Child brides of Malappuram: Why Kerala's most populous district marries off its girls so young

Patriarchy, poverty, and lack of education and awareness combine to sustain the practice despite the best efforts of the government.
Child brides of Malappuram: Why Kerala's most populous district marries off its girls so young
Child brides of Malappuram: Why Kerala's most populous district marries off its girls so young
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Three years ago, 16-year-old Mansiya* from Malappuram district, walked into a police station for the first time in her life. Sitting before the Sub Inspector in her school uniform, the Class 11 student told him that her parents were planning to marry her off next month. 

"Please stop the wedding, I want to study," the teenager pleaded to the SI.

Three years on, the personnel at the Manjeri Police Station have changed, but the story of the brave 16-year-old who walked into the police station to stop her own wedding has remained a shared legend. 

Manisya’s struggle is not an isolated one in Malappuram. But while the District Child Protection Unit successfully intervened to stop Mansiya's wedding, many other girls are not as lucky. 

According to data from the 2011 Census, the district of Malappuram records the highest number of child marriages in Kerala. The Census recorded a total of 23,183 married girls below the age of 15 years in the state who were married. Among these, the highest number of 3,615 cases were recorded in Malappuram.

Data provided by the Malappuram district Childline shows that the organisation stopped 72 child marriages in 2016. One of those 72 girls is 16-year-old Mubeena*, a native of Angadippuram. Like Mansiya, Mubeena too had gathered up the courage to inform the police and get her wedding stopped.

But, Mubeena tells TNM, the fear of an early marriage is never far from her mind.

“I told my parents not to do that to me, to marry me off at such a young age. But they did not listen. They said that if I study further without getting married, I may end up in some other harmful relationships that will ultimately ruin the family’s reputation. So, I asked my teacher to inform police about it. She helped me, the police came home to speak to my father and he readily agreed to postpone the wedding. But when I turn 18, I am sure I will be married off.  Can any law stop that?" Mubeena asks. 

In 2017, Childline data says, 78 child marriages have already been stopped between January and July. Does that mean that the number of child marriages is increasing over the years?

"Let's say the number of reported cases has increased in the last couple of years. With the coming of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (in 2016), the law has been strict and so too the law enforcement,” says Malappuram Childline Coordinator Anwar Karakkadan.

 “At Childline, we see about 15 cases of child marriage a month. Of this, on an average, 7 cases are resolved at our level, and the rest are handed over to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC)," Anwar says. 

What drives the trend in Malappuram?

At his office in Malappuram, Advocate Haris Panjily, a member of the Child Welfare Committee, explains that a wide variety of reasons account for Malappuram’s high child marriage numbers. Importantly, while Malappuram scores highest in terms of absolute numbers, reports say that the district falls below the state average in percentage terms.

The practice continues to thrive due to a complex set of reasons including patriarchal traditions, poverty, education patterns, and lack of awareness, says Haris.

Patriarchal mindsets

In most cases, communities have not sufficiently moved away from traditional customs that continue to normalise the practice of child marriage.

"In the older times, girl used to be married off when they hit puberty. That's mostly around 12 to 13 years of age. Several orthodox families, who continue to practice child marriage, feel that their girl children need to be handed over to safe hands before they run into trouble," says Haris. 

He adds that many parents also think of girl children in terms of a burden who needs to taken off their shoulders as soon as possible.

"In the patriarchal society we live in, girl children are always considered a burden, someone who will eventually go to live in a different family. For many parents, getting the burden off their shoulders is what they achieve through early marriages," he says. 

Poverty and the promise of a better life

"With marriages come the matter of dowry and if a groom agrees to marry their daughter without dowry, will parents say no?" asks Haris. 

It is, he says, one of the difficult questions that child protection officials face when they attempt to stop child marriages.  

Haris recollects the case of a 17-year-old girl who was living with her mother after her father passed away.

"Now, this man offered to marry the girl without taking any dowry and it was like a dream chance for the mother. With their financial condition, she is unable to conduct a grand wedding and such an alliance was too good to be true. When we stopped the wedding, the girl's mother asked us if we would take the responsibility of finding a suitable match for the girl later," Haris narrates. 

