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In Kerala's Malappuram, underage girls brainwashed into marriage with promises of mobile phones, freedom to step out

Malappuram: One of the most populous district in the Malabar region of Kerala, Malappuram, is facing a major crisis in terms of child rights, safety and protection. Though, the collaborative efforts of different state organisations — District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), Child Line and Child Welfare Committee — have helped bring down the rate of child marriages in the district, a new trend has emerged where girls are willing to get married before they turn 18 in order to gain access to a mobile phone and the freedom to go out of the house with their fiancé.

Mobile phones and  freedom: An 'adolescent fantasy'

The DCPU and Child Line often conducts interactive sessions with young girls in the district. Fasal Pullat, the non-institutional care protection officer of DCPU, said that during the course of interaction and counselling, it has been noticed that some girls in higher secondary schools are, in fact, interested in early marriage.

Pullat informs that when the rescued girls were asked about what influenced them to accept the marriage proposal, many responded that it was the benefit of ‘freedom’ to use mobile phones and to go out with fiance.

 In Keralas Malappuram, underage girls brainwashed into marriage with promises of mobile phones, freedom to step out

Representational image. Reuters

Being brought up in a conservative society and often subjugated to patriarchal powers, they feel early marriage will give them enough room to maneuvre, he adds.

"When a girl accepts the marriage proposal, she gets a new mobile phone, a new dress and she is allowed to go out with her fiancé," says Anwar Karakkadan, district coordinator of Child Line, Malappuram.

Karakkadan adds that while the girls dwell into the dreams of love and fantasies, they also feel excited to share the experience with their classmates, which, in a way, he says, influences other kids too.

"This was an observation during our awareness campaign in the Karuvarakund Panchayat when ten child marriages were stopped in the year 2017. However, the girls experience the trauma of immature marriage life when the inability to tackle marriage issues choke them," he adds.

A project of the the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Child Line is a 24-hour free telephone emergency helpline number for children in need of care and protection. The Malappuram wing of Child Line has been active for a while now and has prevented many cases of child marriage in the district.

Seventeen-year-old Naziya (name changed on request), a resident of Malappuram, is one such girls who were rescued by Child Line in 2018.

"Last year, during the summer break my parents compelled me to get married despite my unwillingness to do that. My struggle of resistance failed. I got married and I was taken to my husband’s house. With the help of my friend, I contacted Child Line and they rescued me. I was taken to the shelter home and I continued my education there. I talk to my friends about the seriousness of the issue and encourage them to speak out against early marriage. Some girls are easily mesmerised by the fantasy of a dream marriage. I have completed my Class 12 exam and I wish to pursue higher education," said Naziya.

The child marriage season is here

Usually, the rate of child marriages go up during the school summer break. The parents arrange nikaah when the schools close for summer. This eventually leads to a high dropout rate among girls. The teachers and school management are mostly aware of the cases, but often fail to report fearing unnecessary consequences.

“We are taking various measures to eradicate the practice of child marriages in Malappuram. The girls are aware of the helplines and the cases are reported instantly these days,” said Pullat.

Not just a Muslim problem

Though thought of mostly as a problem prominent among Muslims in Malappuram, cases of child marriages have also been reported in Hindu and SC/ST communities as well as the tribal population in the area.

This is despite the fact that various measures are being taken to improve the socio-economic status of various communities in the region. So, what is preventing a positive change in terms of child marriage?

She is still a burden

When a girl hits puberty, the ultimate goal of her parents is to get them married. This conservative ideology has strongly injected itself into the society because of the belief that the girl child cannot take care of herself and marriage will give her the security she needs in life.

The most commonly known reason that contributes majorly to the practice of child marriage is the financial status of the family. When the family is not in the state to suffice a girl child’s basic needs, including a square meal per day, marriage becomes the last resort. Parents believe that a girl child is settled in life once she gets married. Parents also fear that girls after crossing the age of 18 may end up in an infelicitous love affair, and thus they do not wait for her to reach the legal marriageable age and select a partner of her desire.

