The practice of underage marriage is acute in the tribal-dominated southern and southwestern parts of Odisha, but interventions on the ground are planting the seeds of change among adolescent girls and their parents. Basudev Mahapatra finds out more.
The pensive look on the face of three-year-old Devati Durua of Chanchraguda village in Koraput district could very well change to distress if she is married before she comes of age at 18. That remains a distinct possibility in the underdeveloped area, where indigenous people are known to widely practice child marriage.
Although India has laws to prevent child marriage, it remains prevalent in many parts of the country. The country is said to lose $56 billion (₹3.6 trillion) a year as a result of adolescent pregnancy, high secondary school dropout rate, and joblessness among young women, according to the State of World Population 2016 of the United Nations Population Fund. As per Indian laws, marriages of girls before the age of 18, and boys before the age of 21, are considered child marriages.
The situation is particularly alarming in the eastern state of Odisha. As much as 21.3 % of the women between the ages of 20-24 married before the age of 18, and 11 % of men between the ages of 25-29 married before attaining the age of 21, according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) report. Unsurprisingly, the number of child marriages is more in rural Odisha. However, “there is significant variation amongst districts,” Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator of Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, told VillageSquare.in.
The prevalence of the practice is wider in the tribal populated backward districts of the state. “Over 50 % of marriages in tribal communities are underage or child marriages,” says Gopi Durua, 25, of Devati’s family. Durua also married before the age of 21.
“This is a pan-Odisha issue. However, the practice is more acute in the tribal southern and few southwestern districts of the state,” says Ghasiram Panda, communication in-charge at ActionAid, Odisha.
Panda is also an advisor to the Odisha Child Rights Commission.
Considering an adult girl child a burden on the family in most tribal and backward communities, lack of awareness, and a host of socio-economic problems, including abject poverty and a poor female literacy rate, are often to blame for such wide prevalence.
“The tribal communities also believe that early marriage is their tradition. When you ask them to stop the tradition, they think you are trying to mobilize them against their traditional practices,” said Bhanumati Santa of Gamkapadar village in Koraput district.
“As cases where boys and girls fall in love and opt to marry in elopement have been increasing, most of the parents also see a kind of social risk in allowing their daughters to continue studies instead of marrying at a tender age. They believe that marrying the girls at an early age is the safest way to escape such risks, that would otherwise demean the social status of the parents and the family,” said Sanmati Durua, 60, of Chanchraguda village.
Possibility of change
Basanti Jani, 16, of Janiguda village in Koraput district, however, sees greater possibilities with continuous awareness programs. “We must make our parents aware of the possible impacts of early marriage on the health of their daughter and the future of her family. We must explain to them how they are putting the lives of their daughters at risk by marrying them at an early age,” she told VillageSquare.in.
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Talking about the social fallout of child marriage, Panda stated that “such a practice not only affects the health, education, and status of victim women in society, but it also endangers the future generations in many ways while affecting their physical and mental health.”
“Unless we stop child marriage, it would be difficult to achieve the goal of controlling infant and maternal mortalities in the state,” he added.
In order to stop child marriage, recent initiatives by Odisha’s Women & Child Development Department include facilitation of interdepartmental convergence on the issue of child marriage. The government also has plans to conduct training programs for Child Marriage Prohibition Officers, gender sensitization of college and University students across the state, and orientation of high school students in 12 tribal districts, according to Patel.
Interventions from the government as well as non-government agencies to stop the practice have brought in some changes.
Adivasi Ekta Sangathan, or Ekta, a Koraput-based non-profit, sensitized Daimati Santa on the ill impacts of child marriage. It also explained the importance of education for a girl to her. A resident of Gamkapadar village, Santa has dared to stand against her marriage at the age of 16.
Daimati successfully convinced her parents and the groom’s family to defer the marriage till she gains adulthood. She also managed to convince them to allow her to continue with higher secondary studies.
Though sporadic, girls are increasingly opposing early marriage and continuing with education in the tribal-populated districts of Odisha.
Some regions, like the Gumma block in Gajapati district, have stopped child marriages altogether. In fact, the practice was rampant here just a few years ago.
After intervention by the United Nations Population Fund, “child marriage has almost stopped. Dropout students go to school again. Girls from this tribal-populated block now work outside and make an earning,” said Mariyam Raita, a local woman leader.
“The change has been possible due to community and other stakeholder engagement in the process of change. Adolescent girls participating remained the key to the success achieved,” said Sanjukta Tripathy. Tripathy works with the Berhampur-based non-profit People’s Rural Education Movement (PREM), as the UNFPA-supported intervention’s project manager.
More action required
“The changes that have come in the tribal-dominated regions raise hope about addressing the problem. The tribal communities now realise the bad effects of early marriage, and are discussing the issue,” said Ghasiram Panda.
In order to stop the practice, “more community awareness, girls’ education, and capacity building of the families are necessary. But, alongside, we also need use of the law and awareness about the law,” said Amrita Patel.
Patel insists that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 needs to be more stringent and enforceable. She highlighted that “skill building and making the girls economically independent will go a long way in curbing child marriage.”
(The author is a journalist based in Bhubaneswar.)