Why Chennai should worry about child marriages

In India, inter-caste marriages are just 5.82% of the total marriages registered and inter-religious marriages, 2.1% as per the latest National Family Health Survey IV, 2016. Photo: iStock

With almost one in three child marriages arranged in the state, being in urban parts of Tamil Nadu, the concerned officials have woken up to the fact that the issue cannot be considered as a rural issue any more.

Till about end of 2018, there have been about 61 cases reported in and around Chennai and with the child helpline 1098 getting alert and rescue calls quite often than before, officials at the Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme are now contemplating an action plan and are mulling roping in more staff to address the problem.

A source from the department added, “The issue in all these cases is, the parents who arrange for marriages have various reasons. We are looking at working together with several departments to bring about an action plan. It would be difficult for one district social welfare officer to tackle the issue. We want to depute more staff from rural areas to the city to counter the menace and we are planning to work on a machinery to combat the problem at the urban level. We need to concentrate on few pockets like the tenements and new resettlement sites like the ones in Perumbakkam and around OMR.”

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The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act—states that the legal age for marriage is 18 years and above for girls and 21 years and above for boys. A survey by Dhaagam Foundation as part of Aval Project in the slums of Besant Nagar, Saidapet, Chemmenchery, Kasimedu, Ramapuram and Vyasarpadi revealed the extent of child marriages in the areas. At least 21 per cent of them were married before the age of 16 in these areas. Another report, which was released recently by the Indian Council for Child Welfare, in collaboration with the UNICEF Chennai and the Department of Social Welfare has revealed that in 75 per cent of the 1500-odd cases of child marriages stopped by the authorities, the marriages were arranged by the parents. And the report also said that 90 per cent of them arranged the marriages because they feared for their children’s safety.

Girija Kumar Babu, honorary secretary, ICCW said that with both parents working, the concern about their daughter’s safety is also an urban issue especially with migration to newer places for a better life. “We thought that the issue is a rural problem, but it is also rampant in a place like Chennai. Parents here fear that their daughters are vulnerable in their homes, when both parents are away. They decided to get them married, as soon as they reach the marriageable age,” she added.

Parents here fear that their daughters are vulnerable in their homes, when both parents are away. They decided to get them married, as soon as they reach the marriageable age. — Girija Kumar Babu, honorary secretary, ICCW

The report by ICCW also observes that urban regions like Chennai have pull factors like education and employment opportunities which attract a lot of non-natives to the city. This kind of floating population has features of anonymity and heterogeneity which contributes to the risk of vulnerability in children.

Focus on resettlement sites and slums

Virgil D Sami, executive director, Arunodhaya, centre for street and working children, said that with the growth of tenements and slum resettlement sites like in Chemmenchery and Perumbakkam have also brought with it the evil of child marriages, especially due to the issue of lack of safety. She says, “The question is also regarding the parenting of the children. We see many children going astray as they do not have a sound relationship with their parents. The parent, on their part, do not talk to the children about how developing a relationship at a young age can be harmful for them. They do not understand the hormonal changes and physical attraction where they can even end up getting pregnant. We find that in many cases, older man lure the girls and dump them later. But in many cases, the minors too take the extreme step and elope to get married, often swayed by what they see in films.”

In many cases, older man lure the girls and dump them later. But in many cases, the minors too take the extreme step and elope to get married, often swayed by what they see in films. — Virgil D Sami, executive director, Arunodhaya

True to her observation, the ICCW report has documented a case in Chennai district, where a child had got married with a partner of her choice and eloped. Based on a complaint by the parents, the child was rescued and brought back. Due to anxiety of facing any insult from their relatives, the parents decided to get their daughter married to the same boy. The mother expressed that the girl may have taken the extreme step of marrying without their consent due to her father’s strict attitude towards his daughter.

As a result, Arunodhayam is focusing on 15 schools in parts of North Chennai to educate them in sexual and reproductive health, the Abolition of Child Marriage Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.

Team work

Sugata Roy, UNICEF, observed that child marriage is an issue that affects the safety, empowerment and health aspects of a young bride and groom. It pushes the young minds to act like adults and bestowed them with family responsibilities when actually they should be playing and studying for their better future.

He says that apart from social welfare department’s concerted efforts, there is a need for more coordinated efforts between other government departments. “Awareness on child marriage is being created at the community level by the adolescent and young people. Through peer education, the perils of child marriage are being established. Apart from this, a regular campaign is carried out by the Department of Social Welfare and Social Defence. Therefore the Education Department, Health Department, Social Welfare Department and Social Defence Department should come together and work to address the same.

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