Child marriage rampant in West Bengal's Malda, but parties believe addressing social evil would be political suicide

Child marriage rampant in West Bengal's Malda, but parties believe addressing social evil would be political suicide

Child marriage rampant in West Bengal's Malda, but parties believe addressing social evil would be political suicide

A marriage of political convenience

West Bengal's Malda district is seeing a rise in child marriages, but local political leaders have so far turned a blind eye to not alienate vote banks.

By Umesh Kumar Ray

Malda (West Bengal): As Malda district goes to the polls in the 2019 general elections, one topic continues to be a political blind spot for all parties contesting. Child marriages. Malda has become infamous for having the highest reported number of child marriages in West Bengal. This issue rarely makes it to any poll promise or political platform. The reason being that it might alienate the local vote bank.

Around six years ago, an elected member of the Habibpur Gram Panchayat was approached by an NGO to stop a child marriage in her own locality. Previously, she had been felicitated by the said NGO for stopping a child marriage. However, her response to the recent plea was disturbing. The elected member ignored the NGO's request and let the marriage take place.The reason being she didn't want to jeopardise her position among locals, as the Panchayat elections were going to be held four to five months later. 

It is no wonder then that in the lead up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, none of the candidates contesting from Malda have addressed the issue of child marriages in the district.   

None of them would think (or comment) there is anything wrong with the picture of 18-year-old Nasreen Parveen, sitting in her native home in Malda North's Shailpur, cradling her two-and-a-half year old child. Nasreen was married when she was berely 13-year-old with Lal Chand, who now works as a daily wage labourer in Bengaluru. She was a bright eighth grade student when her parents got her married, she says. Now as a wife and parent, Nasreen's childhood dreams have been cast aside. "I was good at studies and my teachers liked me a lot. Life Sciences was my favourite subject. I still remember my roll number in grade eight was 24," she recalls.

Nasreen's is not an isolated case. There are thousands of adolescent girls in Malda district who are forced into child marriage. Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-2016 showed that West Bengal topped the states in child marriages at 41.6 per cent and Malda at 56.3 per cent had the highest reported number of such cases. In Shailpur, schools records from the Budiya High Madrasa show that more than 150 girl students studying there, aged between 15 to 18 years. Around 30 of them were married off between the ages of 12 to 13 years. Take the case of Selina Parveen, a 16-year-old from Rusuladaha village. She was married off at 14. She now lives in Shailpur and is the mother of a 10-month-old girl. She was studying in grade 9 when she was forced to get married. Though Selina refused to talk about this, her mother-in-law, Golban Bibi said that she had paid Rs 10,000 to Selina's family for the marriage. //Reverse dowry happens when girl is beautiful but boy is not and due to this he faces problem in getting marriage. Sometimes boy's family tries to catch those girl who is economically backward so that the family can be exploited by luring money.//

Case of apathy

Despite the increase in child marriages in the district, very few police cases get reported and the rate of convictions is also very low. This indicates that people involved in arranging child marriages have little or no fear of the law. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2016, 326 cases were reported under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act. Cases booked under this Act passed in 2006 makes this crime a non-bailable offence. This act has provisions to punish the adult groom, persons who solemnise marriage and those who promote or permit the solemnisation of child marriages with fines, imprisonment or both. In 2016, West Bengal had only 41 reported cases of child marriage, only two spots behind the leader. This dubious distinction went to Tamil Nadu (55) and Karnataka (51). NCRB data reveals that the same year only 35 people (24 male and 11 female) were convicted in West Bengal, whereas the country-wide figure stood at 740.

The practice of child marriage isn't new to India, according to Biswajit Ghosh, a professor of sociology at Burdwan University, has done extensive research on the topic of child marriage in West Bengal and Malda. His research states that, "From 400 BC the marriageable age (in India) of both boys and girls got lowered gradually and tendency to arrange marriages preferably between eight and ten years became popular."

The census done in 1931 shows that 72 per cent girls in India were married before the age of 15. Prof. Ghosh's research paper further outlines that, "In an earlier survey we found that patriarchy, poverty, illiteracy, lack of social security of the girls, dowry and lack of awareness were prime factors in child marriages in West Bengal.”

