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Tamil Nadu’s child brides trapped in cycle of poverty, patriarchy | Chennai News – Times of India

CHENNAI: The cry for help came from a 16-year-old girl in Coimbatore last year who was being forced into marriage by her parents. She reached out to Childline, officials intervened, and the marriage was averted. After counselling, the parents agreed to focus on their daughter’s education. Two weeks ago, officials got to know that the girl had been married off.
“We got to know of it after the wedding. Since the groom is 24 years old, we have filed a case and he has been remanded into custody. The girl has gone back to her parents’ house,” says P Thangamani, district social welfare officer, Coimbatore.
This, in a nutshell, is the plight of child brides of Tamil Nadu. Forced into marriage by parents who see them as a liability, they are pushed into domesticity and early motherhood. Or, like the 16-year-old, their fate hangs in the balance, caught between homes where they are not wanted and society that shuns them. The numbers of such children have soared during the pandemic when schools are closed, monitoring by officials is limited and parents are struggling to eke out a livelihood.
“From January to December 2020, 92 child marriage cases were reported in Coimbatore. We managed to stop 63,” says Thangamani. “This year till May end there were 57 cases, of which around 27 were stopped. Of the rest, some turned out to be false complaints.” In the Nilgiris district, while six cases of child marriages were reported in 2020, this year it is already 13; five were stopped by district authorities.
The practice of conducting child marriages has its roots in cultural traditions. “I was married at the age of 14 to my mother’s brother. I was happy on my wedding day as I got to wear nice clothes and jewellery, but had no idea what was awaiting me,” says a 38-year-old, who works as a cook in Mylapore. “Only when I came to Chennai from my village in Tiruvannamalai did I realise that my husband, who was 14 years older, was an alcoholic. He beat me regularly. By 20, I had three daughters and then he committed suicide. Since then, I have been struggling to raise my children.” While she never thought of seeking help, the situation has changed with more awareness, monitoring and access to resources.
According to a report by Child Rights and You (CRY), there has been a 40% rise in child marriages in May 2020, with 318 cases recorded from the operational areas of CRY in Salem, Dharmapuri, Ramnad and Kodaikanal — covering 10 blocks and 72 tribal hamlets. Authorities fear, in 2021, with Covid-19 raging more furiously, children are likely to be more vulnerable. “Whenever schools are shut, children are pushed to work, or marriage or are trafficked,” says John Roberts, general manager, development support, CRY.
In a patriarchal society, where girls are seen as a liability, child marriages do go up when there is a pressure on resources. “If a family has two or three daughters then it’s one less mouth to feed. Conducting these marriages have also become easier — it’s less expensive as you don’t need to throw a feast, the couple and the parents go to a temple and solemnise the marriage. With lockdowns, monitoring is difficult and sometimes neighbours and relatives don’t get to know of it,” says M Jeyam, founder of Salem People Trust.
Usually, the social welfare department, child welfare committees (CWC), police, Childline and NGOs work together to prevent child marriages. “If I get an intimation, I tell the social welfare department, and they check it out,” says B Pandiaraja, member, Madurai CWC. “They prevent the marriage, or if it has been conducted, file a complaint and produce the child before the CWC. If the girl says she has been forced, and expresses an interest in studying, she can stay at a government recognised children’s home till she is 18. After that, she can be at the after care centre till the age of 21. Last year, we prevented the marriage of a Class X girl after she called ‘1098’. When her parents tried marrying her off again, she decided to stay at the home and continue her education.”
If the child decides to stay with the parents, they have to give it in writing, he says. “They also have to produce the child before the CWC till she is 18 and as when she is summoned.” Social welfare authorities also usually check on the child, but monitoring has become a challenge during the pandemic. “Some time ago, a volunteer informed police when a 14-year-old was being forced into marriage. They stopped the wedding and kept a watch on the girl for a month, but she was married off later. When we got to know the girl was pregnant,” says Jeyam.
Taking cognizance of the issue, the state’s social welfare and women empowerment department is all set to crack down on child marriages. Recently, minister P Geetha Jeevan instructed officials to book families and relatives of victims of child marriages.
But the plight of the child bride is often pitiable even when authorities crack down. “Usually, the groom is also booked under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which places the girl in a vulnerable position. It is assumed that she has had sex, and to establish it she would be subjected to a medical examination. And many of these girls are not informed that they have the right to refuse it. The reliance on medical evidence is also worrying as it does not absolutely establish sexual activity and with a particular person,” says Vidya Reddy, founder, TULIR – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. “Moreover, the girl won’t be welcome back in her family or that of the groom as they would feel she has brought bad luck,” she says.
That’s why social evils need more than just legal intervention, says advocate Sudha Ramalingam. “Law is only one instrument for social change. Social evils can’t be stopped without a change in people’s attitude. In the pandemic, parents feel if something happens to them then their daughter will have some security. In their own circles, the parents are seen as being responsible,” she says. “It is the larger societal approval within the community that is driving them to do this. Unless we empower women and educate people, the law is not the only panacea for social evils.”


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