Guwahati: On February 16 this year, a 13-year-old girl Mehbuba (name changed) of Kokrajhar district in Assam would have got married off to a man more than twice her age had it not been for Elias Rahman Sarkar, an activist from Dhubri district.
Just two days before Mehbuba's marriage, Sarkar started a campaign on Facebook, informed the police and forced them to act on time. Eventually, the marriage didn't happen.
Mehbuba is a Class VII student of a middle-English madrassa in Kokrajhar.
When Sarkar started working against child marriages in 2016, things were not so easy. "Earlier, it was difficult to get information from villages. Then I started campaigning on Facebook and WhatsApp to create awareness among people. Now, I get two to three calls every day regarding child marriages from districts such as Morigaon, Barpeta, Goalpara and Dhubri. I even get calls from upper Assam tea garden areas such as in Golaghat district,” says Sarkar.
Sarkar has a network of volunteers who inform him about such cases in rural areas. After such tip-offs, Sarkar immediately files a police complaint. Then he reaches the spot and makes people understand about the ills of child marriage.
He, however, laments, “I don’t get full support from the district administration. Sometimes, the police ask me to file a written complaint but it is impossible to be present at the police station all the time. So I inform them via phone calls or WhatsApp messages."
Mehbuba's is not a one-off case. If reports are anything to go by, child marriages are rampant in the Northeastern states, including Assam.
According to 'A Statistical Analysis of Child Marriage in India Based on Census 2011' report published by Young Lives and National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in June 2017, three states of the region -- Tripura (21.6%), Assam (16.7%) and Arunachal Pradesh (12.1%) -- recorded child marriage and teen pregnancy rates higher than the national average.
According to the report, nine districts from Assam (Goalpara, Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Morigaon, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, Chirang, Golaghat and Nagaon) and four districts from Tripura (Dhalai, South, North and West Tripura) were among the 100 high child marriage prevalent districts in the country.
Further analysis of number of children born to teenage mothers revealed that 27.3% of married teenage girls had given birth to one child, while 4.2% of married girls had two or more children.
The patterns of children ever born among these girls differed across different states in India. Findings revealed that there are 12 states where more than 40% of these girls had at least one child or more. Interestingly, there was an emergence of states such as Mizoram (61%) and Meghalaya (53%) with the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancy among early married girls.
Assam’s additional chief secretary of social welfare department Jishnu Baruah held a meeting with the administrative staff in Dhubri district earlier this month. He admitted that the government has faced tremendous challenges to eradicate child marriage in Dhubri district, which borders Bangladesh. “Every second marriage is a child marriage in Dhubri,” he had said. It is one of the minority concentrated districts of Assam with close to 75% of Muslim population.
The NCPCR report suggested that there existed a correlation between child marriage and the educational attainment of girls. The completion of secondary education was found to be significant in delaying the age for marriage. Prevalence of child marriage was found to be more common in rural areas than urban pockets.
As per National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), (2015-16), 11.9% of the 15- to 19-year-old girls were married before 18 years in India, with variations across states.
According to NFHS-4, 33% girls in Tripura married before 18 years, which was followed by Assam at 31%. While the NFHS-3 was held in 2005-2006, when Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh both topped the list with 42% prevalence of girls getting married before 18 years of age, the percentage in Arunachal Pradesh has now dipped to 24%, but Tripura has shown slow progress of reducing 9% prevalence of child marriage during the same period. A majority of the states have over time shown improvement with awareness and development.
Only Manipur had a marginal rise in percentage. Earlier, Manipur had 12.9% instances of child marriages; the figure is now at 13.7%.
The NCPCR report further revealed that the highest prevalence of child marriage is reported among Scheduled Tribe (ST) girls (15%) followed by Scheduled Castes (SC) at 13%.
However, when this author analysed child marriages among the top 10 states with highest prevalence of child marriages, it was found that the phenomenon is occurring across caste groups. For instance, in Arunachal Pradesh, 72% of the sample aged between 15 and 19 years, who had child marriages, belonged to STs.
While teenage pregnancy cases dropped by nearly 10% in Sikkim, which is the highest in Northeast, it rose by less than half a percentage in Tripura, Meghalaya and Manipur. At 0.3%, Tripura and Meghalaya saw the highest rise between NFHS-3 and NFHS-4 data. While the rate of teenage pregnancy in Tripura rose to 18.8% in NFHS-4 from 18.5% in NFHS-3, it increased to 8.6% from 8.3% in Meghalaya. Manipur also recorded an increase by 0.1% to 7.4% in 2015-16 from 7.3% during the same period.
It is important to examine the factors that lead to early marriage in different Northeast states. NFHS-4 data revealed that prevalence of girl child marriage in the age-group 15-19 years is significant in rural areas across Northeast. However, Mizoram and Manipur have large pockets of child marriages within urban areas. Mizoram recorded 49% urban child marriage followed by Manipur at 32%. Assam and Meghalaya both had the highest number of rural child marriage cases.
Assam anti-child marriage activist Sarkar thinks child marriage is “a social disorder” and it needs to be eradicated globally. However, he complains the prevalence of child marriage cases among uneducated Muslims across lower Assam districts -- high because of lack of educational institutions.
“We don’t have too many high schools in rural areas. Girls are getting married of as early as after completing Class VIII. There are even a few legal practitioners who help people to get forged marriage certificates that claim the girl has reached 18 years,” says Sarkar.
This author accessed a document, where Salima (name changed) of Bagribari police station under Kokrajhar district got married to Ariful (name changed) from the same area on December 4 last year. The marriage certificate says, both married at legal age, but Salima’s birth certificate clearly says that she was born on February 12, 2002, which implies that she was 17 years old when she got married.
During investigation, this author found out that even the groom was a minor. After getting all details, Sarkar and some locals tried to send the girl back to her home but the complications arose in February when the girl was found to be pregnant.
Still, both are living together now. Sarkar, meanwhile, is optimistic about his social media campaigns. Despite death threats, he is virtually leading the movement against child marriages in the region.
Referring to Manipur’s situation, Keisam Pradipkumar, member of Manipur Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says, “The early engagement of pre-marital sex resulting in adolescent pregnancy also compels to settle the situation into a child marriage to avoid any penalty over POCSO Act, 2012.”
Manipur’s society still sustains the culturally legitimate practice of “elopement of the lovers”, which also encourages the young ones to marry without considering the after-effects. Even society does not have institutional mechanism to provide adolescence counselling on child marriage and its legal implications.
“We must include adolescent education or reproductive health in school syllabus including the serious social, health and legal consequences of early and child marriage,” Pradipkumar adds.
(Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent photojournalist and writer who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. He can be reached at email@example.com)