In the evening hours of the last week of May, I was getting ready to attend a political meeting when my phone buzzed. It was Poorvaja*, a fellow activist. She spoke hurriedly and sounded very tense: “Usha’s mother has left her at the Dindigul bus terminus with no money, and also taken away her mobile. She is stranded and scared. She called me from a passerby’s mobile. I don’t know what to do.” 

Usha*, 17, lives in one of the seaside hamlets around north Chennai. I met her in January this year; she was one of the few underprivileged children trained by a professional photographer to capture Chennai’s spirit. At a photo exhibition of their work, a big success, I interviewed Usha and the other children. 

Usha’s photographs were outstanding and got rave reviews and she was offered more opportunities to train and learn. Beaming with joy at the compliments, she told us that she was doing very well in school and if she gets into a good college this year she would pursue photography. Her father had died when she was a toddler and her mother worked at a factory to raise three children. Having witnessed the double deprivation that patriarchy and poverty bring, Usha’s dream was to become a “first generation degree holder” in her family, have a career and do all the things women in her family never did. 

However, Usha’s mother was armtwisted by her family in Dindigul to get her daughter married early to a close relative. Poverty and anxiety about her daughter’s safety drove her to agree to the match. The first time Usha rebelled, her mother had wavered but calling off the marriage would have led to ostracism from the family and community. 

As soon as the wedding cards were printed, I passed on the information to Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO which immediately contacted the child helpline number and the district collector. With a copy of Usha’s school certificate as age proof, and the additional district superintendent of police of Dindigul alerted, an investigation was conducted at the groom’s house and it was confirmed that a wedding was in the offing. 

The groom’s family was summoned to the district collector’s office and in front of the district collector, the ADSP and the district child protection officer, they were made to sign an agreement that the marriage would not take place but no case was filed. 

In the last five years, around 12,000 child marriages have been officially stopped by the government of Tamil Nadu but only 350 odd cases have been booked under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act. Booking of the cases under this Act is the responsibility of the District Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (DCMPO). In most cases, we have seen that local authorities are careless about follow-up and girls are married off secretly and soon end up pregnant. Most authorities are themselves patriarchal and are hesitant to upset family hierarchies, experiences of those who work in the field show. The officials say they feel as if they have “sinned” by stopping a marriage.

No thought for the child’s wellbeing, rights

Usha comes from a conservative south Tamil Nadu district where a girl child is treated as a liability and female foeticide is common. Furious at the wedding being thwarted on legal grounds, the family summoned Usha and her mother to Dindigul where they were publicly interrogated. Usha said she had other aspirations and did not wish to marry so early. Abused and humiliated, Usha’s mother picked up a broom and thrashed her daughter in front of the gathering. The teen, injured and abandoned, wanted to return to Chennai and reached out to Poorvaja. 

I put out Usha’s story on social media and a good-hearted friend offered to buy her a Dindigul-Chennai bus ticket, a mobile phone and some help to board the bus. By the time help reached her, Usha had already taken her daughter back to Chennai and when we met the family the next day, we consoled the two and offered to find Usha a good college, pay her fees and help her with personal finance and motivation. That is what we will be doing in the coming days while we wait, fingers crossed, that she will not be forced into marriage.

Stopping a child marriage is only half the story actually. The tougher task is protecting the child thereafter. In most cases, furious families threaten the girl, beat her and get her married secretly at the earliest. This ends the girl’s chance at a better life – most families will call her “unlucky” and refuse to let her study.

In communities where child marriage is rampant, little thought is given to the fact that it would force minors into a sexual relationship they were not ready for and would have to endure marital rape. We have also noted that these children are forced into a cis-het relationship before they become conscious of their own sexuality.

Early, multiple pregnancies

Most child brides have a very high fertility rate which results in immediate pregnancies. Children under the age of 18 have a high maternal mortality rate and suffer various ailments during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. They have to cope with these issues even as they struggle with poverty, domestic work and parenting. Their husbands are unlikely to use contraception since Indian men are resistant to the idea. 

Minor pregnancies are common in Tamil Nadu: take for example the Government Maternity hospital at Egmore, Chennai  which caters to the city’s poor and the lower middle class. The hospital sees around 50 births on average per day and at least a quarter involve teen pregnancies. Watching children as young as 13 throng hospitals in an advanced state of pregnancy is a chilling sight, and some arrive with a toddler in hand. 

Most child marriage brides also get pregnant for the second time by 18 because they know little about contraception. In most of these cases, the mothers of child brides were themselves married off before they came of age. Last week, on a campaign in North Madras, I met a young woman with a newborn and found that the child was her granddaughter, born to her teenage daughter.

