From child brides to survivors – thousands of young women in Assam are caught in a nearly overnight transition with almost no education or skills to see them through the process, experts pointed out with concern, as the state police continued its crackdown on underage marriages in this northeastern state.
Questioning the "haywire" manner of the drive, they also raised apprehensions on the future of these women, who have no means to feed their children with their husbands now locked behind bars. "The women, who were victims of child marriages, are now being called survivors. Even if it is a legal issue, we must look at it from a humane angle, keeping the larger social perspective in view," Rakhee Kalita Moral, head, Centre for Women Studies, Cotton University, told PTI.
"These child brides will be basically now persona non grata. They will be have nobody to care for them. Employability will be vital to secure their futures," she maintained. More than 2,500 arrests have been made on the basis of 4,074 FIRs lodged across the state in an operation against child marriage since February 2, with the chief minister asserting that the drive will continue till 2026 Assembly elections.
The opposition has criticised the manner in which it was being carried out, equating the police action with "terrorising people", while family members of those arrested have also been protesting against the operation. Echoing Moral, senior advocate of Gauhati High Court Rakhee S Chowdhury said, "We have to think about these women; they have to look after their children. Action on child marriage was certainly needed, but the procedure seems unclear. Households are getting disrupted." "The drive is being carried out in a haywire manner. The government should have thought of the fall out," the advocate stated.
Gender studies have shown that many of these women had eloped consensually in search of "liberty" as they were seen as "liabilities" at their parental homes, Moral claimed. "They elope, thinking of it as a means of empowerment, but that delusion is soon broken and they fall back into the trap of social ills," she pointed out.
For a state like Assam, its geo-strategic location also contributes to such social evils like child marriage, with many such weddings later found to have been "staged" for trafficking young girls to other parts of the country or to foreign shores. In many cases, the matter of "security" of the girls come into play, forcing the parents to marry off their daughters early, M Sharma, a teacher at a local school here, said.
"Once the girls attain puberty, parents, especially those from financially weaker sections, fear for the safety and security of their daughters. They think that marrying them off will ensure that the girls don’t fall prey to any sex-related crimes," Sharma said. Factors like poverty, illiteracy and deeply-embedded patriarchy are among the major reasons behind child marriages, and the root problems have to be analysed and addressed, Moral stressed.
"Data needs to be mined and analysed to formulate preventive mechanisms. We have to strike at the root of the problem,” she said, underlining the role of women’s advocacy groups, gender study centres, NGOs and the government together in the endeavour.
For the women affected by the current drive, Moral suggested that special educational packages, skill development programmes and rehabilitation assistance be provided to the child brides. Awareness is the key to end this social menace, advocate Chowdhury asserted. "Instead of only arrests, the government should also take effective measures to ensure that people understand the repercussions of child marriage," she added.