In India, we have various laws that prohibits and discourages age-old social practices that constitute a gross violation of human rights. But many a times those culturally sanctioned customs surpass the legal barriers. Child marriages which still continue in various parts of the country is a perfect example.
I learnt this during my conversation with Rashmita Pradhan, a 17-year girl from Sikhar Palli village of Odisha’s Ganjam district, who had to battle against such deeply established social norms when her family decided to marry her off early. She was in class 9th and wanted to study more, but she was prevented to go to school by her own mother.
During our discussion at her home, she told me how the news of her marriage plan shattered her completely. “I was scared to react against it at first,” she said.
“I knew that marriage meant ruining my life and dreams of studying more. Many a thoughts were running in mind simultaneously. I knew my request would not be heard as my denial will also affect the marriage prospects of my younger sister. I also knew that my mother would face severe social rebuke for my decision.
“I didn’t want to cause any trouble to my mother who was already facing a lot of difficulties in raising us since my father’s death seven years ago. But at the same time, I was not ready to get married and ruin my life,” she narrated.
She was quite disturbed and disheartened by the developments. Then, she decided to meet Rina Nahak, a local women leader associated with a local NGO partner organization of ActionAid India. After listening to her story, Rina assured Rashmita of help and invited her mother to a women’s group meeting and explained the issues related to child marriage.
It took time to persuade Rashmita’s mother, but frequent counseling and follow up with Rashmita’s family finally helped stop the marriage plan.
“I was very happy when my mother agreed to cancel my marriage she has fixed with a neighbour’s boy working in Surat (Gujarat),” Rashmita told while wiping off tears from her eyes. “No, I am not crying. I am happy,” she clarified immediately.
The story of Rashmita is a victory after a long struggle to speak up against child marriage. When I met her, she was perhaps unaware of her role in paving the way for others to stand up against illegal practice. However, it was not easy for Rashmita to overcome the struggle in a locality where the common perception is that if a girl reaches puberty, she is ready for marriage.
The problem remains rooted in a complex matrix of age-old religious traditions, social practices, prejudices and economic factors. Regardless of its origins, child marriage is a gross violation of human rights that devastates one not just physically, but also psychologically and emotionally. Child marriage also causes serious health hazards linked to early pregnancy and childbirth. It’s also found that those who get married early are more likely to be victims of domestic violence.
In Rashmita’s case, it would have not been possible to stop her marriage if she had not chosen to speak up against it. The efforts of the womens group also helped her to prevent the marriage. Unfortunately, Rashmita’s success story is a rare case. According to a report published in 2012 by UNICEF, 37.2 per cent of girls in Odisha get married before legal age of marriage..
However, Rashmita has set an example and we need brave-hearts like her in our society who can stand up against such illegal practices.