Early marriage is seen as a way to control girls’ sexuality and protect family “honour” and “pride”

Screen shot 2016-02-25 at 9.13.54 PMPraxis Institute for Participatory Practices conducted a formative research on early marriage in two districts of Jharkhand and one district of Bihar, titled “The causes, consequences, and resistance of early marriage”. The study was commissioned by Breakthrough. Excerpts:

The patriarchal preference for sons, combined with women’s lack of agency regarding the number and spacing of children, means that women may bear many children in the attempt to have a son or more sons. Maya Devi, a teacher married at 18, has three daughters and a son. She was compelled against her wishes to have four children until she gave birth to the male heir of the family. Binulata from Kharhari had two daughters and wanted no more children. Her in-laws denied her the freedom to decide about birth control measures and insisted on her continuing to give birth until she produced a son.

Several female children in the family are often a trigger for early marriage as each requires the process of collecting dowry. In families with several daughters, the oldest is invariably married early. Sushila, 16, of Visar, explained that her marriage had already been finalised because she had several sisters of marriageable age. Meera in Bejentata was married at 12 because she had three other sisters. Parents with several daughters often said,“Iski (implying the oldest daughter) shaadi karenge, tabhi baki ka dahej jama sakenge.”(“If she is married off, only then can we start saving dowry for the rest.”)

Often this plan actually bought time for the younger daughters in the family, who were able to continue with education until it was their turn for marriage. Babita Kumari, 17, of Bandarbela, was able to continue with her education primarily because she was the youngest of three sisters. Ironically, however, Sarita Devi of Jagdishpur, who had dreamt of getting educated, was married off at 11, while her younger sister, who was not keen to go to school, was married at 14 after studying till Class 3.

Early marriage was seen as a way to protect girls from sexual urges, activities, and assaults alike. This is a matter, in turn, of protecting her family’s status, pride, and“honor.”

Through discussions, it emerged that a family’s honor could be damaged in several ways:

  • ƒ Inter-caste marriage
  • Elopement
  • “Promiscuity”(including social intermingling of sexes)
  • Harassment, molestation, assault, etc.
  • Unmarried daughters
  • Violation by girls of the norms regarding code of conduct

Lakhan Ram, an octogenarian from Jagdishpur, explained that a girl’s “honor” was considered equivalent to the family’s pride and any “wrong action” on the girl’s part could leave a “daag”(stain or blot).“Kuch galat na ho jaye” (“lest something wrong happen”) was the fear echoed in discussions across locations.

Screen shot 2016-02-25 at 9.05.32 PMThe pervasive — and not unfounded — fear of sexual harassment or assault was a clear trigger for early marriage. The concern, however, was not fundamentally about a girl’s health or rights but rather about preserving family “honor.” Parents believed — not always correctly — that their daughters would be safer with a male guardian. Since fathers and brothers could not provide this guardianship forever, the onus was seen as best shifted to her marital family at the earliest opportunity.

Early marriage was also considered a way to circumvent the growing trend18 — and associated family shame — of young girls and boys eloping to escape the dictates of caste-driven marriages and other associated customs which deny them a say in choosing their partners.

State interventions to promote inter- caste marriages made no dent in the sample areas, where the institution of marriage continues to be caste-endogamous. Discussions with the Yadav and Paswan communities of Visar confirmed that while there is no open animosity between the communities — in fact, they often faced and handled problems together — inter-caste marriage was unthinkable. In Jagdishpur, Rupan married a boy from a different caste when she was 20. Her sister Sunita was soon after married to a rich widower with two children when she was just 16. Her brother says the family took this step out of fear of ostracism. Many families marry their daughters young to prevent such problems.

Indeed, the ostracism caused by inter- caste marriage was more severe for poor families — and for girls. Said a respondent in Dharampur: “Beta ko nahin tyagte hain, par beti ko tyag dete hain.”(“It is not the son who is stigmatised; it is always the daughter.”)

Overall, parents saw early marriage as protection from the community stigma associated with girls’deviation from any social norm. Deviant behaviour could range from a young girl choosing to drive a bike (like Sanita from Dumar, who rides a Hero Honda bike) to another young girl merely interacting socially with boys. “Haath se nikal gayee hai”(“She has gotten out of hand”) was a common way to refer to these violations — and early marriage was the accepted way of preventing them.

Early marriage is seen as the only acceptable space for sexes to mix. Mixing between girls and boys, even platonic, is taboo in many cultures. Marriage is seen as the only socially acceptable space for girls and boys to act on their sexuality — or interact at all, as interactions outside marriage trigger the fear of premarital sexual relations. The problem is that when there is no place for girls and boys to mix casually, or explore aspects of their sexuality, there is no place for them to develop mutual respect, communication, and understanding; and consent issues, harassment, and other problems are more likely to arise. This in turn leads to stricter controls – including marriage — and perpetuates a vicious cycle.

Sexual harassment was commonly reported among the sample communities in Gaya and Jharkhand. Girls in Visar said that boys created a new way of harassing girls for every new situation; girls in the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Awasiye Vidyalaya in Padma said that boys would wait outside the school every day to watch the school girls. The girls however admitted that on any day the boys happened not to come, they missed the attention. This reflects prevailing confusion about healthy interactions with the opposite sex.

These girls also identified the forms of violence they faced or had heard of being perpetrated by men: verbal violence, brushing against them, grabbing them, and sexual assault and rape. In this context, 23 girls described their perception of the men they knew. Indeed, a full 90 percent indicated that they perceive men they know as potential molesters.

This striking mindset and attitude, not surprisingly, contributed to a community- level fear of sexual harassment in general and urgency to protect women. Sushila of Visar, for instance, said her father cited the threat of sexual harassment as the main reason they did not delay her marriage.

Sexual harassment was generally targeted at unmarried girls, according to the schoolchildren in Padma, who pointed out that married girls looked and dressed differently. A representative from Kalyan Parishad said the vermillion mark on a woman’s head, indicating her married status, could protect her from harassment in public. However, they pointed out that even married women at times faced physical and sexual abuse.

Download full report HERE

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