"Wedding is such a happy event - silk clothes, sweets and relatives," sings a nine-year-old girl. "Chelli (young sister, in Telugu), do not agree to marriage. It's not good for you until you're grown up," is her older brother's response. This is a campaign song on child rights devised by the NGO Sapling as part of its campaign 'children addressing children on child issues - Bala Jagruti', which was implemented in more than 500 schools in Hyderabad and neighboring Medak and Ranga Reddy districts.
Renuka, 13 - resident of the Kontanpalli village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, and the only daughter of her parents - managed to resist the temptations of silk clothes and sweets. She called up her prospective groom and told him that she is not interested in marriage and would like to study further. When the groom remained undeterred, Renuka approached her teachers, to no avail. Undaunted, she went to the Toopran police station and explained her situation to the Sub-Inspector (SI), who summoned her parents. The parents went on to thrash Renuka at the police station, earning a well-deserved dressing down from the SI.
To Renuka's dismay, when they returned home, her parents threatened her again and made her sign a letter that she is marrying of her own volition. Once again, she rushed to the police station, and this time her parents did not dare confront the SI. Renuka is now attending school as usual, but there is no wishing away the trauma she lives with everyday in a hostile family. In Renuka's case, it was the support of a well-run school that motivated her. But Chanigalla Susheela from Ranga Reddy district sought the support of the NGO MV Foundation, which works on child rights awareness generation. Married at 12, it took her six months to get her two-year-old marriage annulled. She pleaded with her parents and told them about the abuse she suffers, until they finally took her back home. Susheela was finally granted an annulment by village elders when she went to the police, enlisted the help of MV Foundation and threatened to kill herself. Today she is pursuing her dream - to study further. On the eve of Republic Day 2006, Susheela won a bravery award for her courage.
Child marriages continue to be an indisputable reality in Andhra Pradesh. "I think it is primarily a sense of insecurity. Leaving a child at home or in an institution is no longer seen as a safe option," says Nirmala Sitharaman, educationist, former member of the National Commission for Women, and member of various fact- inding teams on gender and child rights issues. "If the girl faces any problem, seeking justice is expensive in more senses than one. Parents do not want to go through that ordeal, and shifting responsibility - through marriage - is an obvious solution," she explains. A recent survey by Eenadu, a leading Telugu daily newspaper, revealed shocking statistics - 200 girls married off in the last six months in Medak district alone.
Another survey by Tharuni (in 2001), an NGO working in Warangal district, corroborates these statistics. "On an average, 1,500 girls are married off between 11 and 13 here. About 80 per cent of dropouts from schools are because of child marriages," says Dr Mamatha Raghuvir, Director, Tharuni. The NGO began by exploring why so many children drop out of school and stumbled upon a horrifying trend. They even found child couples in school. Since 2001, Tharuni has taken up a five-point strategy. The first is to motivate girls to be independent, resist early marriage and seek education. They are provided with tuitions and libraries, and special motivational camps are held to keep their morale high. The second is to create awareness among parents and villagers; the third, to target concerned officials. The fourth aspect is to press for the formation of a district-level prevention committee; and the fifth, to seek legal redressal through a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court and a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
"The complaint to NHRC was regarding 60 marriages which were about to happen. But even the Chief Secretary's intervention could only prevent four weddings," Raghuvir rues.
The push factors vary with the region. In Khammam district, migration plays a major role. "Parents seek to 'hand over' their daughters to someone in their own clan when they migrate," says Dr B Sitaram, a college teacher and HIV activist from Khammam.
Sandhya, 15, from Kaigondayigudem tribal hamlet, hopes Sitaram would somehow rescue her from her impending marriage. "Unless Sir intervenes, I will have no choice but to run away from home," she says desolately. "Marriage is equally traumatic for the adolescent boy," asserts Nirmala Sitharaman. "And because the grooms are so young, they tend to get dissatisfied with the girl and end up seeking divorce. And since divorce is granted by caste elders, and not courts, it is done with lightning speed," Raghuvir adds. He explains that caste panchayats act as a parallel legal system, which has binding force among rural communities. Shyama, 19, who was first married at the age of seven and is now the mother of a child from her fourth marriage, is a case in point.
In areas like Khammam and Warangal, where a significant number of boys migrate for work or join the transport sector - and are thus vulnerable to HIV infection - early marriages increase risk of transmission for girls. There are a number of factors: sexual activity at an earlier age and lower negotiating power, for instance. "At the Warangal PPTCT (Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission) Centre, all HIV+ women were under 22. Just imagine," says Raghuvir.
Interestingly, Tharuni's analysis of the 2001 census data reveals that there is a decline in child marriages among Dalits, and a corresponding increase in school attendance. The story of Anuradha, 17, from Nizamabad districts gives us an indication of the reasons. Married three years ago, this fourth-standard dropout is still at her parent's home. "They are certainly not waiting for her to turn 18. The parents and in-laws are fighting over Anuradha because she earns Rs 20 a day and both of them want it," says Raghuvir. But is there a viable solution? Raghuvir suggests "appointing child marriage prevention officers, strengthening legislation, and specifying more stringent punishment", whereas Sitaram has this to say: "Officials know there will be political harassment from caste leaders, so they would rather look the other way. First make them responsible. Of course, an intensive media campaign would also help." Nirmala Sitharaman has these suggestions: "vigilant and responsive police, active NGOs, monitoring by respectable senior citizens".