Thursday, May 14, 2015

Consent, not age is the problem in early and child marriage - Really?

Recently, I came across an article in ‘The Hindu’1. The article is based on a report by Nirantar Trust, on child marriage. While child marriage is deplorable and is being increasingly shunned by communities, the study focuses on only 8 states (out of 36, incl. union territories). 

The highlight of the article is, “Based on research in eight States where early marriage is widespread, the report shows how in a system that wishes to control female sexuality, acknowledging that girls can have sexual agency and desires is a threat.” The article states that adolescents are actively discouraged from even conversations on contraception and safe sex to avoid giving them bad idea. Then, it talks of a newspaper baron, who was married at 14 but still pursued her interests.

Finally in the article, the director of Nirantar Trust, says that there exist a lot of funding for work on early and child marriage in India. Apparently, this study is funded by the American Jewish World Service.

Before getting into detail, my question is whether this study is peer-reviewed? If so, who are the reviewers? If not, how can it be trusted, even if any error/misrepresentation is not intentional. Given, the level of corruption in India, and the need of NGOs to competitively air Western ideologies, any error could well be intentional

The article created enough interest in me that I started to peruse the report. The report in its executive summary says that data are collected from 7 states: Rajasthan, Jharkand, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and New Delhi. In its executive summary, the report gives the following as root causes of child/early marriage:
  • Economics of marriage: Even though the study is skewed, as the data is only from 7 states of India, it argues that women in India are considered as “someone else’s wealth“. This type of inference couldn’t even pass the principles of induction. Had the report argued that, poverty is the main cause of child/early marriage, I would have agreed. But ascertaining intent, trying to tie it with a skewed sampling, makes one think of conspiracy or lobbyist mentality.
  • Sexuality: 
    • Based on the response of an adolescent girl, the article argues that the primary role of marriage in India is to sanctify sex. This is nothing but a defamation of the institution of marriage. It speaks low of a country that had queens ruling the nation when women in many Western countries thought to be incapable to do men’s job. 
    • The report also argues, “In a system that wishes to control female sexuality, acknowledging that girls can have sexual agency and desires is a threat. The anxiety caused by this is so strong that even conversations around contraception and safe sex are shameful and actively discouraged, lest they give adolescents the “wrong ideas.”” In India, it is not just the girls’ but also boys’ sexuality is controlled. I have known students expelled from schools (boys) for errors as silly as trying to talk to a girl. I also like to draw attention to the numerous “rape” cases where boys are charged with “rape” charges for trying to marry the girl of their choice. While, I’m not particularly happy about the situation, now as a postdoctoral researcher, I believe that I wouldn’t have come this far had those conditions were not in place. Such conditions are mostly designed to provide the opportunity for youths to mature and achieve their goals. While some have succeeded after marriage, for many it is not possible. Regarding the “wrong idea”, a conversation with an adolescent “to have safe sex” would only translate to “have sex”. So, please don’t give a wrong idea to the audience. 
    • The report quotes a female interview respondent, “A girl may wear 10 burkhas, but she will be violated and what happens in the bedroom one will never know until you put a camera there” – This statement is deplorable as it is intentionally designed to make the audience assume and make an impression that women are constantly being violated in their bedrooms. While, I may appreciate the craftiness of the statement, I deplore the intent. When no information is available from the bedroom, insinuating one on other is highly deplorable.
  • Gender norms and masculinity
    The report states that “the perceived masculinity of a girl’s father lies in his ability to control her sexuality”. This is totally misrepresented; the perceived masculinity of a girl’s father lies in his ability to teach his daughter to control her sexuality and to protect her when required. The same goes in the case of boys too. If the parents fail to raise their sons to control their sexuality, or be “responsible”, the parents are equally shamed. So, the intended perception is misleading.
  • Educational and Institutional gaps: 
    In this context, the report highlights that “the trade-off of being “allowed” higher education is a greater conformity to the norms of a “good-girl” who can be trusted to “do the right thing” and stay on the “right path”, which usually implies staying away from romantic relationships and ceding control over other parts of their lives”. By this does the report, and by extension the trust, encourages promiscuity and adultery?  
    What is wrong being expected to do the right thing? Every parents fear for the well-being of their children. So, what is problem? It is not always true that romantic relationships are discouraged. But in a country were caste and class exhibit extreme control, and where men can run away after impregnating a girl, these are precautionary measures. I believe the audience get an idea what the report is trying to imply!
  • Centrality of marriage
    This is true as well as false at the same time. Same sex-relationships are legally still a grey-area. Are the authors of the report inciting potential-illegality?!
  • Risk, vulnerability and uncertainty
    Here the report highlights, “Within a rapidly globalizing society risk and uncertainty create anxiety, reinforcing the perception that marriage is one of the only sources of security within a family and larger community”. The interesting thing is, the report say that early marriages are more likely in regions highly prone to disasters such as floods and riots. I’m not sure, how this observation match with the information conveyed from the highlight. From my perspective, this could well be an evolutionary approach to ensure the survival of species. What are the counter arguments?
  • Age as axis of power
    While I agree with the authors, that not giving power of decisions to youths are making them vulnerable to societal norms and rules enforced by parents and other, I would like to ask if the author is ok, if the girl ended up as a prostitute or the boy ends up as a terrorist but flouting the societal norms and rules? Further, what scientific study could prove that children in their youths are capable of protecting themselves and taking right decisions without guidance? If so, why do we need juvenile law? Do the authors intend to undermine the activities of those against the recent modification to the juvenile law?
The rest of the report goes on to discuss the impact, strategies and their approaches, which are usual mumbo-jumbo. The central flaw in the study is that it fails to understand why child marriage is prevalent in certain states and not others? In fact, most of these states studied don’t have good social development index or prosperous (except for Maharashtra, even though its ranking is less other states). At the best, the conditions and causes, could be applied only to these regions and I believe that the report should not imply a nation-wide trend/cause.


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