Their parents had been employed to guard the mango orchard and so, they spent all their growing up years there — playing under the canopy of its trees and eating countless mangoes. Somewhere along the line, they fell in love — she was 13, he 17. The two seemed inseparable so the girl’s parents proposed her marriage to the boy and the match was fixed. After all, child marriages were common in their tribal hamlet — Eguva Bandarlapalle, in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh — and among their Yanadi tribe, with girls and boys as young as 14-15 getting married.
That’s when trouble began. A worker of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was doing the rounds of hamlets adjoining the Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary, where the Yanadi tribes live, when a villager tipped her about the impending marriage. Officials of the Child Welfare Department swung into action and, on May 28, citing the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, sent the girl to a hostel run by Andhra Pradesh’s Rural Organisation for Poverty Eradication.
The tribals, however, fiercely opposed the officials’ intervention, accusing them of interfering with their customs. They told the child welfare officials that it was their tradition to marry off girls after they reach puberty and that if a couple decides to get married, there was no restriction on age. They said that their marriages depend on seasonal availability of work, and any youth with a job can marry any girl even if she is a minor.
“The wedding ceremony was about to take place when we got to know about it and stopped it. Irrespective of their customs and traditions, it amounts to child marriage. We don’t believe there was any love angle. The girl dropped out of school while in Class 5 and the families decided to get the two married. We are trying to convince her parents not to get her married till she turns 18. If they do not agree, the girl will stay at the hostel. We are making arrangements to admit her to AP Kasturba Gandhi Balikala Vidyalaya when schools reopen. We will also enroll her in tailoring classes at the hostel for skill development,” says M Nirmala, Child Development Project Officer, Chittoor.
Police say the boy, whose mother passed away a few years ago, told them that he met the girl three years ago when they were guarding the mango orchard on the outskirts of Tekmanda forest. “They became good friends and he mingled with her family. The boy also used to work at a dhaba on the highway, not far from the village, but he would come to meet her family sometimes. The families did not object to their friendship and decided to get them married,’’ says a police official.
So when the officials intervened, the boy’s father objected strongly and so did the girl’s parents. The families claimed that the couple had secretly got married at a temple inside the forest a few days ago.
“When the girl’s parents do not have any objection, why are these women (child welfare workers) objecting? Government rules do not apply to us because we follow tribal customs. My son has not said anything to me but the girl’s father said they already got married in the forest, so why are they now being separated?’’ asks the boy’s father Chibasa Seetaiah.
The girl’s father Rajababu told police that he had no objection to the marriage because the boy was a Yanadi, the same tribe as his, and earned money from working at the dhaba.
“They showed us a sacred thread, saying it was a mangalsutra that the boy had tied around the girl’s neck. However, since it is a child marriage, we seized it and told them the marriage was illegal. Though they accused us of separating the married couple, the boy later denied that they got married secretly,’’ says S Kamarunissa, Assistant Sub-Inspector of the SHE (Women and Juvenile Wing) team of Palamner Police Division who was part of the team that stopped the wedding and “rescued” the girl.
“The boy may have denied marrying her for fear of a police case. But the girl has not said anything and we did not subject her to any questioning,’’ says a counsellor of the Child Welfare Department. After initially resisting, the girl’s parents, on being told that she would get to go to school and learn tailoring, have agreed to let her stay at the hostel.