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No country for little girls

It didn’t go away — we just stopped talking about it. In Rajasthan, you’ll see underage newly-weds all over, writes Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2009 22:20 IST
Namita Kohli

We are like this only. On the one hand, our Parliamentarians kick up a huge fuss over Balika Vadhu, saying the TV soap is ‘unconstitutional’ because it depicts child marriages; on the other, just a few hundred kilometres from the capital, in Rajasthan, child marriages are an everyday reality. And no one cares.

Two years after the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act, 2006, was notified in Rajasthan, 41 per cent of girls in the state continue to be married off before they turn 18.

For 12-year-old Mamta Khumhar, the reality of her ‘marriage’ a month ago hasn’t hit home yet. The girl is still enthralled by her ‘wedding gift’, a new watch. “I like to wear it all day,” says the girl who lives in Bhojpura village near Jaipur. Mamta and her sisters Sunita and Rekha, both 11, were married off along with their 16-year-old cousin Asha. “Here even little girls in their mothers’ arms are married off,” Asha tells me. Education is her the only way out, Asha
knows. “If we had studied, if schools were nearer our house, maybe we could have resisted.”

At Kachoulia village in Tonk, almost every child we meet is ‘married’. One, 11-year-old Kavita Yadav, was married at a mass wedding ceremony last month. “At the shaadi sammellan (mass marriage), I had to pay just Rs 18,000 for the ceremony,” says Kavita’s father Jagdish Mohan. “I am a poor farmer; if I had married her later, it would have cost me much more.”

In Rajasthan’s caste-ridden and conservative society, child marriages are a way of securing a girl’s virginity. It’s not as if people are unaware of the legal age of marriage or don’t know that child marriages affect a girl’s health, argues Jansilal, a resident of Kachoulia, but if the girl is educated, she will want a more educated boy, a rarity.

It’s easier to get her married as soon as she attains menarche. Says Ratna Gaikwad, a social activist, “The girl stays in her house till she is considered physically mature to bear children, even if she is only 15.” The only concession now is that some girls go to school till Class 10 before they are packed off to sasural, she adds.

The administration does conduct drives to catch ‘offenders’; but how can it achieve anything when even someone like Kamla Prajapat, an Anganwadi worker who’s supposed to convince villagers about the evils of child marriage, has own daughter was married off at 15? “If I try to stop a marriage, they will arrange it elsewhere. That’s the trend,” says Kamla. It’s an easy excuse.