Sunita, 13, of Kishanpura in Rajgarh district is the perfect example of a happy teen. She studies in Class 7, and loves dancing and playing handball.
But, two years ago, she was a picture of misery. After her elder sister suddenly passed away, her father and grandmother wanted to marry the girl off to the 35-year-old man her didi was originally betrothed to. In a bid to force Sunita into submission, her father even chopped off her hair.
But Sunita’s mother gathered the courage to report the matter to a local anganwadi worker. The administration was notified, and she was rescued on the very day of her nuptials. She was then brought to the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, a residential school at Sarangpur. “It took about a year for us to counsel Sunita to normalcy. But look at her now — she is a vibrant girl in every respect,” Vandana Sharma, assistant warden of the residential school, said. Ask Sunita, and she will say that she would like to study further and probably become a teacher. But not everyone is as lucky as her.
A Census of India 2011 report on marital status by age and sex, which was released last week, shows that 8.91 lakh underage persons (below 18 women and below 21 men) were already married in Madhya Pradesh (MP) at the time of the census. Going further, an analysis of the data by NGO Vikas Samvad says that over 12% of the entire population of MP, or 22.2% of the youth population below 25 years of age, were married before legal age at the time of the survey. The total population of the state was 7.26 crore during Census 2011, of which over 4 crore were below 25 years of age.
Shockingly, 29,441 of these underage persons were already widowed, separated or divorced. Among them, 10,660 were in the age group of 10-14 years, the analysis says.
As many as 1.21 crore underage persons – out of 63 crore people below 25 years – were found to have been married off at the national level. The total population of India in Census 2011 was just over 121 crore.
The data shows that MP reported the fifth-highest number of such underage marriages. Topping the list are Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal.
Sachin Jain of Vikas Samvad said that underage marriage was a socio-cultural phenomenon, and a display of the patriarchal control over the children’s future. “It stunts the child’s development and doesn’t help gender equality. Controlling underage marriages would be difficult unless local bodies, including panchayats, are made accountable,” he added.
“Child marriage amounts to violation of child rights. It impacts the child's education, health and overall development. We stand with the State and civil society to fight this challenge,” Trevor Clark, chief, UNICEF for MP, told HT.
Commissioner of women empowerment Kalpana Shrivastava said the state government has launched an intensive ‘Lado campaign’ to prevent underage marriages. “From April 2014 to February 2015, over 51,000 proposed marriages were prevented through timely intervention,” she said.
(The name of the girl, referred to as Sunita in the story, has been changed to protect her identity)