In a casual conversation a couple of years ago, child rights activist A Devaneyan caught me unawares when he said Chennai could possibly have the largest number of child brides in the State. “Look at new settlements like Kannagi Nagar. Child marriages are rampant there” he said. I could take it only with a pinch of salt.
If Chennai ranks first in TN on child marriages, ironically Tamil Nadu leads in the national figures. According to NCRB data of 2014, Tamil Nadu tops in the number of child marriages in which prohibition of Child Marriage Act was invoked against the offenders.
While 275 such cases were reported across the country, Tamil Nadu also had about 47 cases registered. In 2013, Tamil Nadu had again registered 56 cases – again the highest in the country. A cruel paradox considering its progressive aura.
Way back in 1920s, the iconic Periyar spoke passionately about the increasing number of child widows and the need the get them remarried. “It anguishes me deeply to see that there are 2,32,147 widows under the age of 15 and 18892 widows under the age of 5 . Will any civilised society accept this cruelty? Tamil people should come forward to encourage widow remarriage” he had said. (rough translation).
The numbers might have come down drastically. But with someone like Periyar, Tamil Nadu should have fared better than other States when it comes to curbing child marriages. Sadly it is not so.
But well all is not lost. The silver lining in the cloud are the girls themselves. Increasingly, girls are stepping out of their stifling households – often at the neck of the moment – and reach out to the police to get their marriages stopped.
Last week in Chennai alone, in two separate incidents – a 15 year old girl and a 17 year old girl – went to the police stations to get their marriages stopped at the last moment. The cops not just stopped the marriage but warned the parents of strict action if they went ahead with the marriage plans. They were full of praise for the young girls.
These Chennai girls are not alone. In Perambalur, where child marriages are considered rampant, it is not uncommon for a girl to approach a police station or even the district collector to get her wedding stopped. In fact, in Perambalur post cards have been distributed to girl students which they could use to write to district collector in case they are in trouble. Child helpline has come in handy for many girls who had wanted to stop their marriages. On condition of anonymity, a 16 year old girl from Perambalur admitted to me that it was a difficult choice to go to a police station. “I tried pleading and begging with my parents. They are otherwise nice. But our family is orthodox and girls are married off at an early age. I really wanted to study. I had no choice but to go to a police station when all my pleadings fell on deaf ears. Even now they are upset about it. They think I have staked the family honor. I tell them they never gave me any other option.” With the support of district administration, she is now continuing her studies.
For girls like her, education has given that much needed courage to step out and seek their freedom from the clutches of an early marriage. But for every such girl who would boldly step out, there are many more who wouldn’t dare to ‘stake the family honor’ and silently step into wedlock, burying all her dreams.
They would perhaps need a collective political will to put an end to the menace and not just isolated efforts by an earnest district administration.
If the marriages would continue despite the prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 – which stipulates 2 years of rigorous punishment and/or fine up to Rs 1 lakh - it clearly exhibits the lack of political will. As activists rightly point out, the act needs to be put into more vigorous use. The dominant political parties which claim to enjoy the legacy of Periyar should do it urgently.
Chennai ranks first in TN in child marriages, Tamil Nadu leads in the national figures.
According to NCRB data of 2014, Tamil Nadu tops in the number of child marriages in which prohibition of Child Marriage Act was invoked against the offenders.
While 275 cases were reported across the country in 2014, Tamil Nadu registered about 47 cases.
In 2013, Tamil Nadu registered 56 cases – again the highest in the country.
—The writer is a journalist.