So we have seen the activists and do-gooders beating their forlorn breasts over what they term ‘child-marriage’ and the ‘evils of dowry’ for over 70 decades now.
The political establishment in newly independent India, in its endeavours to be perceived as a modern, forward-looking , tech-embracing nation by the dominant and developed countries of Northern hemisphere, were quick to outlaw the ‘in-laws’ who favoured child-marriage and dowry. What really happened was that huge swathes of rural populations simply ignored the law, which they considered an alien interpolation, and merrily went on with business as usual.
Hello! Marriages being arranged for kids between 12 and 15 years old were a global phenomenon, and this practice is still very much alive across the world. Of course, it shocks our modern, westernized sensibilities. Today we consider this a horrific practice right up there with human slavery and genital mutilation, but let’s be clear about this, Bihar isn’t the only place where this stuff is happening!
Let’s face it. This concept of who is a child has changed over the years. In the good old days of our grandparents, any boy over the age of 15 was considered a man. Sixteen year old laddies lost their lives in battles across the world. A girl of 15 was considered quite mature for romance and marriage the world over. And then came a lot of international politics around labour laws and such. The concept that education is a universal human right also threw a spanner in the works. And so, with ‘international consensus’, and over-zealous ‘child rights campaignres’, sexually mature males of 17 were reduced to children with one stroke of the pen. Of course all this probably gladdened the hearts of several crore middle class Indian mothers who never want their sons to grow up! But the working classes know that they have to kick their sons out of the nest pretty soon, if they have to survive.
Let’s talk about the age of consent to have consensual sex. It’s 16 in the US, UK and several European countries. In Uruguay, Thailand, and Sweden it is 15, In Germany it is 14, in the Philippines it is 12, in Nigeria it is 11. It is 18 in India, (up from 16) as well as in Uganda, Turkey and South Sudan. In Afghanistan, Iran. Pakistan and Kuwait, it doesn’t matter how young you are, sex is only after marriage.
Globally, the average legal age of marriage for boys is 17 and 16 for girls but many countries permit them, particularly girls, to marry much younger. Several places, including the state of Massachusetts in the United States, allow girls as young as 12 to get married in “exceptional circumstances” with the consent of a judge. In Brunei, girls and boys can get hitched as early as 13. Ecuador permits 14 year old boys to marry 12 year old girls. In Iran, boys and girls can get married aged nine years, In Sudan, it is 10 years.. Estonia now has the lowest marriage age in Europe with teenagers able to get hitched at 15 with parental approval. In India and Lesotho, the legal marriage age for boys 21, but in India girls are allowed to marry at 18, (In Lesotho, it is 21). In the UK legal marriage is at 16, but in some areas of the United States, you can marry (with parental consent) at ages 14 for boys and 12 for girls!
How’s this for hypocrisy! The Independent reported last July that more than 200,000 children have been legally married in US over the last 15 years.
The youngest girls wedded were three 10-year-old girls in Tennessee who married men aged 24, 25 and 31 in 2001. The youngest groom was an 11-year-old who married a 27-year-old woman in the same state in 2006. Children as young as 12 were granted marriage licences in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina, while 11 other states allowed 13-year-olds to wed. More than 1,000 children aged 14 or under were granted marriage licences.
In this industrialized world, it makes good sense to marry later in life, when the couple is more responsible, mature and can take proper decisions. In our agrarian communities, people are more concerned that the boys are tied down to the right sort of girl ( caste wise).
Seriously, the Bihar Government has set itself a huge task. It has shown the political will to ensure that women do not get married before the age of 18, and that men have to wait till 21 to tie the knot. (Or will the long arm of the law merely go after the parents of the female population? Let’s wait and see).
The use of mass media, traditional media and social media to spread the message that the government will no longer turn a blind eye to instances of underage marriage and exchange of dowry is a great move. Even a sceptical person such as I am prodded to sit up and take notice.
One waits to see how this anti-dowry camopaign will be assessed and evaluated a year from now. Will Bihar stand up to the Challenge? Is this just another gimmick by the Nitish Kumar government?