By Maya Palit
“From Baltimore to Bangladesh, let’s end child marriage” went the headline of a recent piece featured by Reuters. Yes, it’s capitalising on a nice bit of alliteration to indicate how rampant child marriage continues to be, but the article points to a larger problem — the poor handling of laws around child marriage.
Why are they reviving this conversation in America now? It’s because New Jersey was about to become the first state in the US with a blanket ban on child marriage before the age of 18, without exceptions because of parental consent and judicial review processes. American activists were celebrating, hoping for an end to horrific statistics — 2,000 children, some as young as 13, were legally married off from 2000 to 2014. And this article, telling the story of a 16-year-old pregnant girl, who was married off because her Christian community put pressure on her parents, lists pregnancy, cultural reasons, money, and the intention to control children’s sexuality, amongst the myriad reasons that get parents to marry off their kids in the US.
If Christie is coming under fire for doing too little to ban child marriage altogether, here in Uttar Pradesh, where child marriages are apparently the highest in India, the Yogi Adityanath government might be doing too much in a hare-brained way. The state’s recently announced ‘offensive’ against child marriage, banks on getting local police to do a ton of the work. Schemes like Kanyashree in West Bengal have also expected block development officers to be pro-active by giving lectures in schools and showing up to stop weddings when they get tip-offs, but the Adityanath government expects the police to liaise closely with school staff. Apparently, local thanas have been instructed to “win over confidence of the locals, including female teachers, religious leaders, and members of the local community” too, to help.
Will police monitoring schools really help to curb child marriages? After the anti-Romeo squad fiasco resulted — and is still resulting — in the widespread intimidation, extortion, and bullying of locals, it’s probably safe to say it won’t.
Dr Manasi Mishra of Research and Knowledge Management at Centre for Social Research, New Delhi, says they are vehemently against police entering schools. “UNFPA was doing a programme on early marriage in states like Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand, and the modus operandi we suggested was setting up bal panchayats for children. It will help them report cases of child marriage to NGOs and empower them. A teacher can take a pro-active measure by reporting to the police that a child has been absent for many days and the cause could be child marriage, but there is no point in the police coming to schools and intimidating children.” If we’re to take Mishra’s word for it, concerns about girl children being unsafe and vulnerable is one of the big reasons for parents being keen on child marriages, and that’s not something that can be solved quickly.
Moreover, this anti-child marriage spy service could create havoc in student-teacher relationships and make them hostile, if the assumption is that teachers are expected to rat students out to the police. A researcher who has worked closely on child marriage for over a year explains that there are large social gaps between teachers and students in government schools, so it’s a bit of a stretch for teachers to know the local goings-on. This is particularly true when children drop out. (The dropout rate in primary schools in UP had fallen by 4 percent between 2010 and 2014, and cycle schemes apparently gave girl students more mobility, but dropout rates are still high.) There’s also the chance that students won’t be jumping to reveal their situation if they know there is a danger of their parents being mixed up with the cops.
That’s not to say the situation with child marriages isn’t in need of urgent addressing. The number of girls married below the legal age may have dropped marginally (from 2.51 to 2.44 percent) over the past decade-and-a-half, but they have actually risen between the last two censuses in states like Rajasthan, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, and not necessarily where we expected them.
According to a recent study of 2011 Census data by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and child rights organisation Young Lives, child marriage decreased by 0.7 percent in rural areas, but increased in cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ghaziabad, and Pune. And 181 Abhayam, an Ahmedabad-based women’s helpline, claimed that this May, it had handled 44 cases of child marriage, the highest figure in 17 months.
The study warns us that it’s too early to jump to conclusions about why this is happening, using secondary data, and only suggests reasons that aren’t really new news, like family size, patriarchy, no access to education, discrimination against girls who want to be employed in cities, and the assumption that once girls have reached puberty they’re ready for marriage.
Other people working on child marriage have also said that migration could be a big factor, and a former chairperson of the NCPCR pointed out in an interview with Scroll.in that parents being worried about their children eloping or running off with someone from another caste could be why they get them married off. Like everywhere, much of it boils down to the amount of mobility girls are allowed, and this new study shows us that urban areas aren’t in fact doing better than rural ones on that front, with one of five girls between the age of 10 and 17 married in 2011.
Where the Adityanath government’s game plan will take the fight against child marriage isn’t clear yet. But if the aspects thrown up by Census data which in itself is pretty old by now have anything new to show us, it is that it’ll take a lot more to take on child marriage than hoping that teachers will open up to and conspire with cops.