In the ‘third’ world, one of the most common reasons for death of teenage girls is pregnancy and childbirth. Last week, the supreme court of India figured in international headlines for ruling that having sex, even consensual, with a girl below the age of 18, regardless of whether she is married or not ( which as you know is illegal, but is still very prevalent) will be considered rape. The ruling also specifies that this applies to all faiths. Child marriages are very prevalent in India. It is more openly done in rural areas , where more than half the women are married before they are 18.
Reading up about age of marriage in different countries and different religions, I discovered that many countries allow teenagers to get married, with their parent’s consent. In many Islamic countries, it is a norm to marry off girls as soon as they hit puberty. Well, I do not want to think about my mental maturity at 14 and did you say marriage? But one should not assume that this is the case with everyone. Officially, in India, every risky or potentially harmful activity like driving, voting or marriage requires that you are above 18 years of age.
For the urban population which is most likely to read this post, child marriages are the most common occurrences in rural areas, just like matrimonial sites in the urban areas, unbelievable yet quite common. 45 percent of the girls in the 14 years-17 years age bracket are married off in the rural areas of India. In states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, 80 percent of the girls are married off before the legal age of marriage.
Mental maturity or mental problems in general are usually not considered important or worthy of discussion in most Indian homes. Consulting a counselor makes me sure that you have gone mad. World mental health day came and went this week, and India remained indifferent. Studies suggest that child brides routinely suffer from Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) owing to alien, scary things that happen to them after marriage. Several studies show that child brides are more prone to HIV-AIDS; their infant and maternal mortality rate is high, which is obvious as the average age of pregnancy is 15 years. An early marriage also limits their access to education, curtails their freedom and also makes them more susceptible to domestic violence.
There are others who say that marriage is done to curb a girl’s sexual needs, so that she doesn’t lose control and forget the invisible but visible wall between her and the guy next door. If marriage is a license to have sex, then are we taught about sex? I think parents leave sex education of their kids to the community in the traditional tribal style of community upbringing. In the urban school that I studied, teachers repeatedly skipped the chapters dealing with reproductive organs and sex. So there is no legitimate way to learn about sex in India, other than crouching under school benches with books like Godfather (This was before Chetan Bhagat). In 2016, India’s then health minister Harsh Vardhan opined in a blog that sex education should be banned in India. Then there are other ministers who say that sex education would uproot the ‘values’ from the Vedic culture. I am sure that explains the rape culture as well.
This enforced ignorance with regard to sex and their rights cripple the lives of these girls who will never know that they are being wronged. Also, before they are mentally or emotionally prepared for marriage or childbearing, they are married off citing reasons of security. The question is what or who are we protecting them from? To me, it does seem like the girls are safer and happier in their own homes.
Sure, there are economic reasons for child marriage, but the cultural ones cannot be ignored. The culture of banning sex education and marrying girls off before they can begin to think on their own is definitely has a patriarchal agenda behind it. It makes these child brides helpless, inaccessible and essentially trapped in their miserable lives. If it could be blamed solely on economic reasons, then equipping these girls to have a steady job of some sort would bring in more money rather than losing a fortune as dowry. This just goes on to show the hypocritical nature of most things we refuse to change in the name of culture.
So, the supreme court ruling is definitely a step in the right direction- but the question remains that will a child bride go to the police to complain against her husband, or rather, can she?