“If adults know child marriage is wrong, why do they still allow it to happen?”
This was just one of the questions we faced from young people we met in Bihar, one of India’s poorest but fastest-growing states. 69 per cent of women in Bihar are married by the time they are 18 and almost half are married by 15. This happens despite the fact that the law in India prohibits marriage before the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys.
Why does it persist? The young people, officials, NGOs and others we met during our four-day visit told us of the many factors driving child marriage: poverty, lack of education, limited enforcement of the law and the low status of girls and women. But we also got the impression that attitudes in India are slowly changing.
We were in Bihar to meet the young members of a new campaign called Jagriti, or ‘Awakening’ in Hindi. In a pink school building surrounded by green fields, about an hour and a half from the state capital, Patna, we met around 20 girls and boys who are starting a state-wide movement to persuade their parents, teachers, political leaders and others to stop child marriage.
The teenagers are taking it into their own hands to lead this effort, recognising that many adults are not doing what they should. They told us they are speaking to their panchayats (local councils), police, relatives and religious leaders. They were clear and determined: the law protects their rights and they want adults to uphold the law. They seem greatly empowered by participating in this campaign, and their slogan reflects this: “My life, my decision: stop child marriage.”
Under pressure to marry young
Many in the group said that they want to study and pursue careers, but feel considerable pressure to marry. Girls especially are often seen as burden and a potential risk to their family’s honour until they are married. Their parents worry constantly that the girls are vulnerable to sexual attacks or inappropriate relationships with boys. In their communities, shame and family honour are huge issues. Sadly, it is girls who suffer most because of these attitudes.
The boys face different pressures. One young man told Archbishop Tutu that after his mother died, his father wanted him to marry so that there would be a woman to do the housework. He really did not feel ready to support a family when he was yet to finish high school, and many of his friends agreed.
Yet it was also clear to us that family and community are essential to achieving change in India. The young people we met had no desire to alienate or upset their parents. They accept arranged marriages, and are quite sceptical about the western tradition of romance and what they call “love-marriages”. Yet they want to be part of their country’s tremendous growth and opportunity; they want the chance to grow up before becoming parents themselves.
Mobilising support among their peers and politicians
These teenagers have joined Jagriti because they hope being part of a larger group will help them to achieve their dreams. In just a few months they have collected 20,000 signed pledges from other teenagers and adults, promising not to marry young or allow it to happen to others. This is already a remarkable achievement.
Later that day we presented a stack of those pledges to the Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who is respected nationally for his leadership in addressing his state’s enormous development challenges. He described to us a number of ways the state is trying to improve girls’ education rates and health, but had to admit that they still do not monitor child marriage in official development statistics. He said he would look into including this data in state-wide development monitoring, which was encouraging, although very difficult as there is no consistent registration of births, marriages or deaths in most of India.
We were also happy to hear that since our meeting, the Chief Minister has contacted our young friends at Jagriti and said he would be pleased to work with them!
On leaving Patna, I reflected with Mary Robinson that we were both lucky to have had fathers who told us that we could always do the same as boys, even though it was not a popular view at the time we were growing up. My parting wish as we left was for girls and boys, together with their parents, to embrace the change needed to end child marriage and enable these young people to really fulfil their potential. If they can achieve this, India will certainly reap the rewards.
Photos: Tom Pietrasik | The Elders