Child marriage is truly a bane that India has been tackling since decades.
The practice violates the rights for children and puts them at a higher risk of abuse, exploitation and violence.
It is now firmly on the global agenda for development, as goal number five in the sustainable development goals (SDG 5), designed to target at eliminating the practice completely by 2030.
Prevalence of child marriage in India
The child marriage rate stands at 21.3 per cent in the state of Odisha and is more prevalent in the western and southern districts of the state.
Despite the socio-political awareness, child marriages have been rampant in Odisha. Even though the state government and NGOs are making attempts to arrest the social evil through various interventions, it still remains a major trend in Odisha’s tribal-dominated district of Malkangiri.
What do the statistics reflect?
In addition to tribal customs, severe poverty, lack of access to education and economic opportunities, inadequate health services as well as poor legal and enforcement mechanisms are cited as some of the primary reasons for such high rates of child marriages in the state.
Moreover, high costs, dowry, male migration and resulting vulnerability of girls in the rural families are often seen as early marriage factors.
As per various surveys, Malkangiri district accounts for the highest rate of child marriages in the state where 39.3 per cent of girls are married off before they attain the legal age of 18.
Therewith, a number of districts such as Nabarangpur (37.6%), Mayurbhanj (35%), Koraput (34.7%), Rayagada (34.4%), Nayagarh (31.3%), Ganjam (29.8%) and Keonjhar (28.1%) also lie well above the national average.
Malkangiri and its customs
There are mainly 10 different tribes found in the tribal district of Malkangiri such as the Koya, Paraja, Durua, Matia, Bhumia, Bonda, Kandh, Gadaba, Halwa and Didayee.
Within Malkangiri district, the number of child marriages have increased considerably especially in Kalimela, Malkangiri and Mathili areas.
Koya and Bonda are the two major dominant tribes in these areas. In both of these tribes, women enjoy a greater and privileged position than men and believe in mutual respect.
They are the primary workers and food providers for their community.
This matriarchal dominance is seen in the marital norms of the tribes as well.
Boys are expected to marry between the ages of 10-12 as girls largely prefer marrying boys who are at least 5 to 10 years younger than them.
There is no usual dowry system from the girl’s family in both of these societies. Rather, the bride price or Kanya Jhola is a must from the boy’s side consisting of rice, cow, wine, pig or some amount of money.
The forms of marriage
The various forms of marriage in a Koya community are as follows:
1. Maga Vibha or arranged marriage
2. Udulia or love marriage
3. Jhika Vibha or marriage by capture
4. Paisamundi or marriage of a widow or divorced woman
The Udulia Vibha is now common in the Koya tribe. Even though polygamy is practiced in exceptional cases, monogamy has always been the rule.
The increasing number of child marriages in the district has become a cause of concern for the authorities.
As many as 411 child marriages were prevented by the timely intervention of authorities and social activists in the year 2019.
Around 143 marriages were stopped by the Child Welfare Committee wherein almost 52 per cent of these marriages were reported from the Scheduled Caste (SC), 40 per cent from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and about 8 per cent from the general caste.
The parents of all the tender-aged children were asked to sign the bonds which stated that they cannot marry them off until they attain the legal age for marriage.
The government of Odisha has introduced the 2019-2024 Strategic Action Plan to completely halt the age-old practice by 2030.
Therefore, in order to ensure a ban on early marriages, it is important to resolve the irregularities in the existing schemes and make the systems more child-friendly. Things have progressively improved and various surveys show that there has been a decrease in the numbers, though India still remains a home to one of the largest numbers of underage marriages.
Thus, developing strong support systems and changing the gender biased thoughts of the society could help curb and ultimately eliminate the menace caused by child marriages across the nation.