• Noorul Islam Mazarbhuiya, a social worker and religious leader from Assam says that “Marriageable age depends upon the mental and physical maturity of the bride and bridegroom in Islam. It varies from person to person and from place to place. The lawmakers have seen everyone with a single lens. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has recognized the validity of this standard. Family problems, atrocity on women etc. happen not just because of child marriage. There are many other causes of family disputes which are found in maturely married families equally.”

The recent happenings in Assam which led to the arrest of more than four thousand people need more scrutiny. The intention of the government, how it is going to help the girls, its impact on families and society and what actually should have been done are all under debate. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, here is an analysis of the responsibilities of a welfare state, community leaders and society at large in ensuring a safe and secure way of life for a girl. First of all, let us analyse why child marriages are to be stopped as per the opinions of experts and sociologists. Those who are against child marriage give the following reasons.
  1. It affects the physical health of the girl. A girl has to attain puberty and should be physically fit to enter into marital life which contains sexual intercourse with the partner, childbearing, delivery and nurturing of the children. If the girl is not mature enough to bear all these, it will affect her physical health badly which may lead to abortions, early birth, anaemia etc. which are all a threat to even the life of the mother and lead to maternal mortality.
  2. It impacts the mental health of the girl. Entering into marriage demands a lot of mental strain, especially in the Indian context. A girl has to leave the comfort of her parental home and may be shifted to a different place and unknown culture where she may have to adopt a new dress style, new food habits, new routine and so on. This gives a lot of stress to the girl, affecting her mental well-being. Moreover, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, delivery, breastfeeding and nurturing the newborn are all strenuous for a small girl to undergo and they lead to many psychological imbalances.
  3. It affects the health of newborn babies. The health of a child depends upon the health of the mother. If the mother is not healthy enough and has any kind of mental stress or imbalance, it is hazardous to her offspring and can cause infant mortality.
  4. It discourages the education of girls. Getting married early leads to girls dropping out of schools and colleges.
  5. It affects the economy of the family as well as the country badly.
  6. Delaying marriage helps in population control. This argument has been specially put forward by those people who raise their eyebrows when they see a slight growth in population in those communities which they consider the ‘Other’ from among the minority and marginalized communities. And they come up with exaggerated figures to create fear among the majority. This happens in many countries across the world as well as in India.
Now let us analyse the Indian scenario and see why child marriages are still in vogue in spite of the fact that we have regulations against it. Not only in Assam, but in most parts of the country this is an apparent phenomenon in many communities. For example as per the report by UNICEF in 2017, “One in three of the world’s child brides live in India.” Over 50% of them live in 5 states: UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In the state of Rajasthan, 36% of the women who were aged 20 to 24 were first married or in a union before they turned 18. The recent incident of a family in Rajasthan selling their daughter on stamp paper to settle debts created more debates in this regard and it has been brought out that things are moving in reverse after the pandemic with regard to the welfare and safety of women and girls. Girls are seen as a means to reduce the financial burden in many societies even now.
With regard to the arguments against child marriage, the following realities are also to be taken into consideration in order to bring a lasting change.
  1. We said that child marriages affect the physical health of girls. But are child marriages the only cause of the poor health of girls? The entire system gives only second to the boys’ preference when it comes to proper diet, sanitation facilities, medical care and awareness of health and hygiene be it inside the family or within the society or with regards to the projects and services from the government to this effect. Of course, we have many projects and schemes. But they are mostly in paper and propaganda rather than in actual implementation. If at all implemented, they reach only the selected ‘Our People’. There is no doubt that sexual intercourse at an early age is dangerous to the health of a girl. But what about the health of a girl who has to subdue to the sexual needs of many men in unprotected circumstances? The use of alcohol and drugs, the existing attitude towards women and girls of marginalized societies especially by the privileged classes, rape used as a political tool and the convicts getting protected or even encouraged by those in power…..all lead to young girls falling prey to the lust of powerful men. Isn’t this affecting their health? The drastic measures by governments are forcing girls to rely on unsafe methods to delay pregnancy, not going to hospitals or taking any kind of medical assistance to avoid being booked. This again is very detrimental to the health of the nation’s future generations altogether.
