Minors married, without a protest

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT in Hyderabad
  • Published 24.05.05
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Hyderabad, May 24: Shakuntala Verma dared to campaign against child marriage in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district and almost lost her hands. Folks in neighbouring Andhra are much wiser.

On May 19, 15 minor girls ? the youngest 10-year-old Sunita who has not yet attained puberty and another, Kamala, a widow at 13 ? were married off in villages in Chevalla Assembly segment, about 45 km from Hyderabad.

No one as much as uttered a word. Those who did said child marriages were customary in these parts of Andhra and villagers would brook no interference from anyone.

“It is an internal matter of the community and neither police nor the media have anything to do with it,” said Gopathi Rao, of Aloor village to which Sunita belongs.

Kamala is the daughter of a farm labourer from Tangadapalli. Her 14-year-old husband, Ganesh, died of snake bite three months after their wedding last summer.

Officials of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) said they dare not interfere with local customs. They had tried doing a Shakuntala some years earlier and paid the price for it.

“One of our officials was kidnapped and held hostage till authorities assured that cases registered against priests who conducted the weddings and parents of the minors in 2001 would be dropped,” an ICDS official of Rangareddy district, infamous for female infanticide and girl-child selling, said.

Anjali Devi, also working with the ICDS, did not mince words. “It is very easy to blame us for lapses. We have to work among the same communities every day. When an official tried to stop such child marriages in Chhattisgarh, the villagers chopped off his hand,” she said.

A total of over 300 marriages were solemnised along with the 15 child marriages last Wednesday, about a week after Akshaya Tritiya, the day when weddings can be held without priests and on which Shakuntala’s hands were cut.

“Since there were no good muhurtams in the next two months, there were weddings everywhere. None of the government offices were fully open,” said M.A. Shakeel, an NGO activist who had tried to procure an injunction against the child marriages.

Almost the whole of the nine Chevalla villages ? Shankarapalli, Antharam, Tangadapalli, Kandawada, Eartapalli, Urella, Aloor, Venkannaguda and Raghanpur ? turned out in strength for the weddings. There was community feasting, full with liquor and sacrifice of animals.

“Lambs and buffaloes were sacrificed to Maisamma and Pochamma (local deities) after the wedding. The villages feasted on the meat for several days,” said Anita, a schoolteacher.

Police have arrested a dozen village priests for conducting the marriages. Rangareddy district administration officials said the priests refused to adhere to their orders not to perform the ceremony if either the bride or the groom was a minor.

“We had a meeting with all the village priests on May 9 and warned them of serious consequences. But they could not withstand community pressures,” revenue official Vittal Rao said.