What do you want to be when you grow up, a group of giggly 13-year-olds from Kathoda village in Beed was asked. The question was part of a ‘dreams-mapping’ workshop conducted last year by women right’s activist Manisha Tokle.
The answers were touching, given that these were children from impoverished farm families in a remote village in drought-ridden Marathwada.
One girl said she wanted to be a teacher; another, a doctor. They were dreams born of innocence and idealism.
A few months after the workshop, Radha* Waghmare, the to-be-doctor, was married to a 21-year-old and sent off with him to work at a sugarcane factory. Manisha* Waghmare, who had wanted to be a teacher, dropped out of school too, to tend to the family’s fields while her parents toiled in distant sugarcane plantations.
“Over the past three years, as farm yields have fallen and distress migrations have increased, we have witnessed a 20% rise in the number of under-age marriages,” says local child rights activist Tatwashil Kamble.
Most of the girls are minors, and even some of the boys are under the legal age of 21.
“We know it’s happened when they suddenly stop attending school or college. Some of them reappear for the exams, wearing a mangalsutra,” says college student Aakash Dhutadmal, 17.
As crops fail year after year and farm work becomes harder to find in Beed, more families are forced to migrate to western Maharashtra and Karnataka, to work in sugarcane fields. But here, workers are hired in pairs.
The men cut down the sugarcane early in the morning, while the women cook and clean in the workers’ shacks; then the women head out into the fields to tie the cane into bundles and load it onto trucks.
Couples can earn up to Rs 1 lakh for the six-month of season. Boys or and girls who turn up individually must find their own working partner, which is difficult. So desperate parents are arranging it so their teens can arrive as a married couple and earn as much as possible to help tide over their families for the rest of the year.
A losing battle?
In the tribal village of Taratpur Tanda, Latur, another group of idealistic teenage girls decided two years ago that they had had enough. They would not let any more children marry in their section of the village.
Their leader is 17-year-old Shewanta Rathod, who fought plans for her own wedding two years ago.
“Thanks to NGO volunteers who visit the village often, I knew that getting married before 18 could have serious health implications, especially if I got pregnant before 18, which a lot of women in my village have,” she says.
So she and some of the activists spoke to her father Bajirao, 35, and he agreed to scrap the plans.
“There is just no work here,” says Bajirao. “My wife and I have to go the sugarcane farms, and then who would take care of Shewanta. That’s why we decided to get her married. But when activists said they would take care of her in a government-run hostel, I cancelled her wedding.”
Over the past four months alone, Shewanta and her group stopped four marriages, including that of her 17-year-old cousin Savitra*.
But elsewhere in their village, the weddings continue.
“Most are hush-hush affairs. In cases where we hear about one and turn up to stop it, we are always told that the families are just fixing an alliance,” says Vaibhav Kalubarme, additional superintendent of police, Beed. “Several under-age marriages are going unchecked and unreported in this manner.”
Usually, even if the wedding is put off, the girl is taken out of school to work in the fields anyway.
“In most cases, as soon as the girl turns 18, her parents get her married to the same guy,” Kamble says. “They just need to be a pair, so sometimes the man is twice her age.”
“The drought is affecting the education and future of an entire generation,” says Sanjay Gawai, associate professor of social work at the Mahatma Basweshwar College of Social Science in Latur, and a member of the state’s child welfare committee. “As a result, these kids are staring at a future no better than their parents’.”
The government has responded with ‘seasonal schools’ to educate the working children, but “in most cases, the parents and children aren’t aware the option exists,” he adds.
(* First names changed to protect identities)