RANCHI, JHARKHAND, 15 October 2012 –Seventeen-year–old Saraswati Kumari from Ruki village in Gumla district is a model for all girls. Shy but confident, Saraswati was determined to confront the norms that marry girls at an early age.
“My father had a dream, to see me educated and self- reliant. I want to fulfill his wish. Marriage can wait,” says Saraswati.
Early this year, Saraswati’s family arranged her marriage to a much older man. Saraswati’s father passed away two years back and since then life has been a daily struggle for survival. Her uncle threatened her with dire consequences if she did not conform to their demands. Accused of tarnishing the family name and honour, her mother, Kishni Devi, was thrown out of the ancestral home she shared with her late husband’s family.
Committed to study further, Saraswati approached the Deputy Commissioner of the District with a written complaint on child marriage. The matter was handed over to the Child Welfare Committee in the District which summoned the guardians and explained to them the legal consequences of forcing a child marriage. As a result Saraswati’s marriage was postponed.
Saraswati continues with her studies and working as a seamstress to eke out a living for her family. Saraswati is not merely leaning to read and write rather she is re-writing her life’s script that has hope, opportunities and would open newer vistas of employment.
Kishni Devi is proud mother today. She says, “Saraswati has taken the right decision. I want her to completer her studies and get married when she is the right age.”
Child marriage is a gross violation of child’s right to education, health, nutrition and protection from violence and abuse. Jharkhand has the highest rate of child marriages in India, after Rajasthan and Bihar, where 55.6 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18. Child marriage pushes girls into vicious cycle of early pregnancy, which is a major cause for high maternal and infant mortality as well as malnutrition among children. Statistics show, girls aged 15-19 years are twice more likely to die during child-birth.
Saraswati narrated her tale of exemplary courage and fortitude during the State level consultation on prohibition of child marriages jointly organized by the state government and UNICEF in Ranchi last month. Dr. Syed Ahmed, Governor of Jharkhand who inaugurated the consultation said, “Boycott child marriages. Do not perform, conduct or attend child marriages in any form”.
Infants of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday than children of mothers who are over 19 years.
Children of under- age mothers are likely to give birth to low birth weight babies, which causes under-nutrition and delayed physical and cognitive development of children. Lack of schooling pushes child brides to more poverty. Domestic violence against women married before 18 years in India is as high as 67 per cent.
A harmful social practice like child marriage, rooted in the society for centuries, can be stopped only by concerted actions at all levels – social, political, legal, economic and religious.
Mr. Job Zachariah, Chief of Field Office, Jharkhand said, “Empowerment of women and education of girls are considered to be the best strategies to stop child marriages. Enforcement of laws against child marriage, after creating awareness about the consequences of child marriages, has also been found effective in ending child marriages. A social norm has to emerge against child marriages”.