Societal influence

Religious centres have often played a significant role in the past, with Mahallu committees (administrative committees in mosques) themselves facilitating child marriages. They often maintain a separate registry for such marriages so that cases of child marriage cannot be found by inspecting officials, says one official with the Childline. 

"However, we are now seeing a positive change here. We have reached out to Mahallu committees and have given them awareness on the matter. Nowadays, the committees themselves convince parents not to marry off their minor daughters and inform us in case a marriage is taking place," the official says. 

With Malappuram having a dominant Muslim population, most cases of child marriage in the district come from the Muslim community. However, says Haris, this does not mean that the practice is prevalent only among Muslim families.

"Although the majority of the cases are from the Muslim community, that is not all. We get cases from SC/ST communities among Hindus as well. Another challenging area is the Tanur-Tirur-Nilambur belt, which has a considerable tribal population. Among these communities, it is a part of their custom to marry among the people of their own gothra and that too at a very young age. They perform weddings according to their own customs and start living together," he explains. 

Education and Gulf employment

For many Malappuram families, the fact that a majority of men migrate to Gulf nations for employment also has a significant impact. Most of the young men in the district stop their education after the high school level, opting to migrate at as young an age as possible. Even many young men who enroll for higher studies often drop out. In such a scenario, says Haris, parents of girl children not only consider it unnecessary, but even counterproductive to educate them further. When it comes to alliances, he explains, it becomes a problem, if girls are more highly educated than the prospective grooms. 

In cases where girls are married off just under the age of 18, he adds, the limited time off that men can get from their jobs also plays a role in rushing through underage marriages.

"In most cases, the girl's father and the groom will be settled in the Gulf, and both of them will have to go back once their leave is over. So, even if there is a month of two for the girl to turn 18, the families go ahead with the wedding," he explains. 

Often, child marriages come with the promise that the groom's family will continue the girl's education, but this seldom happens. In most cases, grooms’ families go back on their back on their word after the wedding, or the girl drops out of college in a few months, when she becomes pregnant. 

Major health concerns

Given the fact that education stops after marriage, child marriages have a strong detrimental impact on girls’ agency. But when early marriages lead to early pregnancy, a number of distressing mental and physical health effects also follow, says Malappuram District Medical Officer (DMO), Dr K Sakeena.

“In most child marriage cases, girls get pregnant within a year. But, first of all, these children are not mentally prepared to be mothers. Besides that, early pregnancies can also cause physical issues. Their reproductive system would not be properly developed, and there is a greater risk to their health,” she says.

Sakeena explains that such deliveries can result in a number of complications to both mother and child.

“Low birth weight, complications during pregnancy and delivery, health problems due to adverse perinatal outcomes (stillbirth, neonatal death, pre-term deliveries,etc) such as maternal infections, maternal disorders like hypertension and diabetes, fetal growth restriction and congenital abnormalities, and later stage health problems like spine and back problems can occur. Such pregnancies can also affect the brain and physique of the child. For a healthy child to be born, the mother should be mature and mentally and physically healthy to have a child,” she explains.

Child marriages still a reality

Despite efforts by government officials and civil society groups, child marriages still show a strong pattern in Malappuram. In many cases, one complaint often unearths a rash of other cases in the area.

In February this year, one minor girl’s complaint to Childline in the Karuvarakkundu panchayat led to 10 child marriages being stopped.

“We got a call from a girl, saying her parents were forcing her to marry and that she wanted to study.  She told us she would die if the marriage was carried out. She was 16.  We enquired about it, which further led to interventions into 10 such marriages in the same region,” says Anwar.

In October 2016, the marriages of 12 minor girls were blocked by the Nilambur First Class Judicial Magistrate Court. This was the first time that such a large number of child marriages was stopped due to judicial intervention. In that case too, the Malappuram Childline first received the information and involved the Child Welfare Committee and the court to stop the marriages.

Multiple challenges 

Officials say that their efforts are often complicated and frustrated by families who devise multiple ways to ensure that news of child marriages do not spread. One of the most common steps families take, explains Haris, is to conduct weddings during summer vacations, when the girls’ contact with persons outside the family is restricted. 

"This way, they can make sure that the news does not travel, and school officials don't interfere in the matter," he says. 

Many families also conduct unofficial engagement ceremonies such as "vala idal chadangu" (gifting the bangle) or "mittai kodukkal" (gifting of sweets) while the girl is a minor, holding the formal wedding ceremony at a later point. 