Child marriages are rising in both urban and rural areas but for different reasons. And reported cases are usually a third of the actual number of cases, activists have observed.

Caste, a critical factor

To understand the issue of child marriage it is important to understand the caste landscape of rural Tamil Nadu though the state has a history of anti-caste movements. Among the dominant castes, the fear that the child will enter a “contaminating” relationship or marriage with someone from a marginalised caste pushes parents into arranging early marriages. 

Caste pride runs thick among Tamil Nadu’s  intermediary castes and a marriage that brings a Dalit or Scheduled Tribe invididual into the family is unthinkable as examples of honour killings show. The rate of intercaste marriages is around 2%  in the state and at least two honour killings are reported every month in Tamil Nadu. I’ve seen parents who show zero remorse after killing their daughter; sometimes even infants born of intercaste marriages are not spared. Even marriages across sub castes are not acceptable. 

Thus, daughters are married off soon as they hit puberty and often to a close relative who is likely to be 10-20 years older. There is however no pressure to marry off male children early because the notion of “honour” rests in the female body.

Last year in Kamuthi Village of Ramanathapuram district, a 13-year-old’s marriage was arranged with her 23-year-old cousin, a known alcoholic and drug user. She is a Mukkulathor, a dominant caste. The man who arranged the marriage was a top Dravidian politician. We heard of this from a villager who was too frightened to complain. I forwarded the marriage invitation to Evidence Madurai and they managed to stop the wedding. Again, a case was not filed as the girl’s family was influential. A few days later the child was drugged, as per Evidence Madurai, and married off to the same man.

We came to know of another child marriage in Rajapalyam, Virudhunagar district through a source. Another 13-year-old was being married off to a 23-year-old male relative. We called the child line number and were informed that the district collector would take care of the problem. Soon after, photographs of the wedding turned up, with Rajendra Balaji, a former  AIADMK minister, blessing the couple. Over the last few years we have observed that most child marriages in dominant communities happened in the presence of MLAs and ministers of these communities.

Dalit stories – same but different

For Dalits in rural Tamil Nadu, the scenario is somewhat different. Increasing violence against Dalit women and children has sparked fears of safety, pushing families into marrying girls off early as a means of “protecting” them. Poverty and debts too are factors because it ensures that the child is fed by another family. There are also instances where parents who are bonded labourers marry off young daughters so that they can be sent with their husbands to work as bonded labourers elsewhere. 

Whatever the reason, these marriages have a terrible impact on the life and health of young girls. We found that urban child marriages can mostly be traced to poverty and coercion – parents who cannot afford to take care of their children end up marrying off their daughters young. Safety is another factor that drives parents to seek early marriage for their daughter. In 2020, we came to know of the Dalit settlements of Kannagi Nagar and Semmancheri  in Chennai where a lot of child marriages were taking place. 

Dalit families, displaced due to the redevelopment of urban slums, were resettled 30 km away. Poverty forces young girls to drop out and work as casual labourers. Most minor girls here were also married off because the area has a lot of crime. We spoke with a few young women there who said that they will resist marriage if they can study. 

I arranged the college fees for six girls, again through crowdfunding. We saw that education and financial support can often halt a child marriage. In the last two years when schools were closed due to the pandemic, there was a 40% rise in child marriages. Marriage was for them simply a way to deal with the lack of resources.

Young girls also enter romantic relationships where their lovers force them to drop out of studies and marry them, we have observed. Or an accidental pregnancy could leave them with no option but to get married. Most of these marriages are not registered. These instances are common in Chennai, we have seen.

What needs to be done

  • Child marriages have to be addressed by both civil societies and the state, working in tandem. It is important that states that pride themselves on being “developed” pay attention to areas of vulnerability and weakness. 
  • Women and child commission should be sensitised and strictly monitored so that they are proactive about preventing premature marriages. 
  • Dropping out of school leaves girls vulnerable to child marriages. The state has to ensure that girls are enrolled in schools and that they remain there till they complete their studies.
  • Vote bank politics thrives on dominant caste sentiments and this enables patriarchal practices such as child marriage. Civil societies and activists should question this and drive state-wide campaigns against child marriage with the help of legislators like panchayat leaders.
  • The state government has to keep a strong focus on ending atrocities against women.

(* Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy)

  • Shalin Maria Lawrence is a writer, activist and intersectional feminist. She has been working with women affected by gender and caste-based violence. She is also a columnist with the Tamil weekly, Kumudham. She has published two books in Tamil on feminism, subaltern culture, art and cinema.

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