Married to lifelong misery

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The charade of child marriage unabashedly ignores the sexual, emotional and legal rights of adolescent brides and teenaged mothers. It exacerbates the cycle of malnutrition and birth of underweight children, thus compromising their right to survival and growth

Marriage is perhaps the oldest institution in India. Live-in relationships were unheard of among the middle class until the other day when young US-bound Indians returned on vacation, occasionally bringing in tow a live-in partner. Doting parents had perforce to put up a brave face and suffer the situation for fear of losing filial bondage. Talk about marriage cut no ice and was in fact balked at by the duo.

Around the same time the software boom and the shift syndrome of call centres planted young, well-paid executives of both sexes in each other’s company, night and day. Too young to marry, but finding togetherness irresistible, couples threw open their prison doors and began nesting together as live-in partners. The trend has since spread to all the metros, even to the last bastion of orthodoxy, conventional Chennai.

Living-in was always common among the very rich where the ‘woh’ regularly surfaced as mistress, second wife or plaything, to shatter domestic peace and upstage the legal spouse. Among the poor, it is quite common for a man to bring in another woman, live with her as a spouse, get her to beget children in the presence or absence of the first wife. But patriarchal cultures and economic dependency have forbidden women, rich or poor, from reacting overtly for fear of public ridicule and immediate withdrawal of rights such as they remain.

In 2008 the Supreme Court conferred virtual legitimacy on live-in arrangements giving the unwed companion wifely status, with authenticity to be determined by the duration of living together. The specific context of the apex court’s order has unfortunately been lost sight of. The common understanding, thanks to misleading headlines and all-knowing blogs, is that the Supreme Court has equated all long live-in relationships to the status of marriage. Such fallacious presumptions have their own fallout — raising bogeys about bigamy — for starters. The greater pity is that in zeal to defend every woman caught in an assortment of predicaments, the real issues confronting an overwhelming majority have been left in the lurch.

Take for example the 2006 Supreme Court direction to register all marriages. Since no marriage can be registered if the girl is less than 18 and when the majority of marriages in the Hindi belt States are performed before 18, registration of marriage can never become a reality. NFHS-3 told us that in the Hindi belt States 65 per cent of the girls were married before 18. Now the district level health survey released last month shows that things have improved a little at places but even then 69 per cent of girls in Bihar got married before 18 and became mothers soon thereafter. This is a blatant denial of a woman’s rights. It is all the more sacrilegious when a pregnancy is imposed on an anemic adolescent — unprepared as she is for even a sexual encounter. Such girls living at the mercy of feudal traditions will never be able to get an underage marriage nullified as the 2006 Prevention of Child Marriage Act so virtuously expects. That only 12 States have notified the rules needed to implement the Act in the last two years speaks for itself.

Infinitely more might have been gained by now if simple, efficient ways of actually preventing underage marriages had been pursued. Himachal Pradesh has achieved this through strict enforcement. According to the latest DLH survey, rural Himachal Pradesh has just 1.9 per cent of girls and 6.4 per cent of boys married before the legal age between 2004 and 2007. Compare that with of Uttar Pradesh where 37 per cent girls and 48 per cent boys were married before the legal age in the same period.

So what do we have today? A Supreme Court that demands registration of all marriages. A majority of the northern States that brazenly connive at child marriages perpetrated by parents, politicians, Government functionaries and onlookers. District collectors in 200 odd districts in the laggard States that have failed to establish a workable system to register marriages at the block level. This charade unabashedly ignores the sexual, emotional and legal rights of adolescent brides and teenaged mothers. It exacerbates the cycle of malnutrition and birth of underweight children, compromising their right to survival and growth.

Women’s deprivation also continues on another plane. The Hindu Succession Act 1956 has been with us for over five decades. In four decades US society absorbed the tenets of the Civil Rights Act and managed to lay the ground for America’s first Black President to assume office. In India despite equal property rights having been conferred by law, boys are even today conditioned to believe that they are the sole inheritors of property. Likewise girls are conditioned to be content with dowry and end things there. It is then no wonder that families wilfully opt for female foeticide to keep the family property intact.

The need of the hour is to get priorities right. First, stop marriages before 18. Even in Delhi 24 per cent of the girls are married before 18. In West Bengal 45 per cent of girls were married before 18 in the last three years.

Second, since registration of marriage is compulsory, instruct 200 odd District Collectors in the Hindi belt to publish the number of marriages solemnised and registrations documented in the last two years. The difference will show where the reality lies.

Third, as far as the live-in business is concerned, in our current situation we should treat the phenomenon as the wish of two consenting adults but the myths about the Supreme Court order should be clarified to lift the hubris that surrounds lay thinking about the import of the order.

The need of the hour is to stop playing dumb charades and get priorities right.

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