Evil called child marriage

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A new Compulsory Registration of Marriage Act should be introduced. Were this to be linked to the ration card, the birth certificate and the voter identity card, people would learn soon enough that it does not pay to avoid getting the certificate.

People may fudge, but at the end of the day the age of marriage and consequently the age at first birth will go up

Does it take America to dole largesse for preventing child marriages? In the last three weeks, two Bills have been introduced in the US Congress and the Senate called the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act 2009.

What triggered this move was the recognition that US foreign assistance provided for improving education, health and economic prospects for women and girls in developing countries was coming a cropper. Simply because too many girls were forced to leave school to get married. Such girls remained uneducated, increasingly vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted diseases, bearing underweight babies and leading horrifying lives — a downright violation of human rights. Since this phenomenon was negating the effect of investments made in improving their lives, it was money down the drain. The new Bills, therefore, authorise US foreign assistance funding for five years to prevent child marriage and increase educational and economic opportunities for girls in developing countries including India.

Let us move from the international scene, bypassing the national and State levels and go straight down to the district and panchayats. Dewas is a district in Madhya Pradesh which is perched in the middle of the country in terms of social and health indices. It also has exceptionally high child mortality ranked 516th out of 593 districts surveyed by the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai.

Last week the district Collector of Dewas invited 40 sarpanches to attend a workshop on the “Impact of Early Marriages and Early Conception on Health of Girls.” For starters, it was apparent that registration of marriages was not being done anywhere in the district despite the fact that the State had issued orders under the Special Marriage Act, making it incumbent upon the Gram Panchayats to issue marriage registration certificates under law. The Supreme Court order on compulsory registration of marriages of all religions across the country was unheard of.

At a workshop a film showed 15-year-olds cradling their infants like toys. These child mothers evinced no rancour, not even self-pity. Only a smiling acceptance that it was their lot in life to bear more children. Juxtaposed against this was the professional advice of a paediatrician and gynaecologist from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who spoke about the irreversible fallout of early pregnancies, underweight children, lack of spacing leading to a predictable cycle of malnutrition, death and disability. The two perspectives were so divergent that it made sagacious thinking impossible. It was unclear whether the panchayat representatives had understood the mixed messages and whether at all they were amenable to thinking differently.

The workshop went on to draw attention to the legal requirement to register marriages and the correlation of age at first birth with the health of the infant. At the end of the sequence there was pin drop silence. Not one among the 40 Sarpanches wished to speak. Even the national Awardees, among the Sarpanches after receiving recognition from the President of India, albeit for other achievements, were unwilling to speak. Sensing a stalemate, the Collector broke them into four groups, gave them four different subjects to focus on and asked them to return with a plan.

The outcome was unexpected. Far from the wishy-washy faces we had seen an hour earlier, came a newfound enthusiasm proclaiming that indeed it was possible to promote and register marriages after the legal age. Most striking was the fact that they had understood the issues and undertook to do something about it. This sudden change of heart could be attributed to the presence of the Collector. But how much? Even a cynic would agree that it would have been difficult to brainwash 40 Sarpanches from disparate blocks simply because of official presence.

In speech after speech the Sarpanches recounted how the correlation between very early childbirths and safe motherhood and child survival had never been highlighted so vividly. They lauded the Rural Development “Nirmal Gaon” scheme that conferred awards on the cleanest panchayat and recommended that a similar Award scheme should be launched for the best performing panchayat that promoted marriages after the legal age, accompanied by registration of marriage.

Given the importance that the US parliamentarians have accorded to overcoming child marriages in developing countries, it behoves any new Government to give far greater importance to making this the bulwark for women’s empowerment and children’s health. A new Compulsory Registration of Marriage Act should be introduced with an office of a Registrar General of Marriages. Were this to be linked to the ration card, the birth certificate and the voter identity card, people would learn soon enough that it does not pay to avoid getting the certificate.

People may lie, people may fudge but at the end of the day the age of marriage and consequently the age at first birth will go up. The future of Indian children is at stake. They are worth all the trouble it might take. It should not need the United States of America to show us the way.

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