In his research Prof. Ghosh also found that notions about a girl’s virginity and chastity were strongly linked to honour and the status of the family or clan in Malda. “There is tremendous pressure to minimise the risk of any untoward incidents or improper sexual activity through early marriages,” he explains.

Such external factors and societal pressure were felt by Razina Bibi (38), mother of Nasreen. She shares, “Nasreen is a beautiful girl and was often teased by boys. She would complain to me. Neighbours too were forcing us to get her married, so I had to do it.”

Prabal Lala, Secretary, Bulbulchandi and Barind Development Society (BBDS) says, “In Malda, people view girls as a burden. They think that if the girls are married after they turn 18 years of age then the ask for dowry will increase. So they try to marry them off as early as possible.”

There is a three-tier system in place to prevent child marriages in states, which includes the Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC), Block Level Child Protection Committee (BLCPC) and District Child Protection Committee (DCPC). While VLCPC is a grassroots-level committee, it is the first to intervene or act, if a case of child marriage is reported. If VLCPC is unable to prevent the marriage, it becomes the responsibility of the BLCPC. If this group also fails, then the DCPC steps in. A police officer is also appointed in all districts to look into cases of child marriage. However, in most instances, this post tends to lie vacant or the police personnel appointed are engaged in solving other criminal cases. Hence, what's happening in Malda can be attributed to a failure of the system to check this deplorable practice.

A police official in Malda, who wishes to remain anonymous says, “When the case comes to our knowledge we do intervene, but our job is restricted to prevention only. Rest is in the hands of the child protection committee.” Ambarish Burman, District Child Welfare Officer, attributes a lack of awareness to the practice of child marriages thriving in the district. “Whenever we get information about a child marriage we go there. In most cases we face resistance from locals. They don’t want us to intervene or stop the marriage. Sometimes they stop the marriage in front of us, but organise it once we have left the spot,” says Burman.

Impact of Kanyashree

Given the stark situation in the state, the West Bengal government launched the Kanyashree scheme in 2013. There are two types of financial benefits offered, Kanyashree - 1 (K1) is for unmarried girls aged between 13 to 18 years and Kanyashree  -  2 (K2) for unmarried girls aged 18 and above. Under K1, girls are eligible to get an annual scholarship of INR 1000 for their education.  K2 is a one-time grant of INR 25,000 given to an unmarried girl pursuing an education or occupational courses. So far 56,83,993 girls have been enrolled under the Kanyashree scheme.

The scheme has been successful to a certain extent according to Lala, whose organisation works against child marriages in Malda. Prof. Ghosh, who is now studying the impact of the Kanyashree scheme says, “We are studying how it has impacted the social menace in five years. So far, we have found that it had a positive impact.”

Nasreen shares that she still regrets not protesting against her forced marriage. However, there is hope, as many girls are standing up to prevent child marriages. Eighteen-year-old, Mausumi Parveen, daughter of Abu Taleb of Shailpur refused to get married at the age of 16, despite pressure from her father. She has now completed her intermediate with good grades and is a beneficiary of the Kanyashree scheme.  

Another girl from Shailpur, 16-year-old, Mintehaz Yasmin is also a beneficiary of the Kanyashree scheme and had raised her voice against child marriage in her village. She says, “We now keep watch in our village and if we come to know that a child marriage is taking place we immediately inform the Meena Manch, a school-level organisation of girls." //Meena Manch is an initiative of Unicef to promote education in girl child. Manch works for those girl child who had left the study midway. Members who are students, consult to children and their parents so that children continue their study. //

Malda has been Congressman A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury's bastion since 1980. In 2009, Malda district was split to two Lok Sabha constituencies, Malda North and Malda South. Malda North is represented by Congress' Mausam Noor, who belongs to Choudhury's family and has won the seat in 2009 and 2014. In 2019, she switched to the Trinamool Congress party and is recontesting under their ticket. Congress, in response, has fielded Esha Khan Choudhury, who also belongs to the Choudhury family and is Noor's brother-in-law. Malda South is represented by Choudhury's brother, Congress' Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury. He was Minster of State in UPA-II and represented Malda in 2006, and Malda South in 2009 and 2014, and is recontesting under the Congress ticket. Repeated attempts to reach the candidates for their comments proved unsuccessful.


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