Assam's child bride recounts crackdown
Nimee's eyes do not sparkle with the joy of new motherhood, instead, they reflect the fear, insecurity and sense of foreboding that stalks her village in Assam's Morigaon district.
Rezina Khatun stares vacuously into the distance -- trying to make sense of the sudden apocalypse, which has struck her till-now happy world.
While Nimee is among the thousands of child brides whose husbands were arrested in a statewide crackdown against child marriage by the Assam Police over the last two days, Rezina is a mother whose son's romantic escapade, which had ended with marriage, has landed him in jail now.
In the drive against child marriage, police had till Saturday arrested 2,258 people, including Hindu and Muslim priests who conducted such weddings. Police said there is a list of a total 8,000 accused.
The police had registered 4,074 cases of child marriage in less than a fortnight after the state Cabinet decided on January 23 to arrest offenders, besides launching an extensive awareness campaign against the menace.
"There was a knock on the door around 2 am on Thursday. We opened the door and found policemen outside. They took away my husband," Nimee told PTI in a feeble voice, as her one-and-half-month-old son cried in her arms just as he was when his father was being arrested.
The 17-year-old had eloped and tied the knot with Gopal Biswas, who is in his twenties, more than a year back, and were starting off their family with the husband providing for them by selling pakoras and such savouries at the village square.
The names of those affected were changed to protect their identities.
"We barely earn enough to feed our own families. Who will look after Nimee and her son? She has been inconsolable, barely eating anything. The child is also getting sick now," said Yudishter, Gopal's elder brother, who lives in the same premise along with their aged parents.
Rezina's son Rajibul Hussain was picked up from their house around 6 pm on Thursday, barely a few minutes after he had reached home with his father from Kerala, where they had gone to bring back his injured uncle.
"My daughter-in-law is not underage but there was some error in her Aadhaar card due to which my son is now behind bars. She has gone to our native place, some distance away, to get her birth records," Rezina claimed, trying to convince whoever cared to listen.
A neighbour of the family claimed that many like Rajibul's wife were actually not minors at the time of the marriage but their dates of birth were wrongly entered while enrolling for Aadhaar cards.
"Data on the age was taken by the police from local health workers mostly, who have the information based on the Aadhar. Now, we are helping these women to get their original birth records so that their husbands can get bail," he claimed.
While some are getting help and support from their families, many like Riya Devi are left at the mercy of the authorities after the arrest of their husbands.
"We don’t have any other family as we had eloped and got married. Where am I to go with my one-year-old daughter now from here?" questioned 16-year-old Riya, who is staying temporarily at a government-run shelter home.
Another inmate Rupa Das, also 16 years old and nine months pregnant, shared the same uncertainty. "Set my husband free. We had married with consent. What will I do now if he is not around," she pleaded.
Parimita Deka, a gender specialist at the state's Social Welfare Department, is working with the likes of Riya and Rupa. "The drive against child marriage is very welcome. But we also have a responsibility towards these women now," she said.
"Most are children themselves. We have to handle them sensitively and secure their future," Deka added between counselling sessions to pacify the distraught women.
While child marriage is rampant in the state, the people were not altogether ignorant of the laws prohibiting it.
"We knew there was some kind of law but it was never implemented. Government should have warned us that there is such strict action for any lapse and we would have been careful," Yudishter maintained.
Another local businessman, Umar Ali, said organisations used to create some awareness regarding it, but it was not enough at most times.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said that the drive against child marriage will continue till the next assembly elections in 2026.
Assam has a high rate of maternal and infant mortality, with child marriage being the primary cause as an average of 31 per cent of marriages registered in the state are in the prohibited age group, according to the National Family Health Survey.
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