Fifteen-year-old Anita Kumari's dreams came to a halt when she was forced into the age old custom of child marriage.
Forced into marriage before the legal age of eighteen, Anita had to compromise with her dreams of becoming a doctor as her parents disapproved of the idea of a girl "dreaming".
Born to illiterate parents, Anita somehow managed to study till Class 8 but after getting married to an illiterate man, she sees no scope of reviving her dream.
Child marriage, wherein a girl is married before the legal age of 18 years and a boy before 21, has been rampant in India since time immemorial. Even today, Anita isn't alone. As the recent report by the United Nations reveals, one out of every three child brides in the world are in India, putting it to global shame for its inability to stop this social malpractice. The states of Bihar and Jharkhand have the highest prevalence of child marriages.
Even after this embarrassing revelation, many Indians prefer to ignore the reality. A visit to Bihar provides testimony to the recorded facts. Dalit bastis of Bhairon Ganj in Bagha like Juda Pakdi, Kadamhawa Tola, Manjhariya, Bhainshi and Nadda have traditionally followed the norm of marrying off girls at an early age. Young girls and boys who don't even understand the meaning of marriage are made to tie the knot, follow every tradition and in the process, lose their innocence.
It is a heart wrenching moment to see vermillion in a little girl's hair, loaded with accessories she can't even bear the burden of, taking "Saat Pheras" behind an equally little boy with "Maudis" on their heads. Soni, Meena, Seema and Pratima are not just girls who, before reaching puberty are married, but also precious lives that have been trapped in a vicious cycle where will, at every step, compromise their physical, mental and reproductive health.
The reasons behind child marriage are as unacceptable as the trend itself. Dowry, chastity of women, girls being considered a liability, poor emphasis on girls' education and of course, weak laws and implementation are some of the excuses "unfortunate" parents of girl child give while marrying them off early.
In its report 'Ending Child Marriage - Progress and Prospects,' the UN placed India in the sixth position among the ten countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage. South Asia is home to almost half (42 percent) of all child brides worldwide, with India alone accounting for one third of the global total, the report stated. It further added, "In India, about 27 percent of women aged between 20 and 49 years were married before they turned 15. About 31 percent of women in that age group were married after age 15 but before they turned 18. The median age of the first marriage among girls is 19 in India."
This deep rooted social evil is, for several years now, being fought by a number of Government and Non-Government Organizations. A Google search brings forth a long list of National as well as International NGOs working hard to fight child marriage in different parts of India. It is due to the constant efforts of these organizations that the prevalence decreased slightly by 2007-2008 with the percentage of child brides at 42.9 percent as per the District-level Household and Facility Survey.
In over a decade between 1992 and 2006, the fact that the percentage of child brides in the age group of 20-24 years decreased by 6.8 percent reveals that from 54.2 percent in 1992-1993 it came down to 47.4 percent in 2005-2006.
It is not only the girl child who bears the consequences of early marriage but it equally impacts the lives of those around them. When girls marry young, before their minds and bodies are fully developed, they often become pregnant long before they are ready. As per a research done by Plan International, pregnancy is the number one cause of death among girls aged 15-19 worldwide. It also revealed that child marriage reinforces the gendered nature of poverty, with limited education and skills bringing down the potential of the girl, her family, her community and her country. These hinder a girl throughout her adult life and into the next generation.
With India contributing more than 40 percent to incidences of child marriages in the world, one can only imagine the number of teenage mothers the nation is home to. One in six (16 percent) girls in the age group 15-19 years. The percentage of teenage mothers varies from 19.1 percent in rural areas to 8.7 percent in urban areas.
Clearly, child marriage has been a part of Indian society for several centuries now and has forced millions of girls into the vicious cycle of illiteracy, poverty, weak physical and reproductive health and eventually, untimely deaths. The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that it is high time that a full stop be placed against the trend of child marriages in India. The malice isn't state specific; little children across our country are being affected, jeopardizing India's very future. The time is right to support our Government and NGOs in spreading awareness towards the cause. Any little help can give back girls like Anita the right to dream!