Bhopal: All hell broke loose at Vanita`s house when she refused to tie the knot before completing her studies. She was not even 18, the legal age for women to get married in India, pointed out the spunky Dalit girl.
It took people by surprise in Madhya Pradesh where every second girl is married off before she reaches marriageable age. Many of these weddings take place on the festival of Akshya Tritiya, which falls on Sunday.
Vanita, 17, who lives in a settlement for the poor in Bhopal, last week threatened to go to police when, after returning from school one day, she was told by her younger sister that she was about to be married off to a middle-aged man from Rajasthan.
Though her parents seem to have relented for now, she is not sure about the future stance of her drunkard father.
"I am still afraid that anyone can brainwash my father and he would insist on my marriage once again," says Vanita who has sought the support of the NGO Sarokar which works with girls on issues like child marriage and gender bias.
Vanita, who wants to be a policewoman after completing her studies, has also equipped herself with knowledge as to how to approach the police if any further pressure comes.
As many as 53 percent girls are believed to get married under the age of 18 years in the state while the national average is 47.4 percent, says a report of the National Family Health Survey.
The figure for Bihar is 69 percent, Rajasthan 65.2 percent, Jharkhand 62.3 percent and Uttar Pradesh 58.6 percent, the survey says.
In Madhya Pradesh districts like Barwani, Sehore, Neemach, Chhatarpur, Mandsaur, Rajgarh, Shajapur, Sheopur and Shivpuri, more than 40 percent of girls are married before attaining the legal age, according to the findings of a district-level household survey carried out by the International Institute of Population Studies on behalf of the central government.
Though the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, bars the marriage of a girl aged below 18 years and a man below 21, the problem persists, with a majority of child marriages being performed on occasions like Akshay Trithya.
Madhya Pradesh`s Women and Child Development Department has issued directives to its joint directors and district level development officers to upstream their efforts and prevent child marriages.
They are being supported by organisations like the Child Rights Observatory, an independent child rights monitoring body in Madhya Pradesh.
"Child marriage is a violation of a child`s right. We are raising the issue with the state and will also support it in preventing the same," says Nirmala Buch, Child Rights Observatory president.
"Early marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional impact, cutting off educational opportunity and chances of individual development and growth for both boys and girls," Tania Goldner, chief of the Unicef office for Madhya Pradesh, told reporters.
"The consequences for girls are especially dire, as they are usually compelled into early childbearing which results in associated health risks and social isolation," she says.
"Child brides will frequently drop out of school and be exposed to higher risk of domestic violence and abuse, increased economic dependence, denial of decision-making power and inequality at home, which further perpetuate discrimination against and the low status of girls and women," she adds.