  2. Even if we completely agree that early marriages affect the mental health of a child, are they the only reasons why the mental health of a girl gets affected? Many girls who live in slum areas and rural villages in India always complain about the feeling of insecurity due to the increasing rapes and crimes against girls and women and how it affects their sleep and mental well-being. The poor girls, not knowing whom to approach, continue their life bearing the agony. If at all any girl musters courage and complains, the legal procedure tortures her to the extent that she enters into a completely lost state of mind reliving the agony again and again. In many cases of child marriage when we ask parents why they did so, they say that it is to escape this trauma of feeling insecure that they look for a suitable ‘Protector’ for their girls as early as possible. The unjust treatment given to them by most of the authorities at public service centres including schools, hospitals, police stations, courts and public transports develops ill feelings in their minds leading to negative thinking, disappointment and hatred against the entire society and system. Aren’t they detrimental to the mental health of a girl? What steps do our governments take in making them feel accepted and included in the larger society as equal citizens with equal rights?
  3. The claim that delaying marriage will help in population control is not completely true. Many girls in rural villages and among the Adivasis give birth to children where even the father is not known which is more harmful to the well-being of those children as well as the society rather than having children born out of legitimate married life.
  4. The other claim is that child marriage affects the mental and physical health of the children. True to some extent. But what about those children who are born illegitimately not knowing who their fathers are? There are also those children born to mothers who have to bear the unwanted effect of rape and undergo the agony of that mental and physical torture, followed by the guilty feeling created in her mind by society? How can those children be physically and mentally fit?
So, the matter of the safety and welfare of women in India is not just a ‘minor’ or minority matter.
Having said this, let us see what is really happening in Assam now and how foolish and insensible it is for any government to take such a step. The crackdown is to target only the Muslim community using the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 as has been observed by many. It looks more like a hasty attempt to criminalise and villainise a community rather than save its women and girls. How can putting the sole earning member of the family bring happiness or progress in the lives of those women who as part of a social system are forced by the social environment to get married which in no way is their fault? In fact, these women need no such saving from anyone. They have been leading a happy married life in spite of all the economic and social backwardness. Moreover, nothing can replace the love and care a father can provide and no other system can give them the comfort of a loving family environment which is no more possible. In short, the problem of child marriage is very complex that it can never be solved in this way which in turn has created worse kinds of problems and will have a far-reaching impact.
The way it all started itself proves that it is not an innocent and impartial move. In an official tweet, the Chief Minister said that he had asked Assam police “to act with a spirit of zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime against women.” Yes, ‘zero tolerance’ is the keyword. This is what the Muslim community has already been facing through a lot of problems in the state and this crackdown is only adding fuel to the fire. The same enthusiasm has never been seen in protecting the women and girls of the community in other matters. That is why the action has been interpreted by opposition parties and social activists as an act to create more problems and make life more difficult for the Muslim community. According to Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, leader of Asom Jatio Parishad, the target of the government was to harass the Muslim community but unexpectedly people of all communities have come to its grip. Child marriage is prevalent in every community. One can’t blame those who interpreted it as yet another strategic move towards ethnic cleansing. The Assam government is notorious for such moves earlier also. According to Hasina Ahmed from All Assam Students Union “The CM is known for his tactics to divert attention from the real issue and create an anti-Muslim frenzy and this crackdown is yet another example of that….” She explained, “Nobody denies that the issue is real, but this solution of arresting men is more than the problem.” (Indiatomorrow.net). Yes, most of those arrested happen to be Muslims. Actions targeting a particular community will have a negative impact on other communities too in the long run. It won’t remain a problem for only Muslims.