When the girl gets married in the early age she doesn’t complete her schooling. Parents don't realise that educating the girl will help her get a job and become financially independent. And that education would empower her to support her family. So, instead of bring an improvement in the living standard, poverty is carried forward to next generation.

The ideal state in Malappuram is that boys after completing their higher secondary fly to West Asian nations for jobs, while girls, as soon as they hit puberty, are married off. It is a commonly believed that the girl should be less educated than her husband so the scope of education is blocked from all the sides.

Re-socialising the victims, perpetrators

It is a sad state of affair where the mothers of the children play a major role in the crime, even after knowing the ill effects of early marriage. According to the findings of Kaval Project, headed by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, to prevent recidivism among children in conflict with law (CCL), 90 percent of child marriage victims' mothers are themselves the victims.

“It is also significant to provide legal awareness to the parents and children about legislations and acts like Section 498A of the IPC, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, Domestic Violence Act, 2005, as these have, to a greater extent, made a positive impact in the society. Legal awareness should be inculcated with the formal education to see improvement of the current situation,” said AP Ismail, an advocate from Manjeri in Malappuram.

Mothers who are victims of child marriage do not understand that there are other ways to empower the child and the family as well. Having underwent the consequences of child marriage, these mothers still socialise their kids in the wrong way.

“In the first place, the socialisation process itself becomes a matter of concern. We are re-socialising the children and parents so as to clear their mindset about these demeaning customs and 'obligation of early marriages'. Men should take firm decision that he would not marry a minor girl and support women empowerment. There is a downfall in the growth rate of child marriages in the district as a result of various initiatives by DCPU," said Geethanjali, a DCPU officer.

Another issue is that no child marriages are recorded in the formal register. The marriage ceremony is noted in a private unofficial register, which is usually manipulated and re-recorded in the original records when the girl turns 18. They have different records of certificates for legal and illegal marriages. So, it is equally essential to educate the religious leaders and organisations.

“We have put posters in front of the mahalyas and conducted awareness campaigns to educate the influential religious leaders about the issue. We will strive to work towards complete eradication of child marriage practice in the district,” adds Geethanjali.

Men should say 'no'

Besides, educating the girls about their rights and privileges, it is necessary that men are educated about the seriousness of the issue as well. They should strictly say no to marrying underage girls. It is a holistic issue which requires efforts from both men and women to address it properly.

“We organise awareness camps in football grounds and the Child Line football team also participates in local tournaments in order to spread the awareness. It is very effective as we get to talk to young men,” Karakkadan added.

Remember Arabi and Mysore Kalyanam?

Child marriages in Kerala, especialy the Malabar region, however, is not a recent phenomena. The state has a dark history of two practices — Arabi Kalyanam and Mysore Kalyanam — where men from West Asian nations and Mysore would marry underage girls from the region.

Arabi Kalyanam is an old heinous practice where Arabs who visited Kozhikode for trade and Ayurvedic treatment, would marry young good looking girls from poor Muslim community for sexual enjoyment during their stay.

"As the families are not financially sound to find a suitable match for their girls, they end up getting their children married to an Arab or a man from Mysore at the young age. Mostly the Arabs return to Arabia, while offering the girls and the family with some money and household items while the men from Mysore don’t demand huge dowry. The young girls wait for years to meet their husbands. But sadly, the girls’ life passes in vain along with those promises,” said sociologist, and writer, Dr Hafiz Mohammad.

It’s been six years since any cases on Arabi Kalyanam has been reported. The Malabar region has seen a tremendous change with regards to this heinous practice. Well-known activists like MN Karaserry and VP Suhara, to name a few have taken various steps to educate women about their rights and the evil practice.

“To get an Arab groom was considered as a big luck by the poor Muslim families. With the development in their economic status, the practice has diminished. However, even today, the victims still feel whatever that has happened to them is a matter of shame, and they are still hesitant to voice out the injustice that has happened to them. The trauma persists,” said Suhara, a social worker and founder of Nisah, an organisation working for the rights of women in Kerala.

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 13:50:55 IST

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