-Mohd Imran Khan
Ahead of launch of much hyped massive campaign against child marriage in Bihar, Komal, Shrishthi, Puja and Vartika Kumari, all girl students are talking openly and raising publicly without hesitation to increase the age of marriage for adolescent girls from 18 to 21, thanks to Gender Alliance’s Bandhan Tod campaign against child marriage in the state. They are encouraged and inspired by Gender Alliance to think differently and create awareness to change the public and political discourse to fight against child marriage or early marriage.
These four are part of a big group of adolescent girls, spread across Bihar, particularly in rural areas, who have joined Gender Alliance’s unique initiative to fight against rampant child marriage by linking it to higher education. Gender Alliance has launched Bandhan Tod campaign last week to support the state government’s efforts to end child marriage and dowry.
“Why only boys should be allowed to marry at 21, why not girls? There should be equal law for marriageable age of boys and girls. We are spreading this message among girls to raise this issue.” Puja Kumari, anunder graduate student of Patna Women’s College, who is one of the vocal supporters of Gender Alliance’s demand for a policy change said.
Komal Kumari, a student of Class 11 of government run school here, said if girls and boys are equal as per country’s constitution and even allowed to cast their votes in elections at 18 years of age, why this discrimination for age of marriage for boys and girls. “It is a genuine issue that would impact millions of girls.”
Gender Alliance, Bihar, an initiative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), for the first time has raised this issue and put a demand in public and political discourse to increase the age of marriage for adolescent girls from 18 to 21. “Initially, it was discussed in our meetings as we were not sure how such new issue to increase the age of marriage for girls would be taken by people. But response was very positive. Politicians, including ministers to MLAs, mostly women, activists, academicians, researchers, girl students in schools to colleges and media persons supported it during discussions and debate held by Gender Alliance during the last 15 months.” Prashanti Tiwari, head of Gender Alliance, Bihar, said.
“It is something not heard before. Gender Alliance has raised the issue to increase marriageable age of girls from 18 to 21 to link it with higher education for girls and right to decide about their life partner. It is a brilliant idea” Puja said.
“Demand to increase the age of marriage for an adolescent girl is to provide them a life time opportunity to complete higher education and to reach at a proper maturity to decide their career and to choose their life partner.” Prashanti Tiwari said.
Before Gender Alliance raised it, there is no record of any one even think over it and put it in public discourse in fight against child marriage or early marriage. “When Gender Alliance raised the issue to increase marriageable age of girls to 21 in place of 18, it draws wide attention and support from all quarters. I also support it for a better change. Gender Alliance is an example of adolescent girl-centered advocacy model, which is working to end child marriage in the state, where still a large number of girls are married before age 18. It should be extended to 21 year.” Former minister and senior BJP leader Sukhda Pandey said.
Despite Prohibition of Child Marriages Act, 2006 enforced, age old practice of child marriage continues with strong social sanction. The Act certainly does not classify marriage of females at 18 years as an offence or crime. This perhaps is facilitating early marriages of females resulting in huge proportion of them getting married between 18 -21 years, by the time males are legally allowed to marry at 21 years.
In effect, males are institutionally better placed to complete their higher education, seek employment opportunities and work towards their own development and growth without having been to share the responsibilities of marriage-the larger share obviously being passed on to females in a very early stage of her life.
Besides, the backward and impoverished Bihar has high teen age pregnancy with 13 percent of girls becoming mothers at an early age and 19 percent adolescent having children by 19 years, only 22 percent of adolescent girls are able to attain 10 years of education, dowry deaths and violence against women is again very high, female workforce participation rate is extremely low with just at 9 percent.
The unequal gender intricacies, pronounced disparities coupled with some inherently discriminatory policies and legislations is an explicit manifestation of how women and adolescents in the state are being pushed at the periphery as social economic health and political indicators and development are concerned contributing to their exclusion from the growth story of Bihar. Gender Alliance views these legislative provisions as gross discriminatory impacting equal access to opportunities and growth for girls and seeks to create political and general consensus on the issue. The Gender Alliance has been emphasizing on re-engineering the gender dynamics of the state through progressive legislative and policy reforms promoting gender equality.
Till a few years ago Bihar accounted for 69 percent of child marriages of total marriages with girls being married off before reaching 18 years of legal marriageable age.
But latest national family health survey-NFHS-4 revealed that still 39.1 percent child marriage have been taking place in the state. No doubt the figure of child marriage has declined in Bihar in last 10 years due to increase of education among girls. Bihar has recorded a decline of 30 percent in child marriage between 2005-6 to 2015-16. But there is still a long way to go to eradicate this social evil. As per official data, Bihar’s figure for child marriage was 69 percent in 2005-6, followed by 68.2 percent in 2007-8, 56.7 in 2012-13 and 39.1 percent in 2015-16.
In fact, in 19 of 38 districts of Bihar, the percentage of child marriage is above 40 percent. It is more or less enough to reflect the fact that Bihar has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the country.
According to a latest study report of Gender Alliance, there are 340 blocks of total 540 blocks in Bihar, where the percentage of child marriage is more than 50 percent.It is above the average of National Family Health Survey-4 . The highest probability of child marriage is in Ghoswari Block under Patna district with 66.81 percent, while the lowest probability is 11.81 percent for Lahladpur Block under Saran district.
Ejya Yadav, a RJD MLA, said she has publicly supported Gender Alliance, Bihar, and demand to increase marriageable age of girls from 18 to 21.” Certainly, it should be done to provide a life time opportunity to girls to complete higher education and reach at a proper maturity to decide to choose their life partner”.
Gender Alliance Bihar, a collective effort of over 270 civil society organizations, since its inception last year, has focused its work on gender equity. Keeping this in consideration, it has also identified child marriage as one of the four priority issues as it is not only a violation of human rights but a grave threat to the lives, health and development of girls.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is set to launch a campaign against child marriage on Oct 2,that coincides with Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. “It is going to be a rare one as state government is taking a big step to fight social evil like child marriage. Bihar will be first state, which would fight against child marriage and dowry on social front” N Vijaylakshmi, managing director of Women Development Corporation, who is one of the top officials to implement the campaign against child marriage on ground zero said.
Mohd Imran Khan is a senior journalist based in Patna. He writes for some prominent dailies of India.