“Am I something to be sold?” Child voices at heart of Indian conference on child marriage

Credit: Women Power Connect

A recent conference in India hosted by Women Power Connect brought together government bodies, NGOs, and local people to form a strategy to work towards ending child marriage.

Have you heard of Kanyadaan, a Hindu practice where, upon the marriage of their daughter, parents pass their rights and responsibilities towards their daughter to their new son-in-law? The practice was highlighted by the esteemed Dr. Ranjana Kumari, president of Women Power Connect (WPC), at a consultation on child marriage organised by WPC together with the Ford Foundation in New Delhi on 18 April 2012.

According to Dr Kumari, the word alone, Kanyadaan, which roughly translates to donating the daughter, highlights ingrained discrimination against women. Dr Kumari boldly asked participants: who has the right to give a person to another, and why does tradition not dictate a Balakdan, a similar practice where the son is given away?

Kanyadaan is just one of the societal pressures that leads to millions of girls in India to be married young. Other issues that contribute to child marriage, discussed by participants ranging from government officials, academics and social workers, to students, include gender bias, a lack of education and social awareness, traditions, a need to provide for the safety and security of the daughter and, perhaps above all, poverty.

Children are overwhelmingly against early marriage

To illustrate how widespread the problem of child marriage is, and to show that children, who are often not consulted, are by and far against this practice, Dr. Jyotsna Chatterji, the director of Joint Women’s Programme, quoted children’s remarks made at youth programmes run by local women:

“Every child should have the right to make his/her own decisions.”

“I was raped constantly by him and his friends. Child marriage is sexual abuse. It is rape.”

“Child marriage prevents holistic development. I want to go to school.”

“Why should I be married along with my two older brothers who are getting married? I am only a 13 year old boy.”

“I live the life of a bachelor. I do not know how to behave with my wife. I go to school. I am 15 years old.”

“Am I something to be sold?”

“There are thousands of girls who, unlike me, do not get the opportunity to leave the brothels, where we have arrived after marriage.”

“Every time a child is sexually abused, it is violence against her.”

How can we make a difference in children’s lives?

Faced with these innocent voices, participants at the WPC consultation were urged to think of creative and innovative ideas which can engage individuals, communities and governments to make a difference in these children’s lives.

Another speaker, Mr. Siwal, explored the legal aspects of this issue. He noted there were very low conviction rates for those who violate the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, and that whenever punishments are given they are lax and lenient. He recommended that other solutions be considered, such as raising awareness and addressing misconceptions. He added that we should work to ensure the right to education and information for girls including those who are married.

Throughout the convention the same solutions kept re-emerging. The importance of education and access to education for girls is indispensable – everyone agreed on that point. Yet educating girls alone will not eradicate the issue completely. Communities, participants agreed, needed to be educated as well in order for perceptions to change and traditions to begin to shift.

The third important piece is to address the economic factors that make families feel they are forced to marry their children off at such a young age. In India, it is often the case that parents choose to marry their daughters at a young age – the younger the bride, the lower the dowry they are obliged to pay the husband and his family. Ms. Lekhi, senior advocate and speaker, emphasised that basic education and economic independence are the pillars of empowerment and that all of our proposed solutions must recognise this in order to be successful and sustainable.

Incentive schemes were discussed, but participants agreed their impact needs to be further assessed, while education as a route to economic independence must be developed. Accompanying these personal and local-level solutions, participants felt that concrete legal guidelines as well as imposing strict punishments at the national level will help to both deter people from committing the crime of facilitating a child marriage, as well as to shift perceptions among communities. To this end, revision of confusing legislation, including clearly defining childhood itself, is necessary if widespread progress is to be made.

Awareness of the urgent need to address child marriage is growing ever greater in India, as shown by the wide cross-section of participants at the convention. After two days of discussions, suggestions and coalescence, participants returned to their communities armed with both new ideas and new allies. The journey to end child marriage continues.

Click to read the full report on the Women Power Connect consultation “Empowering Girls by Addressing Child Marriage” [pdf]
Read: Desmond Tutu’s blog A message to men and boys about child marriage