Too much, much too young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 October, 2009, 12:00am

Susheela, a child bride, left her husband four years ago, caught a bus home and told her parents that she wanted to divorce him and go back to school. She became an instant celebrity. Her unusual act of defiance exposed the prevalence of child marriage among poor Indians in the countryside. Married at 14 by her parents - who wanted one fewer mouth to feed - just outside Hyderabad, south India, Susheela's feelings were irrelevant against the two brute forces underlying child marriage - poverty and culture.

Poverty dictates that parents marry girls off early to free themselves from the responsibility of feeding them.

Culture demands a girl's speedy marriage lest she disgrace the family name by having premarital sex.

Susheela's story was similar to those of the nearly 25 million girls who feature in the latest report by the UN children's agency Unicef, on Indian girls who were married off in 2007 before the age of 18. The report, 'Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection', says that one-third of the world's child brides live in India. Despite rising literacy levels and legal prohibition, social tradition keeps child marriage alive.

Susheela was lucky because the publicity around her courageous move played a part in persuading her parents, bemused at the controversy, to let her leave her husband and go back to school.

But few child brides escape this deep-rooted custom. Government campaigns to eliminate it have failed. Social workers who campaign against it do so at their peril. Last year, a 48-year-old social worker who tried to persuade a village in Rajasthan to stop child marriage had her arms cut off. Had it not been for her astonishing determination to get an education, Susheela too would have ended up as one of Unicef's dismal statistics.

'Girls should not get married before 21,' Susheela told the Sunday Morning Post on the telephone. 'It's important for them to know something about the world, to have some knowledge in their heads.'

Susheela was 14 when she got married but the Unicef report says many child brides are as young as 10. Early marriage usually means health problems.

Child brides are too physically immature to give birth but, ignorant of contraception, they usually become pregnant within the first year of marriage.

'Child marriage is a big factor explaining the high rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality,' said Devika Reddy, a government health worker in Hyderabad. 'Early marriage means a woman is fertile for a longer period. This has an adverse effect on her health and leads to larger families, which in turn means even greater poverty.'

Unicef figures show that girls between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as women between 20 and 24.

This is undoubtedly a factor that contributes to India's high maternal and infant mortality rates. Tens of thousands of women die in India during pregnancy, in childbirth or soon after giving birth - and many of them are below 18.

In the same week that the Unicef report came out, a Save the Children Fund report revealed that India has the highest infant mortality rate in the world - one infant dies every 15 seconds - a figure that is 10 times higher than China's. Over 400,000 newborns die in the first 24 hours of their life and 90 per cent of deaths are due to preventable diseases such as diarrhoea.

Child mothers are usually unaware of the importance of breastfeeding, boiling drinking water or tackling diarrhoea in babies quickly to avoid dehydration.

Shah Bano, a Muslim woman who lives in the Indian capital's Muslim quarter, had no idea about the need to boil drinking water for newborns when she first became a mother. Sitting in her one-room home amid dark, narrow alleyways, Bano, who is about 50 (she is not sure) but looks 70, relates her life as the mother of nine children.

Married at 10, she had her first child when she was 11. Her daughter was 12 when she got married and 13 when she had her own child, making Bano a grandmother at 24. Bano's granddaughter also married at puberty and gave birth when she was 14, making Bano a great-grandmother at 38.

'I had no idea the minimum age for marriage in India is 18. All our girls are married the moment their periods start,' Bano said.

In another room, across a dank, vertiginous staircase crawling with toddlers and goats, lives Bano's neighbour, Rukshana, aged 16 and the mother of three children. Her younger sister Yasmin is 13. She too will be getting married any day now.

Many poor Muslim families are urged by religious leaders to marry off daughters at puberty, saying it is sanctioned by the Koran. Nishad Hussain, a community worker in the Muslim quarter, feels nauseated when she sees the results.

'No girl this age is ready for marriage or motherhood. It's a terrible burden. The girl is mentally, emotionally and physically immature. For me, it's a form of sexual abuse,' she said.

Child marriage is practised equally by Muslims and Hindus. In Rajasthan, for example, child marriages happen en masse in Hindu villages with little brides and bridegrooms playing with dolls and marbles, sucking their thumbs or sitting in their parents' laps during the nuptials.

Evidence that early childbirth is an unmitigated disaster is personified in the girls who walk into Dr Anita Bhatti's clinic in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

What you have is a child bearing a child, is how Dr Bhatti describes her patients. 'On top of all this, the girl is usually malnourished. Because women marry so early, I see cases where both mother and daughter are expecting,' she says, adding that some of her colleagues have treated families where grandmother, granddaughter and great-granddaughter were all pregnant.

Child marriage is rarely discussed in urban living rooms, but a hugely popular television serial called Balika Vadhu or 'Child Bride', about a brave little 'wife', has caught the imagination of viewers who are usually hooked on serials about scheming mothers-in-law locked in conflict with their daughters-in-law.

Set in a Rajasthan village, the serial shows the life of a child bride and the difficulties she faces.

Some critics have argued that the programme legitimises the practice, and point out that India is perhaps the only country in the world running a serial about a practice that is illegal.

'How dare we get worked up about the Taliban beating up women in the Swat Valley when we are glorifying something that is just as demeaning?' Hussain asked.

The producers insist that they merely want to portray reality without condoning it and say that, if anything, viewers have written in to say they decided to postpone their daughter's marriage after watching the show. With around 17 million people watching each episode, it has triggered a debate of sorts about child marriage. However, the debate does not involve rural Indians who, not having cable or satellite TV, do not watch the programme.

Social workers say that it will take sustained grass-roots work in every village by the government, rather than TV programmes, to alter centuries-old habits.

Women's activist Kavita Sharma, in Jaipur, says the government is working hard to delay marriage in Rajasthan.

'But it's hard to alter the values that villagers have internalised, and these values say that girls must be married before puberty because it's the only way to be sure they go to their weddings as virgins, which is essential to the family honour,' she said.