to question it.
Families, especially in the villages where poverty can be extreme, prefer to marry their daughters at a young age is because they look upon marriage as a security, something that protects them from male sexual attention. In a society where women are not safe, where their status depends, to some extent on the goodwill of the men in their communities, it is considered wise to marry a girl as soon as possible so that there is little chance for her bringing “shame” to the family by engaging in relationships that could be misinterpreted. In many cases, babies are married off, although they only leave for their husband’s home when they grow up and attain puberty. The other primary reason to move girls out of one household to another is poverty. A married girl goes to her husband’s house. She becomes one less mouth to feed.
Attitudes are slowly beginning to change. And it’s partly through stories like those of a fearless, thirteen-year-old girl named Congress Kanwar (odd as it may sound, it is her real name) living in a tiny, remote village in Rajasthan – a northwestern Indian state. Wanting to study, she pleaded with her parents time and again to let her go to school, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They said she was needed to work in the house, and also argued, like the parents of many village girls, that women were meant to get married and do household work, so an education would be of little use to her. Congress’ three illiterate sisters had been married off when they were about ten years old. But contrast, her three brothers were educated till grade eight.
Congress was determined, however, crying when her brothers and the neighborhood children used to leave for school. But her tears were in vain and her parents did not relent. Till, one day, a voluntary organization called ‘Prayatn’ (meaning “effort” in Hindi) opened a school, with the support of UNICEF, in Congress’s village, and she seized the opportunity to implore her parents yet again. This time the teacher from the school joined her in the effort and after much negotiation it was finally agreed that Congress could attend school, so long as she did all her chores.
Congress would wake up at three in the morning to finish her work, and then run to school, but she loved it there. Her education not only gave her knowledge but also developed her confidence to use that knowledge. During a student’s excursion she learned that child marriage was an offense under the Indian law, a law that was often flagrantly disobeyed not only in her village, but by her own parents. This information gave her the strength to fight off her parent’s decision to marry her off when, soon after this trip, a prospective groom appeared at her doorstep with his family. This rather formal courtship is custom in most arranged marriages; the man goes to see the woman and the respective parents do most of the talking, deciding the future of the couple in question. Most girls sit quietly – so do many grooms. But Congress, newly informed of her rights, threatened to call the police. Her parents caved.
Her fortitude did not go unnoticed. Last December Congress was selected to attend the releasing of UNICEF flagship publication “Status of World Children 2007” in Berlin. Recently she attended a forum on Indian youth in the parliament in New Delhi, and has been given a national bravery award thanks, again, to the efforts of UNICEF and UNFPA. She recounted her experience of fighting off her parents’ desire to get her married and talked about education and child marriage, which remain very common in certain sections of the Indian society.
On average in India, 44 percent of females and 37 percent of males are married before the legal age, which is eighteen for women and twenty-one for men. Some states are worse than the others. For instance, in Rajasthan, which is the state where Congress’s village is located, the average female age at marriage is below sixteen.
The government is trying to take measures to curtail the problem. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was amended in 2006 and treats everyone who attends a child wedding as guilty – including the guests and the hosts. And it is a non-bailable offense so those accused to go to jail to await adjudication and must plead their case to be released. Furthermore, the Indian Supreme Court has made the registration of marriages compulsory – since most Indians have religious and traditional weddings, very few actually register them with civic authorities. Officials also conduct raids on auspicious dates, when most parents tend to perform the ceremonies.
But a lot more needs to be done, and not necessarily in terms of the law. The problem is rooted in a society where women are seen as burdens who can’t contribute economically to a family. That’s obviously not true. If every girl had Congress’s courage and determination, things might move a bit more quickly.