NEW DELHI — For a country that boasts the 21st-century trappings of a space program, nuclear energy and state-of-the-art communications, child marriage is a shocking sociological phenomenon. Every day children in India are marched to community halls and forced into lifelong relationships that hold little meaning for them. Many do not have the faintest notion about matrimony.
In the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, for instance, even babies in arms are wedded. The other week, 3,000 girls and boys who were barely into their teens tied the knot in Raipur, capital of the central Indian state of Chhatisgarh, in a centuries-old custom, in a ritual that has become an annual atrocity.
Nobody can disagree that the practice is nasty. To push two physiologically and emotionally immature individuals into wedlock is a brutal way of looking at relationships. Sociologists say that marriage even between the most compatible is a road full of obstacles. One reason for this is the complexity of man-woman intimacy in which each has his or her own set of values and, more pertinently, expectations from the union.
John Gray writes in his excellent book titled “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” that the two speak different languages and adopt different approaches to sorting out common issues and problems. He avers that “men go to their caves while women talk.” In other words, the male sulks, broods and internalizes his woe, while women rave, rant and create all-around misery and unpleasantness.
Gray’s conclusions have a bearing in the Indian context. Although a boy and a girl who marry at 9 or 10, or even younger, do not begin to live together immediately, they do so comparatively early in their lives. Usually, they consummate their ties when the girl attains puberty, usually at 13 or 14.
Medical doctors will tell you how unhealthy this arrangement can be. Teenage pregnancy tends to physically harm the mother and her infant. Apart from the trauma parenthood causes the child-mother, she is devastated by deep emotional scars from the experience. In Chhatisgarh most women die before they are 40.
Why do parents indulge in this almost wanton destruction? Historically, a girl has been viewed in India as a liability, and the sooner she could be shifted to the shoulder of another person (preferably a man), the better it is for her father or other relatives.
This belief has its origins in the dark days of the Muslim occupation of the country, when raiders raped virgins or carried them away. (Muslim rule in India preceded one by the British that began in the 17th century.) The shock and anguish caused to society were never forgotten. Although the country faces no such threat today, communities continue to view females as a big burden.
India’s education system, even 50-plus years after independence from the British, has not been able to drive home the point that some conventions need to be broken and forgotten. The illiteracy rate doesn’t help. Of the 1 billion people in India, only about half can sign their names.
There is a law that restrains child marriage, but it does not mention the status of the union or annul it. Instead, it seeks to punish those guilty of promoting it.
An argument against abrogating such a tie between two underage individuals is that thousands of such “contracts” may then become meaningless. In India, many still get wedded before the recommended age of 18 for women and 21 for men. Hindus are under no compulsion to have the union registered.
Muslims and Christians usually have documentary evidence to support wedlock, and although Hindu temples now record marriages, hundreds of Hindu couples formalize the bond elsewhere, even at homes, without a piece of paper.
Admittedly, there are no easy solutions for this malaise. But the education and empowerment of women will go a long way in treating this disease. It is an fact that many more Indian boys receive an education than girls.
What is worse is the tendency to negate a woman’s role. Her duties — which include looking after her siblings, her children and the aged — are given little importance, with the result that her very worth outside the four walls of her house is questioned and underestimated.
Equality between the sexes is imperative if evils like child marriage are to be done away with, but this calls for radical thinking and approaches. For starters, the government must make it mandatory for every Hindu marriage to be registered. Some Indian states have already taken the lead. But much more needs to be done if this outrage is to be stopped.
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