Faith Leaders Join the Fight against Child Marriage
Mahbubnagar, India, Feb 26 2016 (IPS) – Anger is an inner demon that one must have a strong grip on, believes Virayya Shastri – head priest of Maddi Madugu Anjaneya Swamy temple in southern India’s Mahbubnagar district. But mention ‘child marriage’ and the priest finds himself struggling to stay calm. ““Early marriage ruins a girl’s body and scars her mind. There is no way you can call yourself a believer when you support such a thing,” says the priest turned anti-child marriage advocate.
Twice a year – in December and March –millions of people visit the temple of Maddi Madugu to pray to the Hindu god Hanuman. For years, during these festive days, mass marriages had taken place where several brides were children. But since 2013, mass marriages are strictly forbidden, thanks to Shastri who strongly opposes them. The priest has also sensitised at least 200 other priests from nearby districts and states against child marriage.
44-kms from the temple, in a small town called Amrabad, priest Shri kumar Sharma displays a poster in front of his house that warns clients about the legal punishment for marrying off children. Child marriage is a crime, reads the poster, and anyone who is associated with such marriages can get two years of jail and a hundred thousand rupees of fine.
At his home-based tiny office, the priest also keeps records of every couple he has married: color photographs, copies of biometrics ID cards, a no-objection certificate by the village council, a birth certificate and a certificate of the wedding ritual issued by the priest himself.
“Some laugh at me. ‘Your job is to find an auspicious date (for a wedding), but you have turned into a book keeper,’ they say. But this is an important fight against an evil practice,” says the priest who is also father to a teenage daughter.
Along with Sharma, there are 14 other local faith leaders who have also taken a stance against child marriage including Muslim priest Qazi Sardar Qawali and Christian Pastor Shyam Sundar.
“Rampant” child marriage
The anti-child marriage movement of the priests in Mahbubnagar began in 2012 after a child rights charity called MV Foundation conducted a survey in 43 villages around Amrabad. The survey, found that at least 24 children were married off each year in the area. The reasons were many: poverty, property, child labour, local’s lack of faith in education and their unawareness of the ill effects of early marriage on a girl.
Following the survey, in 2012, the charity launched a project to prevent child marriages. The project had a special strategy of ‘Strengthening of the Existing System’ that included engaging with local faith leaders.
Explains A V M Swamy of MV Foundation who led the project: “the parents may very well choose a bride for their son, but they need a priest to conduct the actual wedding. So, we thought, why not engage the priests who obviously have tremendous power and authority? It was also in line with our core principle of including everyone in solving a social problem.”
Under the project, Swamy and his team of activists organised special learning workshops for priests from all faiths in the area. There, they informed the priests on how early marriage affected a girl’s physical and mental health, besides affecting her education and her freedom. The priests were also informed, in details, of the legal punishment for anyone associated with a child marriage under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
Says Shastri of Maddi Madugu temple, “I tell my fellow priests that the organs of a girl who is married before she reaches the legal age (18) is not well formed, so she is not ready for consummating her marriage or becoming a mother. So, we cannot be part of something that endangers a girl’s life.”
Support of the government
Local government officials have also been very supportive, say the priests. Sharma cites the case of a 16 year old girl in the village of Padra whose parents forged a birth certificate that showed the girl was 19. Doubtful, Sharma called the office of the local Mandal (an administrative block) officer to verify the authenticity of the certificate. The officer did a quick check and confirmed that it was a false document. The same officer also sent a police force to rescue a 14 year-old bride.
“People marry off children for different reasons: some are obsessed with virginity and purity, some fear that the girl may have an affair and bring dishonour to the family and some just do it for money. So, we have to take different approaches in dealing with them,” Sharma says.
An example of this is Nillikanti Parvatiamma – a 16 year-old college student in the neighbouring village of Chitlamkunta who was about to be married at 14. “My parents wanted to give large amount of cash and some land as my wedding gift. They decided to marry me to a 28 year-old male relative so that the gifts would stay within our family,” says the teenager**. Luckily for her, a timely intervention by priests, activists, priests, and local police officers had stopped the marriage.
According to a 2014 UN report*, one third of the world’s total child marriages (about 240 million) happen in India. The main reason, believes G Krishnaiya – Mandal officer of Amrabad, is the lack of awareness and education at the community level. In Mahbabubnagar, he says, the collective effort of faith leaders has been very successful in creating that awareness and as a result, child marriages are no longer held openly.
However, Krishnaiya says that the fight isn’t over yet. “There is a lot of seasonal migration. Migrant families travel to far away districts and marry off their children. Some do it in the middle of the night, when nobody is watching. In last 2 months alone, we have stopped 6 such marriages. So, we have to be on alert,” he cautions.
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