At Samandsar in Rajasthan a large number of young and middle aged men, as well as two women, collectively claim they do not allow marriages of children below the age of 18 to take place in the village. Surprisingly though, even when the focal point of the discussion is the impact of early marriages on girls, the two women are silent. The men explain that the women are shy to speak up in front of them and speak at length about the active steps taken by them to stop child marriages.
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“If girls get married at an early age, then their education gets affected. Further an early marriage affects the strength of the mother and that of her child. We have pledged against child marriage in the village,” says Sarpanch Pomaram. He goes on to explain how he has been raising awareness among villagers regarding the value of the girl child. “Hum yeh batate hain ki ladki ghar ki lakshmi hoti hain. Ek ladki padh li toh saath peediyan padh lengi. Ladki jab ghar mein shikshit hogi toh sara parivaar bhi shikshit hoga. Ek ladka padh likh liya toh woh sirf apna kaam dekhega. Na woh apne ghar ka kaam dekhega. (We tell that the girl child is like Goddess Lakshmi. If one girl gets educated, then the succeeding seven generations will get educated. If the girl is educated then the entire family will be educated. If a boy gets educated he will only take care of himself. He will not even take care of the household work)”
Samandsar is located in Bikaner district of Rajasthan where as per the 2011 census data, rural literacy rates are just 58.1 per cent. For a region that is still catching up with basic paradigms of development, Pomaram’s views on women are definitely commendable. For the village elders to come together and pledge against the practise of child marriage is laudable, considering how deep rooted the practise is in the tradition of the state. What is worrying though, is that it is the voice of patriarchy that is dictating this development.
In her work on patriarchy and development, Valentine Moghadam has laid out a valid question,
“At the end of the twentieth century, is patriarchy in decline? Or has it merely changed form?”
Ashok Sharma, district coordinator at Urmul, an NGO working in the space of rural health, research and development explains the aggressive strategy they have been taking for the past couple of years in order to convince the village communities of Western Rajasthan to give up on the practice of child marriage. “We spoke to opinion leaders and caste leaders of the village and explained to them the ill effects of child marriages. We targeted the panchayat leaders. They get selected by votes so they are aware that if they do something on social issues then people will support them.”
Sharma’s efforts have evidently borne fruit, at least to some extent. As fathers or village leaders, men have taken it to be their responsibility to stop child marriages. But if one had to answer Moghadam’s question, patriarchy has not been on the decline, the mere form has changed.
Jaswant Singh of Kanod village in the district is convinced he will not get his daughter married off before she turns 18. In his opinion, if the girl is not old enough, marriage affects her health and wellbeing. She would not have the mental capacity to take care of her husband’s home and she would not be strong enough to take care of her child. Further, once she grows up she would be more willing to go to her husband’s home than when she is still a child.
On being asked if he would ever ask his daughter for her opinion when he does decide to marry her off he says that “Nahin, humare yahaan poochte nahin hain. Woh toh purana system hain. waise poochne ki nobat hi nahin aayegi. (We never ask our daughters. It is an old tradition. In any case, there would be no need to ask her either.)”
Singh’s views on child marriages makes one wonder about the precise direction taken by rural development in India. The same father who would have dictated the marriage of his daughter at the age of 14 a decade ago, is now dictating the marriage of his daughter at 18. Of course, the change has helped in ensuring the physical well being of the girl child. Surely, more number of women are getting educated, at least till the age of 18 has increased now. However, the underlying reasoning for these changes is what benefits and preserves the male dominance over society rather than giving a voice to the women.
One has to consider though that the struggle to come out of a patriarchal social structure is at its infancy even in urban India. It could be generations before we are be able to see a change that attacks patriarchy at its roots. Arvind Ojha, chief executive of the NGO Urmul, says “changes cannot happen all of a sudden. Then we would have head on confrontations with these communities telling them that their age old traditions are false. There was a time when women would not share the same space as the male panchayat. Changes will happen over generations.”
The author had visited Rajasthan as a guest of the NGO Urmul