24-year-old Lalitha, a resident of Salem was in ninth standard when she decided she wanted to become a nurse. Born in an impoverished family that lived in a forest area near Eriputhur, she travelled over 15 kms to school everyday. This meant that after working in her family farm, she had to walk nearly three kilometres to the nearest bus stop everyday and then travel 12 kilometres to reach the government school. And while Lalitha was willing to endure this journey, her parents were not.
Fearing her safety while travelling and owing to the lack of bathroom facilities in the government school, they stopped her education when she was 15 and forcefully married her off to a relative in Mumbai.
"We were from a very poor family and even when I tried to get on to the bus, I remember the conductor would try to shoo me away. If we did get on to the bus, then there was the risk of sexual harassment by the men there," recalls Lalitha. "And if we were late to school because of the distance, the teachers would send us back. They didn't even consider what we went through just to get there," she adds.
Lalitha fought hard to convince her parents, but could not.
"But it was of no avail. They said a girl cannot travel so far to study," she says. "They said it was unsafe and the only option was to get me married," she adds.
According to a National Family health Survey conducted between 2015-16, sixteen percent of women in Tamil Nadu between the age 20-24 years got married before the legal minimum age of 18. And a recent study by Samakalvi Iyakkam, an NGO that works on child education, argues that lack of access to high schools in the villages of Tamil Nadu is the reason for young girls being pushed into child marriage. According to the study conducted in February, with a sample size of over 200 women who were married off as children in the state, a whopping 87.6% of them made it clear that if they had 'good quality schools available upto 12th standard in their village/neighbourhood, they would not have gotten married early.'
Not enough schools?
The study states that 86.2% of the women surveyed did not have higher secondary schools in their villages, 84.8% of them did not have high schools in their villages and 46.7% of them did not have middle schools. 62.4% of the women surveyed admitted that this lack of access to education is the reason they discontinued studies.
"Tamil Nadu currently has over 12,000 panchayats with a population of 10,000 people in each of them," says Rayan, a technical expert in Samakalvi Iyakkam, who conducted this study. "However, we only have around 6000 secondary and senior secondary government schools across the whole of Tamil Nadu. This shows a clear gap between what is required and what exists on ground. While officials like to say that even existing government school are empty as an excuse, what they need to understand is that they must be better planned and more targeted to cover these girls who are falling through the cracks," he adds.
'No safety for girls'
Of the women surveyed, upto 47.6% of them maintained that there was no safety for them while travelling and close to 10% said they faced sexual abuse while going to school.
"70% of the women we surveyed belong to the scheduled caste. So in such a case, both gender and caste work against them when they try to get a formal education," says Rayan.
And once they dropped out of school, 63% of the respondents were married off between the ages of 16 and 18, while 37% were married between the ages of 11 and 15 years. The marriages, mostly happened with relatives who are atleast 10 years older to them and resulting health issues haunt the young girls for their remaining lives.
Impact on health
20-year-old Kavitha, a resident of Salem was only 14 when she was married off to a relative much older to her. When she was coerced to have sexual intercourse, she gave in because she believed it was expected of her from the family. Within the first year of her marriage she became pregnant.
"They kept me in the hospital for three days because they wanted me to have a normal delivery. I was in agony. Finally, they decided to do a cesarean and I had a daughter," she says. "But after the operation, I didn't know how to take care of myself and my mother-in-law was not concerned about me either. When I complained of pain she dismissed it. Till today, I have unbearable pain when I urinate. Between my first and second child I had several abortions. I would be so scared as I bled and in pain. But nobody explained to me, what was happening to my body," she says.
For Lalitha, who went to Mumbai after her marriage, medical admission was refused by hospitals when she had a miscarriage.
"When my mother-in-law told them my real age, the doctors refused to treat me. I was then told to lie to get treatment. I thought that it was being done for my own good. But only now, I realise that I was married off illegally," she says. "I almost died due to blood loss during my second delivery. My health has completely deteriorated at the age of 20," the mother of two says bitterly.
Of the women surveyed, 25.7% of them, faced excessive blood loss during delivery and 23% could not conceive children. And to top it all, 80% of them were not even aware of the legal age of marriage for girls.
"When we spoke to these women, the first they ask is - 'Why doesn't the government create more awareness on legal age for marriage of women?'. And this is a legitimate questions. Where are the government ads on television and other mass media for the same? It is absent," says Rayan. "Moreover they question why the legal age for men is 21 but for women it is 18. They believe this is a product of patriarchal policy makers who don't believe that women should have time for college education," he adds.
Recommendations by the NGO
Keeping this in mind, the NGO has recommended that the legal age of marriage for men and women be increased to 21 to assure equal access of higher education for the girl child. The study further argues that public spending on education must be increased to accommodate and empower the poor and marginalised societies. It also calls for mass awareness programmes at the panchayat level to ensure safety and dignity of women.
The education department has further been advised to upgrade existing schools to cover all panchayats and ensure toilets for female students are present.
"Universal quality education is not a benefit conferred on the public and marginalized but an inalienable right. Thus, universal quality education should be viewed from this perspective," says the study. "As per the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, the district child protection unit is to have full responsibility of protecting children through its outreach activities, convergence with line department and strengthening of Village Child Protection Committees. Awareness on ill effects of child marriage, legal provisions to protect children from child marriage should be strongly emphasised in their regular programmes," recommends the study.
And it asks parents to be more sensitive to the needs of their children.
Kavitha, who has now begun working as a daily wage labourer, says this is one aspect she is already ahead on.
"No matter what happens, I will educate my children," she says. "My daughter will not face what I have faced."