The average age of marriage may be rising in the cities, but in the heart of Andhra hinterland, child marriages are still a very grim reality for many.
The case in Andhra is especially bad. When Andhra Pradesh Mahila Commission Chairperson Nananpaneni Rajakumari, visited government general hospitals in Vijayawada and Guntur, she was shocked to see girls aged below 15 becoming mothers, and giving birth to anemic children.
In the last three years, The District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) staff of the Women Development and Child Welfare (WD&CW) Department stopped over 425 marriages, but more than 250 marriages might have gone unnoticed. As many as 25 cases were booked against the bridegrooms and other accused of both the parties under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.
Although the Government of India passed a law banning child marriages long ago, the practice still exists, and is highly prevalent in remote parts of the country. In several cases, parents marry off their daughter due to fear for their safety. Crimes against women are steadily on the rise, in spite of a better sex ratio and higher girl child education numbers.
“We are watching on television and reading in newspapers about the sexual assaults, inhuman acts of criminals and kidnapping of minor girls." The father of a 14 year old says "I am very worried about the security of my daughter. So, I decided to marry her off after she completed SSC. But the WD&CW and police officials stopped the marriage and counseled us,”
According to WD&CW District Project Director (PD) K. Krishna Kumar, nearly 600 village and mandal level child protection committees had been formed to protect children from being married off. Village elders, sarpanchs, anganwadi teachers, students, and Asha workers are committee members, who alert the police about any unlawful weddings. It is not an easy task, and the forces often face severe opposition from the families. “On some occasions, the kin of the bride and the bridegroom attacked the Child Development Project Officers (CDPOs) and the DCPU staff when they tried to stop the wedding in villages" Kumar said.
But the awareness created helps, says District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) Vijay Kumar. The friends of a ninth standard girl went to the house of an officer and alerted the DCPU staff, who reached in the nick of time. In another case, they saved a tenth standard girl from being married off. “I lost my parents
and was staying in my uncles’ house at Agiripalli in Krishna district. My uncle and aunt fixed my marriage with a private employee. Though I rejected the proposal, they forced me and finally the DCPU staff came to my rescue. I am continuing my education.” she said later. In some cases, the committee workers faced pressure from political leaders, who directed them to handover the brides to the parents, or threatened action.
The situation is disheartening, to say the least. “Victims tell pathetic tales when they are produced before the CWC. The situation is alarming,” CWC Chairman B. Nagesh Rao said and stressed on better coordination among various government departments to stop the practice.
Several steps are being taken, though, to put an end to the practice. The forces have begun to keep a vigil at the temples and churches in and around districts with high child bride rates, mostly East and West Godavari or Guntur districts.
The WD&CW Department in association with the Child Rights Advocacy Foundation (CRAF) has been conducting meetings in schools and villages to stop child marriages, and they have covered almost 30 mandals, according to CRAF State project director Francis Thambi. “We are spreading awareness about the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, Right to Education Act, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act and other laws to prevent child marriages,” Mr. Thambi said. Awareness is one step, but we have larger leaps to make.