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How marriage for girls at the age of 21

It’s time we stopped telling 50 percent of our population that they are not required to operate in the ‘real’ outer world after 18

In a democratic country as large and heavily populated as ours, there are bound to be many levels of knowledge, understanding, cultural differences, societal attitudes and, most of all, opinions. Collectively, we can be counted as one of the countries in which patriarchal attitudes prevail strongly in certain areas.

It is well accepted that organised religions are largely patriarchal, and India is proud of its many practising religions since its people are deeply spiritual when rooted in their civilisational values. These tend to affect society’s practices ranging from food, clothes, rituals and particularly beliefs about personal matters like marriage.

However, when a republic, under a firmly egalitarian and secular Constitution assures equal rights and freedoms to all citizens regardless of caste, creed, race, religion or gender, it is for its people, through its executive, legislatures and its judiciary, to formulate and ensure the establishment of systems and policies that uphold this.

On the world stage, India is an important nation that is nearing the celebration of its 75th year of Independence and self-rule. It does not live in a cocoon and is a signatory to many important international conventions that commit all nations to provide important rights to all people equally. Among these are two that are relevant to the issue at hand, the Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, where it was two pioneering Indian women — Hansa Jivraj Mehta and Lakshmi Menon — who ensured a more gender-sensitive language ensuring that women were included and especially mentioned in this all-important declaration. The second was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known in short as CEDAW, signed in 1979.

These clearly included the elimination of discrimination against women in all matters pertaining to marriage and family relations. The CEDAW meeting of 2003 was especially critical of countries that set different ages of marriage for men and women. Today, most countries have 18 as the age for both men and women. Those who allow girls below 18 to get married are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar and Mali. The countries that have declared 21 as the age are Puerto Rico, Botswana, Hong Kong, Lesotho, Namibia, Philippines, Rwanda, Singapore, Zambia. No country in the developed Western world allows marriages below 18.

The sad fact is, despite a positive trend of the percentage of child marriages in India going down from 27 percent to 23 percent, we still have 1.5 crore child marriages. A close correlation to this is the large number of maternal mortality and child mortality figures. It is obvious that if a girl is married, not just when she matures, but when she has not reached her full growth potential with the benefit of proper nourishment, the child born of her will be weak and undernourished. Such children are prone to death soon after birth from diarrhoea, anaemia and other such problems.

Undernourished maternal bodies also result in bringing out children with an extremely low IQ, rendering them incapable of proper learning. A girl who has not had the benefit of proper education cannot adequately shoulder the psychological responsibility of bringing up a child.

In India, we have not followed the special mention of disparity in the marriageable ages of boys and girls, as stated in CEDAW 2003. The serious question to be asked here is: Do we want this to continue? Should 50 percent of our population (the girls) be told that they are not required to operate in the ‘real’ outer world after 18, and can end their education because they are required to cook, clean, care for their in-laws and produce babies (especially boys)?

Boys are expected and given the opportunity to complete their higher education after school so that they can get a job and be ready to face the world and take on the responsibility of a wife and even children. The job and livelihood situation is less optimistic since most boys born of low-income group families have barely any education and end up as migrant labour or performing other menial jobs at minimum wages.

Girls have been shown to be greatly aspirational in the past decade. Particularly in the field of education, when given the right opportunity. The percentage of girls going on to higher education has increased, with only a small difference between the boys and girls. It is clear that the urban areas fare better and the weakness lies in the very backward areas where the earnings of parents are extremely low. BPL families in these areas find it a great burden to send their girls to school. For them, the best option is to unburden themselves by getting her married.

How can we allow girls at the lower rungs of the ladder to believe she is an unwanted burden? And why should the entire female population be made to believe they are ‘dispensable’ from the area of serious education, achievement, leadership positions and being part of a nation on the move if the silent message is that marriage is their best option when they reach 18? It is significant that the only voices we hear these days openly declaring that girls should marry as soon as they mature are some men.

The divide between urban and rural attitudes is considerable but the most interesting thing to note is that no woman will choose not to educate their daughters if they could. As a first-hand example, I can vouch for a prominent well-established Muslim master weaver in Varanasi setting up a school for 1,500 children, in which, although the fathers were not in favour, he bowed to the wishes of the mothers and arranged for an afternoon shift exclusively for the girls of the locality who debate, partake in sports and can complete a full education. It needs a few, otherwise devout patriarchs like this to ‘go rogue’ to enable girls to be set free.

It goes without saying that no law is worth the ink and paper it is written on, unless a solid and committed infrastructure is built in to offer an enabling situation for girls to truly work towards their dreams. Good health, a fully developed mind and body, opportunities to learn multiple skills and converting them into opportunities for earning will lay the real route to change.

If they are assisted in reaching and completing their higher education, taught skills to manage businesses, both financial independence and a sense of security and self-worth ensue. As equals in a family, the most important silent result is greater respect for the girl child and the woman of the household.

The author is a former Samata Party leader, headed the task force based on whose recommendation the Union government is planning to bring a bill to increase the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. Views expressed are personal.

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