Moreover, arresting all those involved in child marriage over the past seven years as has been said by the chief minister will bring more chaos and create more problems for those families involved and this move in no way is a measure towards social welfare. It is nothing but an ‘insensitive and inhuman’ action as has been opined by the Congress MLA Kamalakha Dey Purkayastha. The Gauhati High court has questioned the action asking how the government could relate POCSO with child marriage, for the Act is related to rape and not arranged marriage. There are claims that it is not against any community. Even if we take it at face value, at the end of the day with the corrupt system, who will go scot-free? Only those with money, influence and belonging to the privileged class. The ground reports tell us stories of the panic created among those families forcing them even to commit suicide.
Those parents who gave their daughters in marriage at an early age have their own justifications. Being poor they are not able to facilitate higher education for their daughters and sons. So, they preferred to settle them in family life. If delayed, they were afraid the girls wouldn’t get a suitable match. In spite of all these, there are a number of unmarried girls in society which creates social imbalance and other problems. Co-education system in schools has opened up a wide scope for boys and girls to enter into affairs and that has been a major cause for agreed child marriage among the comparatively richer families. If the parents don’t agree, incidents of suicide happen. As Abdul Mannan Laskar of Hailakandi, State Chairman Minority Cell, Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) says, “It’s a clear violation of human rights. If the government is a well wisher for the public, they should aware them on the ill effects of child marriage. Who will look after the family when the husband is arrested? The government says they will give some rice and dal to those families. But they also have other needs. Who will fulfill them? Actually the government is creating more problems by such unconstitutional and unwise actions.”
Noorul Islam Mazarbhuiya, a social worker and religious leader from Assam says that “Marriageable age depends upon the mental and physical maturity of the bride and bridegroom in Islam. It varies from person to person and from place to place. The lawmakers have seen everyone with a single lens. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has recognized the validity of this standard. Family problems, atrocity on women etc. happen not just because of child marriage. There are many other causes of family disputes which are found in maturely married families equally.”
If the government really wants to address the problem sincerely, it has to be dealt with as a social rather than a legal issue. Creating awareness is the first step. Government should be sensible enough to take community leadership and scholars into confidence and involve them in giving awareness to bring changes within communities. More schools are to be established which are easily accessible to girls of Muslim as well as other marginalized communities. All public service systems should be made more women and girl friendly. More and more girls entering into higher education will automatically delay marriage and families which are economically sound would prefer to educate their girls rather than considering them as a burden and getting them married as early as possible. This is what we have seen in states like Kerala. The state of Jammu & Kashmir ranking first in the least number of child marriages proves that it has nothing to do with religion and a lot to do with educational and economic backwardness as pointed out by experts. It is the duty of any welfare state to address these matters instead of arresting those innocent lives most of whom are not even aware that such a law exists.

A recent report on the child marriage drive by the Association for the Protection of Child Rights titled “Unjust Arrests”, has noted the following as its key observations from interactions with the victims as well as a broad quantitative study: the arrests have led to deteriorating health conditions of women, particularly pregnant women because some data of pregnant women has also been leaked by ASHA workers; there is retrospective implementation of a law rather than an attempt to bring about social change holistically; there is clear violation of the Supreme Court guidelines on arrests laid down in DK Basu v State of West Bengal (1997); the lack of a robust civil society is making it difficult for people to organise such injustice and has left them alienated and finally, that there is lack of legal aid, particularly in rural and remote areas.

In conclusion, we must also note that delaying or postponing marriage up to the 30s or 40s because of education, career etc. will also lead to other social problems. It may lead to physical and mental health issues. There is a limit to maintaining youthfulness and age has its impact on the biological wellness of any individual. Late marriages can also cause problems in child bearing and rearing. After a certain age, one has to master the art of balancing education, career and family life. The entire debate shouldn’t create the feeling among our youth that marriage is a hindrance to all types of progress. Our family system needs to be reset in such a way that lifelong learning and growth are possible for our men as well as women at any age without much stress. The community leaders also have their role to play. Let them come forward and encourage families to educate their girls and make that their priority until maturity rather than marriage. The dowry system which forces an average Indian family to save all their earnings for the wedding rather than the education, nutrition and health of their girls is to be abolished completely. On the whole, the real solution lies in changing everyone’s attitude towards women and girls as well as marginalized communities.


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