India child marriages flout law
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News
Hundreds of mass weddings, with children as young as four, take place
across India every May despite the practise being outlawed. Sue
Lloyd-Roberts went to India for Newsnight and found very public
flouting of the law.
Watch the report
Manemma sits forlornly, surrounded by family members, on the floor of
their two roomed house.
Dressed in a bright red dress and with her hair in plaits, she looks
even younger than her 11 years.
"When I was getting married, I had no idea what was going on. I was
only six and all I knew was that I had to leave home. I cried and
cried and said I didn't want to, but they made me."
I look accusingly at Manemma's father, Ghandrappa. How could he let
such a thing happen to his daughter?
Unembarrassed, he returns my stare, shrugs his shoulders and answers
in a matter of fact tone, "it's the way things happen here."
Tens of thousands
"It's the tradition," he says "Girls are married at a very young age,
regardless of the age of their husbands, and they're expected to
adjust to the situation."
Tens of thousands of children get married in India every year and, as
soon as they reach puberty, they are expected to conceive.
" The Child Marriage Restraint Act passed during British rule in 1929,
specified that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 before they can marry "
According to the census of 2001, 300,000 girls under the age of 15 had
given birth, some for the second time.
Now, five years later, the number could be as many as half a million.
Child weddings are illegal in India. The Child Marriage Restraint Act
passed during British rule in 1929, specified that a girl must be 18
and a boy 21 before they can marry.
But, during the spring wedding season, hundreds of mass ceremonies
involving children as young as six years old take place. Large,
garishly coloured wedding marquees litter the landscape, in full view
and in defiance of the law.
When I arrive at one wedding tent in Rajasthan, the women are singing
as they carry the brides' dowries, wrapped in silk carpets towards the
There are several young girls in the brides' tent including a six year
old, dressed doll like in crimson and gold, who stares at me with kohl
encircled eyes, uncomprehending as the events unfolds around her.
By the end of the day, the girls will leave their homes forever and
move to their husbands' houses to begin a term of slavery to their
mother-in-law and then, once they mature, a life of repeated
pregnancies and unremitting childcare if, that is, they survive their
In some Indian states, a law has been passed to enforce the
registration of marriages making it compulsory for the bride to
produce a birth certificate proving she is 18. But the law is not
In Andhra Pradesh, the spokesman for the Department of Child Welfare,
Prabakar Thomas, explains that the marriage registration officers have
not yet been appointed but, he promises, they will be soon.
Meanwhile, at the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, a 15 year old
is rushed into casualty. She is having convulsions and is writhing in
"She offers a classic example of what can go wrong if you have a baby
too young", Dr Shailaja says. "She has high blood pressure and,
because her body is not yet fully developed, her pelvic passage is too
small and the baby will get stuck. We shall have to carry out a
The girl travelled two hundred kilometres to get to the hospital. She
is lucky. The majority of mothers give birth at home and, with similar
problems, both mother and baby would die.
India has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in
the world and doctors blame early childbirth.
But the children of India are beginning to fight back. I met
14-year-old Jengri as she was addressing a group of younger school
She was married at the age of 11 to an alcoholic truck driver more
than 20 years older than her. Three days after the wedding, he was
killed in a traffic accident.
Because the wedding was never registered, she received no
compensation. As a widow, albeit 11 years old, it appeared that her
life was effectively over until she decided to change from victim to
One small voice
She now lectures other children and their parents on the perils of
early marriages to older men.
Surely the parents do not want to hear what she has to say, I ask?
Her expression is anxious but determined. "Of course, I get scared
when I talk to parents but I steel myself, telling myself that I must
do it. I tell them my story and I hope that it will change their
She suddenly breaks into a huge smile. "You see, I thought my life was
over but now I have a cause and I have a new life."
Jengri is one small voice in a vast country.
But it is a beginning. Unless more people speak out, thousands more
girls will suffer trauma, rape and the possibility of death in
childbirth in the name of time honoured tradition.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/06/08 10:17:42 GMT
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