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India: A Child and Divorced

India: A Child and Divorced

Here’s a shocking statistic. There are over 1.7 lakh divorces that take place among couples who are yet to reach the official marriageable age in the country.

Around 1.6 crore child marriages continue to take place in parts of India, ignoring the law and bowing to ancient customs that belong to the Dark Ages. By far the largest numbers are from a caste-ridden Rajasthan where children as young as four, five or even less are married off or traded like so many cattle.

According to the 2001 census, of the 1.6 crore children in India who got married before they reach official marriageable age, 18.3 lakh came from Rajasthan alone.

Which also explains why of the estimated 1.7 lakh divorces that take place before the children reach marriageable age, the largest number, around 6,200, are from Rajasthan.

A survey undertaken for India Today by NGO Prayas in Shahpura block of the state’s Bhilwara district showed 181 cases of broken child marriages in just one village Dabla Kachra. Another 200 cases were found at random in six other villages in the same block.

Meera Mali, age 13, studying in Class V in the village Dabla Kachra is one of the 3.7 lakh children in her state and 20 lakh across the country who got married before the age of 14 – too young to even remember the ceremony, if there was one.

And like 50,000 others in the country and 1,200 in the state under the age of 15, she got separated from her so-called husband as swiftly as she had entered into wedlock with him.

Meera’s life was inextricably linked with that of her elder sister Leela. When Leela got married to Narain Lal Mali, Meera was given in marriage to his younger brother Bansi Lal Mali. But a few years later, when Leela refused to go back to her in-laws and settled down with another man Laduji, it was Meera who had to bear the brunt of her sister’s actions.

Laduji paid Rs 70,000 as compensation to Narain and “bought” over Leela. But in the process Meera became a “leftover” girl even before she knew what marriage was as her in-laws refused to accept her in retaliation for her sister’s actions.

Aptly enough, this traditional system is called atta-satta, meaning exchange. As a result if one marriage breaks, the other alliance automatically stands cancelled.

Interestingly, while there has not been much change in the age when children are married, the age of gauna – the ritual marking the start of the bride’s stay with her husband – has gone up considerably in most communities.

While it has had a positive effect on the health of girls as it advances the age at which they enter motherhood, it has also had a negative fallout in that most breakups take place at the time of gauna.

After an alliance entered into during childhood which holds no meaning for them, boys and girls often grow into individuals who refuse to stand by the hypocrisy of the ritual and prefer to go their own way.

Many times, the girls themselves refuse to go with their grooms and walk out of the marriage. While this may provide some reason for cheer to the torchbearers of women’s emancipation it does not help society as the casualness with which marriages are undertaken and broken leads to the breakdown of moral values.

Kalan got married at a “ripe” age of 15, under atta-satta to Nand Ram but her exchange failed after four years and two children.

She is today worried about her children and her own future but not many like her are worried. Once married and divorced, it becomes easier for them to enter into further alliances. In fact one of the imperatives of a marriage in such communities is that it has to be between two unmarried individuals or two divorcees.

Village panchayats frown upon marriages where just one party is a divorcee and dissolve such relationships. So the earlier one gets to marry, the easier it is for him or her to later enter into any relationship or naata of his or her choice.

Customs like these often lead to situations where a child, mostly a girl, is married off to a grown-up unmarried man as a mere formality, so that he could divorce her and enter into an informal relationship.

Maitra of village Khera in Bhilwara was married off in a similar fashion and for a similar purpose when she was all of seven to 15-year old Ram Pal.

She was given in exchange for a bride for her aging uncle Ram Saroop. For Saroop this marriage was just a ploy to get rid of his unmarried status. He divorced his wife soon after the wedding but in the process Maitra too was divorced by Ram Pal.

“I do not know him,” she says giggling but that does not deter her village folks from referring to her as the one who was left behind. This practice is not without its male victims either.

Seventeen-year old Sanwla Bheel of village Sardarpura was married as a child to a girl seven years elder to him. She spent five days at his home before returning to her parents’ home never to come back. “Now I realise she only married me to get rid of her single status,” says Bheel.

According to Prayas, there are hundreds of instances of people like Gopal Mali who, after getting fed up of his wife – bought for Rs 11,000 and one-and-half kg of silver – left her to buy a divorcee he fancied for Rs 1 lakh. With rural societies blatantly accepting such norms, it’s little wonder that children are being married while barely out of the cradle, and getting divorced not much later.

Source: India Today – 7 March 2008