Dark spots of enlightenment

Hindustan times:Sujata Anandan

MAHARASHTRA, the state which prides itself in being the pioneer of social upliftment in the country, needs to hang its head in shame.

Last month, Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Vimal Mundada, was embarrassed amid revelations that she had blessed a child marriage in her constituency in the heart of Marathwada. As the clamour for her resignation - mostly from the Shiv Sena-BJP - grows, there have been attempts by the government, which includes the Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress (and practically every other 'progressive' element in the state), to play down the incident.

Mundada's explanation is that she did not know she was attending a child marriage. She was passing by and was asked to attend a reception in a nearby village. Looking at her face, the bride seemed five years older. She was as surprised as everybody else to discover the girl had been only 13 years old.

All of which may be true. And the Sena-BJP may only be extracting political capital from an incident that has embarrassed a minister who has the distinction of being able to contest her seat on any ticket (she twice represented the reserved Kej constituency on a BJP ticket; now she belongs to the NCP).

It has been said that while Mundada preaches progressive attitudes in the cities, she has little courage to translate them into practice in her home turf. That is because any such move would immediately alienate her from her voters.

But that is only part of the answer. On the day the government was embarrassed by the incident, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh admitted that at least 70 per cent of the marriages of girls in the remote rural talukas are child marriages. Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal said the party had sought an explanation from Mundada and was satisfied that she had not been at fault. As he released details of a new Women's Protection Bill this week, Deshmukh apologised on behalf of Mundada and begged forgiveness in her name. Now even the Sena-BJP seems to be running out of steam on this particular issue. The reason for the laidback attitude of all these political parties is not far to seek. For the answer lies not in Mundada's guilt or innocence in supporting a child marriage, but in the complete failure of the socially progressive Maharashtra to bring education to girls in the remote rural villages of the state. Child marriages, thus, are not limited to Marathwada alone. They sweep across the state, binding all regions in a common concern: security.

There are few who support child marriage in Maharashtra. But those who do not condemn it point to the reasons that distinguish it from blind faith that makes parents in Rajasthan marry off their daughters while they are still babies. In Maharashtra, child marriages can be found only in the remote areas. Not because the parents are socially regressive or uncaring about their daughters but, perhaps, because they care too much. Agriculture being the sole enterprise in these areas, most parents are away working in their fields all day. They, therefore, prefer to send all their children to school. But there are very few villages where schools exist beyond Class IV. For secondary education, parents have to send their daughters to semi-rural talukas miles from their homes. The girls often walk to their schools. Even the one rupee incentive and a free mid-day meal, then, are not enough inducement for parents who risk molestation of their daughters as they are accosted by potential violators on the remote roadways.

Ironically, it is the progress that Maharashtra has made towards universal primary education that is now responsible for the increase in child marriages in the state. The government is reasonably proud of its anganwadi network in the villages that often work as crèches with both parents away tilling their land. Little girls, then, are no longer needed to look after their younger siblings.

Parents simply panic once their daughters reach puberty. It's scary. The fact that girls are home alone could soon be common knowledge to potential rapists. So parents simply marry them off in the age-old fashion of ridding themselves of the responsibility of parenting girl children.

Such child marriages do not take place in the urban and semi-rural parts of Maharashtra. All these areas have enough schools to ensure that girls at least pass their board exams. Social preaching could then be detrimental to political interests.

There have been some attempts to tackle the issue through the law and order machinery. No leader or party talks about child marriages in Maharashtra. But the police have been instructed to register offences under the Child Marriage Act wherever they come across such transgressions. In this particular instance, the priest and the printing press that printed the invitation cards are being penalised. That, though, is not the answer: the marriages would only go underground.

The Maharashtrian mind is not closed to the progress of the girl child. Women had an equal status under Shivaji. Jyotiba Phule was at least a hundred years ahead of all others in this country when he advocated (and succeeded in) the education of girls in the 1880s. B.R. Ambedkar redefined the rights of women by pioneering the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament soon after Independence.

So battling child marriage in Maharashtra might be easier than knocking down the practice in Rajasthan. The government would only need to go back to the basics: the ABCs and the three 'R's all the way to graduation levels in areas other than western Maharashtra where most such development has been concentrated.

Women engineers from the comparatively rural Latur (the chief minister's constituency) in Marathwada are, after all, rebuilding homes in the quake-ravaged Bhuj. Perhaps Vilasrao Deshmukh can light the way for many more of them. This time without any apologies.

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Referred by: Mukandan CM
Published on: July 9, 2001
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