Monday, June 12, 2006

The illegal child brides of India

Sue Lloyd-Roberts:

When I was getting married, I had no idea what was going on, says Manemma. "I was only six and all I knew was that I had to leave home. I cried and cried and said I didn't want to, but they made me."

Manemma sits forlornly, surrounded by family members, on the floor of their two-room house in a village in the Indian Andhra Pradesh. Dressed in a bright red dress and with her plaits, she looks even younger than her 11 years.

I look accusingly at Manemma's father, Ghandrappa. How could he let such a thing happen to his daughter? Unembarrassed, he returns my stare, shrugs his shoulders and answers in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's the way things happen here," he says. "It's the tradition. Girls are married at a very young age, regardless of the age of their husbands, and they're expected to adjust to the situation."

Thousands of children get married in India every year, and as soon as they reach puberty, they are expected to conceive. According to the census of 2001, 300,000 girls under the age of 15 had given birth, some for the second time. Now, five years later, the number could be as many as half a million. With their bodies underdeveloped and often malnourished, early childbirth can be fatal. Some 100,000 mothers and one million babies die in India every year.

Manemma's marriage ended in disaster, before she could have a baby. After a couple of years, her 20-year-old husband wanted a more sexually mature woman and sent her packing. "How did your husband treat you?" I ask Manemma. I did not want to ask her directly whether he tried to have sex with her. Doctors had told me of the frequent cases of rape of prepubescent girls in her situation, but it is not a question you can ask in India.

Manemma squirms with embarrassment. "I don't want to talk about my husband," she says. She is still traumatised by the experience and shakes her head when I ask her if she will ever get married again. Throughout India, during the May festival of Akshaya Tritiya, the auspicious day in the year for weddings, streets resound to the cacophony of steel bands, firecrackers and women's voices singing as they prepare young brides to meet their grooms.

Behind closed doors in the town of Jaipur, two sisters, aged 11 and 13, Anjali and Vinisha, bow their heads as family members anoint their heads and limbs with a mixture of yoghurt and turmeric. Their hands and feet have already been covered with swirling patterns of henna. "Of course I'm nervous, wouldn't you be?" the older one says, irritated and frightened about what is about to happen to her. "We haven't even seen our husbands, let alone met them."

She explains how she loves her home, her sisters and her school, and now all that is to come to an end. "There's no chance of going to school at my in-laws' place. I'll just cook and do the housework. Nothing else. I shall have to cover my head with a veil and do whatever my mother-in-law says."

Child weddings are illegal in India. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed during British rule in 1929, specified that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 before they can wed. Since independence in 1947, however, Indian governments have done little to implement the rule. During the wedding season, hundreds of mass ceremonies involving children as young as four take place across the country.

Child Marriages, Though Illegal, Persist in India

Move to stop Indian child marriages

India tackles child marriages

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