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Malda: As West Bengal's Malda district goes to the polls in the 2019 general election, one subject continues to be a political blind spot for all parties in the fray — child marriage.
Malda has become infamous for having the highest reported number of child marriages in the state. According to a new report released by UNICEF, Factsheet Child Marriages 2019, the prevalence of girls getting married before 18 years of age in India has declined from 47 percent to 27 percent in the past decade, but the harmful practice continues in West Bengal, with nearly 42 percent prevalence of child marriage in the state. Despite being widespread — perhaps because of it — this issue is rarely discussed on any political platform.
Around six years ago, an NGO had approached an elected member of the Habibpur gram panchayat to stop the wedding of an underage girl in her own locality. The organisation had earlier felicitated the gram panchayat leader for her efforts to prevent child marriages. However, her response to the NGO's latest plea was disturbing — she had ignored the NGO's request and allowed the wedding to continue as planned because she didn't want to jeopardise her position among local residents with the panchayat elections coming up.
It is no wonder that in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, none of the candidates contesting from Malda have addressed the issue of child marriages in the district.
NFHS data says that 41.6 percent of women in West Bengal married before the age of 18. Malda ranks the highest among all districts in the state, at 56.3 percent. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters
None of them would say there is something wrong with the image of 18-year-old Nasreen Parveen sitting at home in Malda North's Shailpur, cradling her two-and-a-half-year-old child. When she was barely 13, Nasreen was married to Lal Chand, who now works as a daily wage labourer in Bengaluru. She was a bright Class 8 student when her parents got her married, she says. Now, as a wife and mother, Nasreen's childhood dreams have been cast aside.
"I was good at studies and my teachers liked me a lot. Life Sciences was my favourite subject. I still remember, my roll number in Class 8 was 24," she recalls.
Nasreen's is not an isolated case. There are thousands of adolescent girls in Malda district who are forced into child marriage. Data from the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 shows that West Bengal topped the states in child marriage cases at 41.6 percent, and Malda, at 56.3 percent, had the highest reported number of such cases.
In Shailpur, school records from Budiya High Madrasa show that of the more than 150 girls between 15 to 18 years studying there, around 30 were married between the ages of 12 and 13.
Take the case of Selina Parveen, a 16-year-old from Rusuladaha village. She was married at 14. She now lives in Shailpur and is the mother of a 10-month-old girl. She was studying in Class 9 when she was forced to get married. Although Selina refused to talk about this, her mother-in-law, Golban Bibi, said she had paid Rs 10,000 to Selina's family for the marriage. This kind of reverse dowry is seen when families of boys who are considered 'unsuitable' look for 'good looking' girls from economically weaker families, luring them with cash and the promise of relative comfort.
Nasreen was forced to marry at the age of 13 and now has a two-and-a-half-year-old child. She regrets not fighting against being forced marry. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters
Case of apathy
Despite the increase in the number of child marriages in the district, very few police cases get reported, and the rate of conviction is also abysmal. This indicates that people involved in arranging child marriages have little or no fear of the law.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2016, 326 cases were reported under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which makes this crime a non-bailable offence. The Act includes provisions to punish the adult groom, those who solemnise the marriage and also those who promote or permit the solemnisation of child marriages with fines, imprisonment, or both.
In 2016, West Bengal had 41 reported cases of child marriage, only two spots behind Tamil Nadu (55 percent) and Karnataka (51 percent), the top-rankers in this list. NCRB data reveals that the same year, only 35 people (24 male and 11 female) were convicted in West Bengal, whereas the countrywide figure stood at 740.
The practice of child marriage isn't new to India, says Biswajit Ghosh, a professor of sociology at Burdwan University, who has done extensive research on child marriage in West Bengal, particularly in Malda. His research says, "From 400 BC, the marriageable age (in India) of both boys and girls got lowered gradually and arrange marriages preferably between eight and 10 years became popular."
Census 1931 shows that 72 percent of girls in India were married before the age of 15 at the time. Professor Ghosh's research paper further outlines: "In an earlier survey, we found that patriarchy, poverty, illiteracy, lack of social security of the girls, dowry and lack of awareness were prime factors for child marriages in West Bengal."
