By Basudev Mahapatra*, Koraput, Odisha
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 this underdeveloped region where the 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" report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). According to Indian law, if a girl is younger than 18 and a boy younger than 21 when wedded it is a child marriage.
The situation is alarming in the eastern state of Odisha. Up to 21.3% women between the ages of 20 and 24 years are married before the age of 18, and about 11% of men between the ages of 25 and 29 are married before the age of 21, according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) report. Unsurprisingly, the number of child marriages is greater in rural Odisha. However, "there is significant variation amongst districts," Amrita Patel, state project coordinator of the Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, told VillageSquare.in. The problem is more pronounced in underdeveloped tribal areas. "Over 50% of marriages in the tribal communities are underage or child marriages," said Gopi Durua, 25, of Devati's family who too had married before the age of 21.
"This is a pan-Odisha issue although the practice is more prevalent in the tribal-dominated southern and southwestern districts of the state," Ghasiram Panda, communication in-charge at ActionAid, Odisha, and an advisor to Odisha Child Right Commission, told VillageSquare.in.
Unless child marriage is stopped, it will be difficult to achieve the goal of controlling infant and maternal mortalities in the state. Ghasiram Panda, ActionAid
The practice stems various factors— a perception that an unmarried adult woman is a burden, a lack of awareness about the unfavourable fallouts of child marriage, and a host of socio-economic problems such as abject poverty and a poor female literacy rate/
"The tribal communities also believe that early marriage is their tradition. When you ask them to stop child marriage, they think you are trying to mobilise them against their traditional practices," said Bhanumati Santa of Gamkapadar village in Koraput district.
"With an increase in cases of boys and girls falling in love and eloping to marry, parents also see a kind of social risk in allowing their daughters to continue their studies instead of getting married at a tender age. They believe that marrying the girls at an early age is the safest way to circumvent situations that may damage the family's social status," 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. "Our parents must be made aware of the possible impacts of early marriage on the health of their daughter and the future of her family. They must be explained how they are putting the lives of their daughters at risk by marrying them at an early age," she told VillageSquare.in.
Talking about the social fallout of child marriage, Panda stated that "this practice not only adversely affects the health, education and status of women but it also endangers the health of the future generation in many ways."
"Unless child marriage is stopped, it will be difficult to achieve the goal of controlling infant and maternal mortalities in the state," he added.
Recent initiatives by Odisha's Women and Child Development Department to tackle the problem include the 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 sensitisation of college and university students across the state and orientation of high school students in 12 tribal districts, according to Patel.
Results already visible
Interventions from the government as well as non-government agencies to stop the practice have brought in some changes.
Sensitised by the Adivasi Ekta Sangathan or Ekta, a Koraput-based non-profit, on the ill impacts of child marriage and the importance of education for girls, Daimati Santa of Gamkapadar village dared to rebel when she was told she would have to marry at the age of 16.
Adolescent girls participating and taking the lead to bring change in their lives remains the key to success. Sanjukta Tripathy, People's Rural Education Movement (PREM)
Daimati has been successful in convincing her parents and the groom's family to defer the marriage until she reaches adulthood; she has also persuaded them to allow her to continue with her higher secondary studies.
Though sporadic, such cases of girls opposing early marriage and expressing their desire to continue with education are being seen in different places of Koraput and other tribal districts of Odisha.
Some regions like the Gumma block in Gajapati district have made even greater progress and child marriages rarely take place, where they were once rampant. After intervention by UNFPA, "child marriage has almost stopped. Dropouts go to school again and girls are now working outside and make an earning," said Mariyam Raita, a local woman leader.
"The change has been possible due to the engagement of the community and all other stakeholders in the process of change. Adolescent girls participating and taking the lead to bring change in their lives remains the key to success," said Sanjukta Tripathy of the Berhampur-based non-profit People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) who works as the project manager of the UNFPA-supported intervention.
More action required
"The changes that have come in the tribal dominated regions raise hope about addressing the problem. The tribal communities have started realising the bad effects of early marriage and are now discussing the issue," said Ghasiram Panda.
In order to stop the practice, "more community awareness, focusing on girls' education and capacity building of the families are necessary. But, alongside, use of the law and awareness about the law are also needed," said Amrita Patel.
Insisting that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 should be made more stringent and enforceable, Patel highlighted that "in today's world skill-building and making the girls economically independent will go a long way in curbing the problem of child marriage."
Basudev Mahapatra is a journalist based in Bhubaneswar.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.