Understanding Early Marriage in South Asia
Since the first time I heard international concerns around child marriage in Africa and South Asia, I detected hints of the ‘civilisational savior’ approach of the erstwhile missionary. The idea is to ‘save’ the girl child poor countries from the rigours of early pregnancy and other consequences of marriage. Often the label of ‘trafficking’ is used even though the girls are sent away knowingly by their poor families in exchange for some money. For the poor, the ‘daughter’ has a transactional value which they are encashing. It is inaccurate to call this situation ‘trafficking’ without acknowledging the economic and structural constraints faced by the communities.
In the 21st Century the idea of sexual rights have been established, but rarely in conversations around early marriage are the issues of compulsory heteronormativity in marriage or the issue of choice in marriage raised in India. On the contrary sexual choice and autonomy of young people has been severely curtailed by the provisions of the POCSO Act which makes consensual sexual activity with a girl below the age of 18years an offence. This is a 180 degree turn around in a country which not many years ago sanctified marital sex at the age of 14 years.
Conversations on early marriage rarely deal with the issue of emerging sexuality of girls and the need for sexuality education. Even if there is any education it is usually in the garb of ‘life-skill’ education which is aimed at contraceptive education for use after marriage and in recent times menstrual hygiene a long neglected topic has been introduced along with sexual violence which is becoming an area of concern. But issues like relationships, sexual identity, sexual pleasure and consent are rarely discussed. As a society we are moving into a situation where sex was okay for teenagers 50 years ago is illegal now and yet everywhere we hear that the societal morals have become loose. In civilizational terms it is an interesting conundrum.
In South Asia where poverty is so widespread it could be one reason behind early marrying off of daughters, but it is far from being the only important reason for early marriage. A deeper sociological enquiry into child marriage in South Asia reveals that there is a great social anxiety about the sexuality of girls. There is a high premium on sexual ‘purity’ and the idea of family honor. This family honor which accrues to men, rests in the sexual purity of women. Early marriage is a simple way to ensure that the girl is transferred safely out of her father’s custody to that of her husband. He has now ‘handing her over’ to the husband and his family to help breed and continue their family line and honour. In many ways this is the core business of marriage in South Asia – a breeding transaction between two families of similar social standing to ensure that breeding of that social order continues. This is the reason behind the strict social lines within the business of marriage. Nowhere does our conversation around early marriage discuss this core cattle trading or eugenic element of the South Asian marriage. In fact the new ICT enabled marriage apps allow for clearer articulation of the social lineage allowing for a more sophisticated form of selective breeding in humans. . There is also a very high premium on fecundity in South Asia, thus girls and women are expected to bear children as soon as possible after marriage. Women who are barren or infertile are considered impure and polluting. The ideas of ritual purity and pollution and honor associated with marriage and virginity makes the situation around early marriage complicated in South Asia.
It is possible that as a reader you feel that I have strayed far away from my original topic of child marriage, but I feel this digression is germane. Discussions around early marriage started with the advent of ‘modernism’ into India. Modernism is a philosophical tradition of enquiry, of subjecting social phenomenon to strict examination. Early marriage did not stand the scrutiny of individual benefit for the girls, in fact it was seen as being harmful and hence the practice was opposed. Over time our analytic frameworks have evolved. Sexuality and marriage are now seen as matters of individual choice, but we continue to promote a social selection breeding methodology. Love jihad and khap panchayats are still issues which gain political mileage in India. Sexuality is still not matter of public debate and in a population control obsessed nation even condom ads have been relegated to the late night show on television.
Working with men on early marriage
Even though I consider myself as someone who is on the fringes of the ‘child marriage’/ ‘early marriage’ conversations, the issue of choice and autonomy in marriage and social and educational development of girls is central to our work with men and boys. In my understanding the different ways of understanding and addressing child marriage viz. moral health, demographic, economic, civilizational even child rights and women’s rights are all external or imposed approaches where the analysis happens among the implementers and then ways are found to convey it to the subject populations. Adolescent empowerment is a popular approach, but even when marriages are postponed the implementers are not really sure what happens to the girls within or after in the ‘marriage process’. So even in those cases where the implementation succeeds these successes are limited through the social selection breeding bias that is widespread in India. Furthermore there is no clarity about the autonomy the now married woman enjoys in her new home.
In recent times a ‘social norms’ approach is becoming popular, where the idea is to mobilise and help communities to identify their own vision of a new social reality and then support the spread of these ideas through social networks. Social norms are often understood as common practices of a community which are sanctioned and endorsed and form a mechanism maintaining social order in a community. In communities like ours understanding social norms is crucial in promoting social change because individual autonomy is constantly being regulated by social expectations and ones understanding of these expectations. Early marriage in our understanding is a complex social norm because it is embedded within ideas related to patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and reproduction as well as masculinity and family honor. In South Asia it is important to understand the deep linkages with between the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction and family honour and this is often expressed through the crime of ‘honour killing’ a unique situation where father or brother kill their daughter or sister because she fell in love with someone who is outside the socially accepted breeding circle. As daughter’s grow older father’s are very keen not to lose their family ‘honour’ which is a very important component of the social prestige of that family. This loss is not only through acts by the girl herself but through acts of others on her. Thus if a neighbourhood boy from a village or caste group which is not within the desirable breeding circle expresses any form of interest in the daughter concerned this ‘honour’ is threatened. There are ghastly stories of how fathers encouraged their daughters to commit suicide by jumping into wells while the partition violence and mass exodus was taking place between India and Pakistan in 1947. This way the daughters wouldn’t fall into the hands of the ‘heathen’ and the honour of the family would be unscathed.
In our work with men we try to get men to acknowledge and change this anxiety around ‘honour’. We try and get men to reconfigure their relationship with their children. A son is not just ‘lineage’ and daughter is not ‘honour’. The core of the relationship between father and his children has to be affection. This is easy with young children because they reciprocate unconditionally to care and affection. I recall a young Maratha man telling me “Earlier when I came home tired from my days work in the field I would be irritable. I would hurry my wife to make me tea and shoo my children away. Now when I come home from work I play with children, and my tiredness goes away. My children no longer fear me and then after playing with them I help my wife with the cooking.” Marathas are a warrior group, and playing with children was earlier considered a sign of weakness among these men. Now hundreds of men play with their children, prepare them for school, change nappies for the infants in many villages across districts in Sholapur, Bid and Pune districts. In many villages men have started supporting their daughters decisions to marry outside the socially acceptable breeding circle. Thousands of men have opted for joint registration of their homes with their wives. The point I wish to make here is that we do not see early marriage from an external standpoint as a social problem. We work closely with men to help them understand their own relationships with women in the family, in the community and their own beliefs and actions towards others. This helps them look at the world differently and respond differently to the various issues of life.
A similar approach has been successfully tested or is ongoing with men of the Chambal ravines in Madhya Pradesh, with the youth of Bundi district in Rajasthan, across districts in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand, in a few districts of Jharkhand and West Bengal. We are convinced that the issue of early marriage is a part of a particular cultural milieu and it is difficult to pass judgement from outside. Communities, which includes girls and boys, women and men, have to be empowered to understand their aspirations and relationships within a human rights framework. In other words we need to respect each other’s autonomy, exercise individual choice and agency as well as build solidarity with each other. Any solution to early marriage outside this framework is not sustainable, and even when the results will show an increase in age, the idea of marriage as a consensual choice of relationship will remain a distant dream at least in our country.