According to UNICEF, 60% of women aged 20-24 today were married before the age of 18. Despite the Child Marriages Act being implemented in 2006 which outlaws child marriage, it is an epidemic that still occurs across the country. Tragically, this leads to a high rate of suicide among women. A study from 2012 estimated 56% of female suicides were happening among women aged 15 – 29, the prime age group for child marriage. The National Crime Records Bureau states 20,000 Indian housewives take their own lives each year. This is an horrific tragedy that legislation alone cannot fix.
One woman from Rajasthan, Usha Choudhary, came very close to being a statistic as a 13 year-old, but unlike many others, she managed to escape the child marriage fate by going out and finding work to support herself financially. This is the reason many parents choose to marry girls off very early, because poverty and lack of financial stability means girls become a burden in a conservative culture that places greater value on boys.
Today, Usha runs a charity organization she co-founded with five friends, called Vikalp Sansthan. Since its launch in 2004, the charity has been based out of Rajasthan, a state where a high number of child marriages occur, and has managed to prevent 8000 of these happening, and enable 10,000 girls to access education opportunities. They are run mostly by local volunteers and activists who want to see the end of this epidemic.
The issue of child marriage is multi-faceted, and any attempt to curb it needs to recognize this. Creating laws is only the start, the foundation change will occur with education and cultural shifts in attitudes toward women and girls. Usha spoke to NewsDeeply.com’s Women and Girls Hub column about the work they do to prevent thousands of girls from being forced to marry at a young age.
She says Rajasthan has a huge problem with child marriage because of its caste system, which determines who gets to have power.
“Patriarchy is everywhere, and with that comes a feudal mentality. From our work at Vikalp we know that child marriage limits choices, and if choices are limited then people are unable to raise their voices against injustices within society,” she said.
Since the Child Marriage Act was created, Usha says there has been a certain type of decrease in child marriages, most notably the very young girls (such as toddlers or babies), but the problem still persists, it is just more likely to happen among girls aged 12-18 now.
“Marriage is done before the age of 18 because it prevents the children from being able to make their own life choices. If a parent can control who their child marries, then they can control all aspects of their life,” she said.
The law punishes anyone in attendance at a child marriage. For women, it means a fine, for men it means a fine as well as jail time.
Because the girls are very young when they get married and don’t always have an education or a workforce skillset, they are typically expected to live with their in-laws and have no control over their futures.
“Once a girl joins her in-laws at home, she will be responsible for doing all of the housework, and she is expected to produce a baby within a year of joining their household. As a girl and the youngest member of the household, the bride will have no say in her life,” said Usha.
One of the core aspects of the work Usha and her team at Vikalp do is addressing the issue of gender equality in order to fundamentally dismantle the control child marriages have on the Indian culture. In an interview with Refinery29, she says they do this with the aim to engage men and boys in their mission, which they say is crucial to ending child marriage.
“If we want peaceful, healthy and equal-based society, we have to work with both genders. It is very important to empower girls and women and, at the same time, very important to sensitize men and boys. Through this process, they will grow together and respect each other,” she said.
They want to end cultural stigma which starts the minute a baby girl is born, often sealing her fate as a victim of gender politics. Usha says while it is easy to engage girls and women to fight against this, they have had to work hard to ensure men recognize the important role they can play.
“Women and girls are going through these situations so they will easily understand and they will mobilize easily. But men and boys are not facing all these things, so it’s sometimes very difficult [for them] to join the groups and the discussion. Boys have the pressures of livelihood and education and all these things, so their families ask, ‘Why are you going to this meeting? Why are you wasting your time when you should focus on your education, you should focus on your other things’,” she said.
The more modern focus on engaging men and shifting their mindsets when it comes to gender equality is a very important part of the movement, most notably seen in UN Women’s He For She campaign. There are also grassroots initiatives and organizations working to dismantle harmful ideas of masculinity in India with the attempt to re-shape the culture around gender norms. Toxic masculinity in India was the subject of a speech given by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in Mumbai recently, she said men must become role models and provide an alternative narrative to see what it means to be muscular and to project positive masculinity.
“The men must say that I will not beat a woman, I do not want to be a trafficker, and I will not marry a child and abuse anyone at my work place,” she said.
Vikalp Sansthan has a specific boys education program where they work with 10-30 year-olds, helping them define their role in society away from patriarchal standards which can end up victimizing them too, albeit in different ways.
“Engaging boys and men is important because female empowerment does not occur in isolation, and in our society, men influence what happens to women. If we want to break the chain of child marriage and create a peaceful and equal society, then we must engage everyone,” said Usha.
“The reality is that it is not just the girls who have to give up on their dreams when they marry as children. The boys often have to discontinue their education when they get married, and they also lose control over their own lives. The frustration they feel is often taken out on their wives,” she added.
They have worked with men who admit to doing this and help them to understand how they can change this problem, and make society a more equal place for everyone.
An issue like child marriage is not a problem that happens in isolation. It is part of the greater issue of gender inequality that leads to violence toward women, as well as rape and sexual assault. The growing importance of making this an issue that engages all people, not just women, could very well be a pivotal turning point in making gender equality in countries like India where there is a growing movement to see it happen.
Watch below to see more of the work Usha Choudhary and her Vikalp Sansthan team are doing in Rajasthan today: