When pushing daughters into marriage seems the only safe option
Sakuntala Narasimhan, Bengaluru
February 8, 2018

Weddings are occasions for celebration and cheer, isn’t it? In the past six months, three young girls whom the writer knows have got married. Each wedding saddened her, for on show was the reality of lives for the disadvantaged sections of India’s population. Raising GDP or per capita incomes does not address such gender handicaps

Asha is 18. She was working as a sales girl in a shop, earning Rs 5000 a month; her earnings were a welcome addition to the finances of the family (which consisted of her mother Manji who is illiterate, the wife of an autorickshaw driver who battered her and whom she left when Asha was just 18 months old) and Asha’s widowed grandmother Jaya (Manji and Asha stayed with Jaya).

Manji and Jaya work as maid servants, and live with no male escort after Manji’s brother committed suicide (the shop he worked in accused him, falsely, of stealing; he felt humiliated by the police torture). Asha went to a government school where she learned next to nothing, and gave up after Class 9 to start work as a sales girl.

Last year, Asha’s mother Manji was diagnosed as having severe kidney problems and needing dialysis. The autorickshaw charges for the visits to the hospital alone are a big drain on the finances of the indigent family, but the greater worry was the possibility that Manji may not survive for long. Jaya panicked – she wanted her granddaughter, teenager Asha, to be married off and “settled” while the mother was still around.

On the days of dialysis, Manji returned home so drained and in pain, she had to stop work at one of the two places where she worked. Borrowing heavily (one lakh rupees) to meet the dowry demands in terms of gold and cash of the bridegrooms family, Jaya fixed up Asha’s marriage to get rid of “at least one worry” as she put it.

“Achche din?” Not for the likes of Jaya and Manji. If they didn’t agree to the dowry demands, what would Asha’s future be as a nubile, pretty girl living in a slum with no males in the family? Marriage seemed the only “safe” and acceptable option, even if it meant the loss of her monthly earnings to eke out the expenses on dialysis and hospital visits.

The groom wanted money for a wrist watch. My son had a spare one, almost new, which I offered to give to Jaya, but the groom preferred to choose one himself and blew Rs 8000 on a fancy watch which he liked. Jaya paid for it. The man works in an electrical goods shop, but he wouldn’t change his mind about wanting that fancy watch as part of his wedding gifts.

The groom’s mother wanted the wedding to be filmed and put on a CD. That again cost money. But in our society, brides’ families are always at the mercy of the grooms’ families who have the ‘upper hand’ in negotiations (“if you can’t meet our terms, we will cancel the engagement and look for a bride elsewhere”… and a girl with a broken engagement has trouble finding another match, whether the family is rich or poor).

When and how will Jaya ever be able to repay the one lakh she has borrowed with interest of 24 per cent from a money lender? Why do grooms’ families see marriage as a source of extortion? How do we change such social trends and beliefs? I gave Jaya a pair of gold earrings for the bride, but the mother-in-law-to-be declared they were “too small”, so Jaya had to shell out money to buy another pair.

Poverty is not just shortage of cash or lifestyle; it is also a multi-dimensional oppression in social-familial terms if a family has a grown-up daughter. Raising GDP or per capital incomes does not address such gender handicaps. Asha is now pregnant, which means further expenses for Jaya. If the wedding saddened me, so did the wedding of Ramya’s daughter Sujatha, two months later.

Ramya’s cobbler husband Muniyappa died two years ago aged 34 (because “no one wants shoes repaired these days,” he said, “they throw old shoes and buy new ones, so I don’t earn enough to feed my family”—which means he went hungry half the time), leaving three children under 16 to be raised by Ramya. The oldest, Sujatha, was in 9th Standard at a government school but could not even subtract numbers (passed from one class to the next because of a state policy of not failing anyone, to avoid dropouts).

Young ruffians in the slum, Ramya told me, used to knock on their hut’s door at night, with lewd suggestions to the girl; the only safe option was to get the girl married and sent off. It was the usual story – debt, pregnancy at 17, harassment by in-laws for begetting a girl child a year later. This marriage, too, saddened me.

The third was of teenager Rani whose mother Mallika sells bananas by the roadside in south Bengaluru. Mallika is an abandoned wife, the girl was not interested in schooling (“because the teacher beats her if she gets her answers wrong”), the mother was unable to keep an eye on the wayward girl playing truant from classes, so again – she was married off to a mechanic whose mother now wants the girl sent back to her maternal home because she is “not a thrifty or efficient cook”.

Within eight months of marriage, Rani is back, sitting by the roadside, getting bored, wanting to “play” (as her mother complains – Rani is very athletic). Does one fault the teacher and education system for Rani’s lack of interest in education, or blame the teenage girl for wanting to play rather than cook and cater to a husband? Or put the blame on poverty that restricts such families’ options? The wedding expenses wiped out Mallika’s meagre savings – with nothing to show for it.

Passing laws – against marriage before 18, or compulsory schooling – does not help. Can ‘development’ be meaningful if it does not address social constraints and gender vulnerability? Can we honestly blame families for pushing their daughters into marriage, when harassment in unsafe slums exposes them to dangers? Do we have the answers?

December 2017