Two decades ago, Malappuram district, situated towards the northern end of Kerala, embraced the literacy mission campaign with great zest. But today, in this Muslim hinterland of Kerala, parents prefer to marry off their daughters by the time they are 14 and some even suggest to teachers that they fail them in school.
Malappuram is an example of how even a high rate of over 80 per cent female literacy does not free girls from the vicious cycle of early marriage, high rate of infant and maternal mortality and poverty.
According to a Rapid Household Survey conducted by the Union Health Ministry in 1999, while only 9.1 per cent of Kerala girls marry before they are 18, in Malappuram (consisting of five municipalities and 100 village councils or panchayats), 36 per cent are married before they reach 18.
"Parents do not mind sending daughters to school as long as they do not go to class 10," says a local high school headmaster. "Last year, a parent came to me asking me to fail his daughter, a good student, in class 9. He feared she would not get a husband if it were known that she had turned 15 (average age of a class 10 student). When I refused, the man withdrew his daughter from school."
Muhammad, headmaster of Makkaraparambu Government High School, says that in 2003, eight girls who cleared class 8 and 9 and six who passed Class 9 and 10, dropped out of school. Similarly, Sister Rosanna, headmistress of St Gemma's School, says there have already been four drop-outs in this academic year. As the marriage alliances take shape during the year, more and more girls will stop coming to school, it is feared.
Most women in Malappuram are grandmothers by time they reach their early 30s. "The age of the groom is never taken into consideration, though a 15-year-old girl is considered out of the marriage market," laments Ayisha bi, who had two of her daughters married at 13 and 14. Her younger daughter died during childbirth. Her elder son-in-law, in his 40s, died soon after the fourth child was born. "My elder son-in-law and I were of the same age, but we can't be choosy," she says.
The steady rise in marriage of minor girls is linked to the large inflow of Gulf money into the Malabar belt in recent years. Once the men start earning in the Gulf, they prefer to marry off their daughters as soon as possible.
In some marriages, the grooms, after a short stay in Malappuram, also go to work in the Gulf. They often return only when their minor bride is already a mother of a three-year-old child. Psychiatrists in the area say the long years of separation have also led to a rise in cases of depression among young girls. Many young girls also suffer from the `Friday Syndrome' - complaining of extra anxiety and stress on Fridays when their husbands usually telephone from the Gulf!
Since the Muslim Personal Law does not specify the marriageable age for women, the community's religious heads have encouraged the practice and sanctioned the onset of puberty as the ideal age for marriage.
The recent Kerala High Court judgement - that a Muslim girl, even if she is a minor as per the Indian Majority Act, can enter into a valid marriage agreement if she has attained puberty - will only foster such unfair marriages. The court also upheld that the married minor's husband is legally bound to provide maintenance to her. The case was filed by a Malappuram girl, Raihanath, when she was 17 and was refused maintenance after a quick divorce.
With the rise in minor marriages, the district is fast becoming a doctor's nightmare. "Deliveries are complicated. The district has one of the highest maternal death rates," admits Dr E K Ummer, District Medical Officer, Malappuram.
Dr C Joshi, a pediatrician and head of Manjeri District Hospital, says that in a recent survey conducted among 100 below-18 mothers, it was found that 36.1 per cent of the neonates were underweight. Girls married at the age of 14 also suffer several miscarriages.
"Many mothers who come to me are 15-16 years of age. Their children have far higher chances of intra-uterine growth retardation. Children with low birth weight have greater chances of growing obese when well-fed later. These mothers are kids themselves, " feels Dr Joshi.
Shahina, a 20-year-old with two children, feels she has nothing to look forward to in life. Married at 14, she was divorced at 18. She often suffers from bouts of depression. "I studied only till Class 8. I hope my daughter doesn't face a similar fate," she says.
Incidentally, Kerala, which has the highest literacy rate in the country, also has the highest depression rate among women and related suicides.
V P Suhra, president of Nisah, a progressive forum for Muslim women, says: "Everyone knows minor marriages are rampant in Malappuram. But nobody speaks out against this practice."