But many girls are married off simply because community leaders call it ‘tradition’

Im fourteen and I stopped my wedding
news Child Marriage Friday, August 12, 2016 - 19:28

If everything had gone according to plan, 14-year-old Tulasi would have been married for three months now. But the teenager who hails from Kalakhamb village in Belagavi district did something that left everybody shocked: she refused to get married.

“In our village it is a rule that a girl must get married a year or two after reaching puberty. When I refused, the elders found it bizarre and shouted at me for threatening them with the law.”

Tulasi, who belongs to Sudugaadu Siddha (a Scheduled Caste) community, was engaged to a 15-year-old boy in 2013, when she was only 11. “I knew they were wrong for getting me engaged, but I did not have the guts to refuse. My parents told me that soon after my birth, community leaders had decided that I would get married to the boy,” Tulasi says.

Six months after the engagement in 2013, her parents forced her to quit school and get back to working as a rag picker. “I did not like it but as a person from a poor family I could not say no to working. Last year my parents started preparing for the marriage. That is when I sought help from Sr. Anita who taught me in Don Bosco school,” Tulasi said.

Tulasi had gone to Salesian Sister of Don Bosco (SSDB) for a year in 2011. The NGO has tied up with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for a programme for out of school children. Under the programme, out of school children in the 6-14 age group are trained in age appropriate classes for a year. After the course, the children are sent to regular schools.

“I approached Sr. Anita in 2015, when the topic of marriage came up last year. They counselled my parents, and also offered to give me skill-training. It was around this time when they organised a street play on child marriage and I acted in it as the police official. When I went to every village and performed the play, I realised that child marriage was a common issue. People across communities were getting their children married off simply because the community's heads asked them to,” she said.

Tulasi has not only managed to get herself out of the trap, she has saved five of her siblings – two sisters and three brothers from getting married at a young age. She dreams of becoming a doctor and serving her village.

Sushila, director of Spandana, a Belagavi-based NGO that works towards welfare of children and women, said that child marriage is rampant in north interior Karnataka districts.

Many reasons contributed to child marriage such as security and migration. “But many girls are married off simply because community leaders call it ‘tradition’,” Sushila said.

She says that Spandana has prevented at least 50 child marriages in Belagavi district in the past year. The NGO has also rescued five girls who were married off during this time. “In many cases the villagers surreptitiously get the children married in the middle of the night,” Sushila said.

Sushila says that in their experience, about 40% of girls get married before they are 18. About 15% of these married teenagers become mothers. Until 2012 not a single case was registered against child marriage in the district although child marriage has been prohibited since 2006.

“We registered two cases that year. Even the police are oblivious to the issue.  Some of them don’t even know the law,” she said.

Three years after community elders first put things motion, Tulsi has seen five of her friends married off. “I hardly saw them outside their house after their marriage. I didn’t want to live like that.”

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