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Forced to marry as a teen, three women share their harrowing stories

The Union Cabinet cleared a proposal to make 21 years the minimum marriageable age for women; but where does the society stand?

By: Lifestyle Desk | New Delhi |
January 17, 2022 6:20:03 pm
marriage, marriageable age for women in India, child marriage, child marriage in India, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, indian express newsAny marriage below the prescribed age is illegal and perpetrators of a forced child marriage can be punished. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Recently, the Union Cabinet cleared 21 years as the minimum marriageable age for women, as opposed to 18 earlier. What does this mean?

It means that while personal laws that govern marriage and other personal practices for communities prescribe certain criteria for marriage — for instance, Section 5(iii) of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 sets a minimum age of 18 for the bride and 21 for the groom — there is now a proposal to have an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

Under this, any marriage below the prescribed age is illegal and perpetrators of a forced child marriage can be punished. But in India, such marriages continue to happen, wherein mostly brides — who are in their teens — are forcefully married off by their families (sometimes to their relatives), and what follows is a harrowing and often traumatic experience.

The Indian Express recently reached out to three women to understand how their lives turned out to be after they were married at 18. This is the story of Bengaluru-based Vimla, Mumbai-based Saba (name changed) and Indrani from Kolkata. Take a look.

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Vimla was forced to marry her maternal uncle, her mother’s brother. “I was not willing to get married. When I was 17, they got me engaged. We shouldn’t get married to our uncles. I told my mother that and she would scold and hit me; she also burnt my hands a few times, assuming I am in love with someone else,” she said.

While she eventually did get married, it was a toxic marriage wherein her husband would get drunk and hit her. Vimla said it made her feel helpless, confused as to how to negotiate her marriage and behave around her husband.

Indrani and Saba also got married young.

Indrani told this outlet that she lost her father when she was young, and had many siblings. “This is why I could not complete my education. After my marriage, I came to my in-laws’ place and it was a joint family. I had to be considerate of everyone’s needs. My focus was on how to keep everyone else happy, whereas I personally wanted to study and work.

She said she was good at embroidery, but was bound by marriage and could not pursue it.

Saba said she got married at the age of 17, after she was “sexually abused” by her “second cousin”. “When I shared this with my parents, they refused to believe me. It started when I was six or seven years old, and when my parents got to know, they did not take it well.”

She met a guy at the age of 17, who claimed he wanted to end her childhood suffering. But, she realised within a year of marriage that she had not made the right decision.

Vimla said she regrets getting married at 18, and becoming a mother at 19 and then at 23. According to her, raising the age bar for women from 18 to 21 is a good decision. Her son was born with heart issues and she has had to spend a lot of time and money to get him healthy. “I expected my husband to be a better person.” He passed away, and Vimla with two grown kids at the age of 38, has had to undergo many hardships in life, all by herself.

Indrani said she became a mother at 21 and while she wanted to focus on raising her daughter, she had other family members to take care of.

Saba, on the other hand, had her daughter when she was 18. The couple would argue a lot because they were “clueless” and “financially unstable”. “He was 19 when we got married and as per the Muslim law, it was legal for us to get married. But, we weren’t mentally or physically prepared. After the baby, life became difficult with more responsibilities. I had my second baby when I was 22, again a daughter. At 23, when I decided I could not take the domestic violence any further, I got divorced — with no child support or alimony.”

These women insist they would have made different choices for themselves had they known better. Just like the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, it is the same for Christians under the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 and the Special Marriage Act. For Muslims, the criteria for marriage is attaining puberty, assumed when the bride or groom turns 15.

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