He also found that in Malda, notions about a girl's virginity and chastity were strongly linked to honour and the status of the family or clan. "There is tremendous pressure to minimise the risk of any untoward incidents or improper sexual activity through early marriages," he explains in his research.
Nasreen's 38-year-old mother Razina Bibi felt this societal pressure. She shares, "Nasreen is a beautiful girl and was often teased by boys. She would complain to me. Neighbours were also forcing us to get her married, so I had to do it."
Prabal Lala, secretary of Bulbulchandi and Barind Development Society, says: "In Malda, people view girls as a burden. They think that if the girls are married after they turn 18 years, then the ask for dowry will increase. So they try to get them married as early as possible."
There is a three-tier system in place to prevent child marriages in states, which includes the Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC), Block Level Child Protection Committee (BLCPC) and District Child Protection Committee (DCPC). While VLCPC is a grassroots-level committee, it is the first to intervene or act if a case of child marriage is reported. If VLCPC is unable to prevent the marriage, it becomes the responsibility of the BLCPC. If this group also fails, then the DCPC steps in. A police officer is also appointed at all districts to look into cases of child marriage. However, in most instances, this post tends to lie vacant or the police personnel appointed are engaged in solving other criminal cases. Hence, what's happening in Malda can be attributed to the failure of the system to check this deplorable practice.
A police official in Malda, who requested anonymity, says: "When the case comes to our knowledge, we do intervene, but our job is restricted to prevention only. The rest is in the hands of the child protection committee."
District Child Welfare Officer Ambarish Burman attributes lack of awareness to the rampant practice of child marriages in Malda.
"Whenever we get information about a child marriage, we go there. In most cases, we face resistance from locals. They don't want us to intervene or stop the marriage. Sometimes, they stop the marriage in front of us, but go ahead with it once we leave the spot," he explains.
A girl returning from school on a bicycle in Malda. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters
Impact of Kanyashree scheme
Given the seriousness of the situation in the state, the West Bengal government launched the Kanyashree scheme in 2013, offering two types of financial benefits — Kanyashree-1 (K1) for unmarried girls aged between 13 and 18 years and Kanyashree-2 (K2) for unmarried girls aged 18 and above. Under K1, girls are eligible to get an annual scholarship of Rs 1,000, whereas K2 is a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 given to an unmarried girl pursuing an education or occupational courses. So far, 56,83,993 girls have been enrolled under the Kanyashree scheme.
The scheme has been successful to a certain extent, according to social activist Lala, whose organisation works against child marriages in Malda.
Professor Ghosh, who is now studying the impact of the Kanyashree scheme, says, "We are studying how it has affected the social menace in five years. So far, we have found that it hsa had a positive impact."
Nasreen shares that she still regrets not protesting against her forced marriage. But there is hope as many girls are now standing up against the practice. Mausumi Parveen, 18-year-old daughter of Abu Taleb of Shailpur, refused to get married at the age of 16 despite pressure from her father. She has now completed her intermediate with good grades and is a beneficiary of the Kanyashree scheme.
Another girl from Shailpur, 16-year-old Mintehaz Yasmin is also a beneficiary of the Kanyashree scheme, who had raised her voice against child marriage in her village. She says, "We now keep a watch in our village. If we come to know of a child marriage being planned, we immediately inform the Meena Manch, a school-level organisation of girls."
Meena Manch is a UNICEF initiative to promote education among girls. It works with girls who had to drop out of school, usually because they were married, and consults with the children and their parents about continuing their studies.
Malda has been Congressman ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury's bastion since 1980. In 2009, Malda district was split into two Lok Sabha constituencies, Malda North and Malda South. Congress' Mausam Noor, who belongs to Ghani Khan's family, represents Malda North. She had won the seat in 2009 and 2014. In 2019, she switched to the Trinamool Congress and is contesting again under their ticket. In response, Congress has fielded Isha Khan Choudhury, Noor's brother-in-law.
Congress leader and Ghani Khan's brother Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury represents Malda South. He was a minster of state under the UPA-II regime and represented Malda in 2006 and Malda South in 2009 and 2014. He is re-contesting under the Congress ticket this election.
Repeated attempts to reach the candidates for their comments on child marriage in the district proved unsuccessful.
The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of101Reporters