July 28, 2017

Time’s Up, Age-Old Beliefs! Odisha Is Saying No to Child Marriage

Post-2008 riots in Odisha’s tribal populated Kandhamal district, when Rashmita Bagarti (now 27) started the Antarang (literally meaning intimate) Club in the Phiringia block to spearhead peacebuilding activities in the community, she had about 45 members. But to her worry, the number went down to 20 in about a year. As she looked for the reason behind such a drop in membership, she found that at least 12 young girls of the club had got married at an early age and left their villages.
"It was alarming! Because early marriage was the practice in tribal and Dalit communities and it was difficult to ensure long-term participation of young girls in the club. So, I decided to fight against child marriage alongside our peace-building activities," said Rashmita Bagarti, Social Activist.

According to Indian laws, marriage of a girl before the age of 18 and a boy before the age of 21 is child marriage.

Age-Old Beliefs

Home to 62 tribal communities, including 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG), making 22.85 per cent of the state population, child marriage is still a norm in the tribal-dominated districts of Odisha, as in Kandhamal.
"This is an age-old practice. Again, having a girl for a longer time at home after puberty is a big risk. While it’s always difficult to get a groom for a girl who doesn’t fit the conventional concept of being young, there is also the risk of love relationships and elopement" - Sanmati Durua (65), Resident, Chanchraguda village, Koraput
"Poverty, deep-rooted gender discrimination and dowry system increase the vulnerability of girls to early marriage" - Puspashri Debi, Member, ActionAid India, Bhubaneswar
According to Jitendra Pattnaik, a Nuapada-based social activist, “Girls are married off early to rid the family from their burden. Parents believe, delay in marriage of a girl would cost more dowry and cause difficulties in getting a groom.”
"Parents in left-wing extremism (LWE)-affected areas are almost compelled to get their children married to save them (the children) from being picked up by extremist groups, who are on a look out for new cadres regularly, said a development activist of Kalahandi district on conditions of anonymity."
The 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS4) indicates that the top five child marriage prevalent districts are all tribal dominated and affected by LWE. While the percentage of married women in the age group of 20-24, who got married before they turned 18, remains 39.3 percent in Malkangiri, it is 37.9 percent in Nabarangpur, 35 percent in Mayurbhanj, 34.7 percent in Koraput and 34.4 percent in Rayagada.

Statewide Prevalence

Of other districts, Nayagarh has 31.3 percent of married women in the age group of 20-24 who married before 18. In Khordha, of which the state capital of Bhubaneswar is a part, it is 18.1 per cent.
In Odisha, nearly 21.3 per cent of the currently married women in 20-24 age group married before 18. It was 37.2 percent during NFHS3 (2005-06). Similarly, 11 percent of married men within the age group of 25-29 got married before 21, as per NFHS4, which was 22.2 percent during the NFHS3.
Although child marriage is more prevalent in rural and tribal hinterlands, its presence in urban areas is equally concerning. The difference between urban and rural prevalence is only 2.2 percent for women and 3.6 percent for men of the aforesaid age group.

Health Issues

“Child marriage violates children’s basic rights to survival, development, protection and participation,” said Laxminarayan Nanda, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF, Odisha.
"It limits the freedom of girls and boys and narrows down the scope of dreaming a future of choice. Child marriage also results in the loss of lives and hampers any effort of reducing IMR (infant mortality rate) and MMR (maternal mortality rate) as it leads to malnutrition among mothers and children" - Ghasiram Panda, Activist, ActionAid India.
Another flip side of child marriage is the higher risk of contracting HIV, along with domestic violence and teenage pregnancy, which are among the leading causes of death in girls aged between 15-19.
A World Bank-ICRW joint report has warned earlier that child marriage will cost the developing world trillions of dollars by 2030 because of discontinuation of schooling, health issues, malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality etc.
Ray of Hope

Odisha, however, has been successful in scaling down the prevalence of child marriage in many districts between NFHS3 (2005-06) and NFHS4 (2014-15).

Due to the actions and interventions by both government and non-government agencies, young girls like Daimati Santa of Koraput, Phulmani Raita of Gajapati, Minakshi Guru of Jajpur have stood against child marriage. Many boys have also said no to marriage before turning 21.
"This has become possible due to the transformation of girls into change agents. Having their own space in the form of adolescent girl clubs so that they can discuss their issues freely, is enabling them to spread awareness across the community, thus ensuring an appropriate environment for a smooth transition to adulthood" - Sanjukta Tripathy, Activist, PREM.
PREM is a non-profit organisation that manages the UNFPA supported programme under its Action for Adolescent Girls (AAG) initiative in Gajapati’s Gumma block.

“Communities that were hesitant to talk about this issue earlier are now discussing it. Many have even resolved to stop child marriage in their respective communities,” Ghasiram Panda observed.

Need to Spread Awareness

“Yet, the mindset of people who believe in it, promote it and encourage the practice. It has to be changed through reinvigorated action and intervention,” said Laxminarayan Nanda.

According to Dr Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator of Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, “Community awareness, building on girls’ education and capacity building of families are necessary. Alongside, implementation of the law and awareness are also needed.”

Raising the issue of almost nil registration of cases under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act, Dr Patel urged, “Prosecution has to be strong.”
"On the other hand, prevention is also a critical strategy. However, in today’s world, skill building and making the girls economically independent will take more than curbing the problem of child marriage" - Dr Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator, Odisha State Resource Centre for Women.
Bringing to fore the issues of dowry as exploitation leading to an unsafe atmosphere for girls in the society, Puspashri Debi sought proper implementation of the Dowry Prohibition Act.

Anticipating growing incidents of elopement due to media exposure from childhood, she insisted that “priority should be on creating a safe space for the adolescent to discuss sexuality and personal issues in a free environment.”

The report first appeared on July 25, 2017, at The Quint

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