"Legally, not only is child marriage against the law, but anything including coming to see the girl, fixing the wedding, etc, are equally in violation of the law,” explains Haris.

In many cases, he adds, families may conduct a nikkah without documenting it until the girl grows older.

“They conduct a nikkah, after which the girl and the groom continue to live in their own respective houses, until a public reception at a later time announces their wedding. This is the most dangerous and tricky arrangement, since there is no evidence to prove it. Plus, after the nikkah, although they are not living together, the movement of the groom to the girl's house is not restricted. The groom may spend time with the girl alone, take her out or even spend a night at her house and maintain sexual relationship with her. It is here, that the sexual abuse angle comes in," he says. 

Anwar says that families may also go to great lengths to keep the neighbourhood from finding out that a nikkah is taking place in their house. He recollects a case from last year when a family pretended a serious illness in the family to cover up a nikkah.

"Normally, the word travels and we are tipped off by someone in the family or neighbourhood about the wedding. In this case, the family had parked an ambulance at their gate, in order to misguide us and the neighbours. While people thought someone in the family had taken ill, a minor girl's nikkah happened there," Anwar says. 

Many victims unable to say no

For many girls like 17-year-old Rasiya*, a Class 10 student of a school in Perinthalmanna, the possibility of saying no doesn’t really arise when their marriages are arranged, particularly since such marriages commonly occur around them.

“I did not know what to say when my parents decided the marriage. Many of my friends were married off at my age. I really did not know whether I should object to it or not. Now I know that it was not a good decision. I was not happy living a married life. I will continue my studies,” Rasiya tells TNM.

Anwar adds that in a situation where they possess little room to choose, peer pressure can also work unconsciously.

"Peer pressure works on a dangerous scale here. A girl coming from a not-so-well-off family sees her fellow classmate getting engaged or getting married, and she sees her friend wearing new clothes and suddenly having new possessions like a fancy phone. This doesn’t apply to all, but this is also a concern we have to address," he says. 

Mindsets need to change

Though Malappuram records a high number of child marriages, the number of cases registered under the law remains low. In Malappuram district, only four legal cases were filed under the Child Marriage Act in 2016. Child Protection Officer Sameer explains that this is in keeping with the motive of the Act, which is not to punish defaulters, but to prevent child marriages from happening in the future. 

"When we intervene, our purpose is not to lock the families behind bars, but to educate and convince them not to marry off their minor daughters. There definitely is a fear of law within people now, but we make it a point to change their way of thinking. And so, we do not rescue the girl and lodge her at a state home as other cases relating to minors are dealt with," Sameer says. 

Anwar concurs, explaining that the immediate aim is to stop the wedding and help girls continue their studies, and not to punish their parents. While officials confront the parents and stop marriages by themselves in many cases, they are sometimes forced to go to court, when a family refuses to accede for anything short of a court order.

Awareness is key

The Social Justice Department is undertaking a multi-pronged approach to building awareness on child marriages, beginning from schools. In February this year, the department, along with the Child Protection Unit (CPU) of Malappuram district, produced a short film titled "Pathinettu" (meaning “18” in Malayalam). The film is based on the story of Mansiya, the 16-year-old girl who walked into a police station to stop her own wedding. 

The film is being screened in schools across the state. The CPU regularly conducts workshops and awareness campaigns for school students, teachers, government officials and others.

Importantly the CPU is also extending its awareness building efforts to elected representatives and community leaders.

"At the local level, we are also empowering elected representatives and are choosing representatives of communities and educating them. This is so that they can work on the ground, interact with families and convince them against child marriages. When people from their own neighbourhood and community advise them against it, it has a larger possibility of being effective," Sameer says. 

Sameer says that they are also encouraging representatives to take responsibility for ensuring the girls’ futures. He explains that the most common question that they face from parents when stopping a minor’s marriage is, “She's young, that's why she is getting proposals. If this one is gone, will you take the responsibility of marrying her off?”

"We are now asking elected representatives to go ahead and say yes. Elected representatives are capable of holding community weddings and if money shortage is why parents are marrying off their minor daughters, then that can stop," says Sameer. 

Edited by Rakesh Mehar

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