Child Marriage: Preeti and Manju
We first met Preeti at a women’s Self-Help Group (SHG) in Kankroli. The women were receiving training from representatives of Sadhna in embroidery. Those who complete the course satisfactorily will be given the opportunity to earn from applying their newly acquired skills through Sadhna, an off-shoot of Seva Mandir which provides work to local women who are thus able to boost their family income and earn respect, even world-wide, for the fabrics and clothes which they embellish with their embroidery.
We had been asked, by a former Seva Mandir volunteer who now runs her own organization combatting discrimination of all kinds, to discuss violence against women with this and two other SHGs for a social media campaign. If the women agreed, a photograph of them with their right arm outstretched and forefinger raised would also be taken for publication as part of the campaign. With Seva Mandir’s permission, the issue of violence against women was raised and the context explained.
The women of the SHG show their opposition to violence against women
A first question was what these women considered to constitute violence against them. Initially, there was some reluctance to offer comments but then an 18-year-old woman, Preeti, said: ‘Child marriage is a form of violence.’ It emerged that she was married at 13, subsequently forced to stop her education and physically abused before she left her husband and in-laws’ house to return to her parents and continue her education. Preeti spoke with passion about her experience, displaying force of character and great courage.
Feeling that this admirable young woman would make an ideal subject for an in-depth interview, we arranged to return to meet her on another occasion.
As is so often the case, it transpired that, whilst the gist of what we had gleaned at our first meeting had been correct, there was a little more to it. Preeti’s mother, Manju, a woman in her forties, who appeared confident and in possession of the facts, joined us. We were a little concerned that the presence of her mother might make it more difficult for Preeti to speak about her child marriage and subsequent events, but the opposite proved to be true.
Manju and Preeti had both been married at 13, in each case under the strong influence and at the bidding of their respective maternal grandmothers. Manju explained that local communities considered it to be auspicious for a girl’s wedding to be arranged by her maternal grandmother. Manju’s grandmother had been quite insistent that the girl should marry at 13. The young bride then continued to live with her own family until she was older, as is the tradition in these parts, and did not move to her in-laws’ home with her husband until she was 20. Manju explained that she had four children: Preeti, an elder daughter and one older and one younger son (who also joined us and contributed to the history as it unfolded). Moreover, Manju was still happily married to her child-marriage husband, Preeti’s father.
Preeti’s sister, the eldest of the siblings, was due to be married when she was 20. The sisters’ maternal grandmother was insistent that Preeti (then 13) should be married at the same time. On the one hand, there was the element of auspiciousness in one’s grandmother having a hand in the wedding and, on the other, the simple reality that one wedding for two granddaughters would be cheaper than two separate weddings (a significant consideration in an area where a very large and costly wedding is thought to be a necessity and a duty). Manju had been unhappy about Preeti marrying so young but had felt unable to withstand the pressure from her own mother.
The husband’s family was known to Preeti’s. He was 16 at the time of the wedding and now, aged 21, had just completed his BA and was working in a jewellery shop. Preeti and her husband did not know each other before the marriage. After the wedding, Preeti remained with her parents and continued going to school. The family, although Rajasthani, was at that time living in Gujarat where the young husband’s family also lived.
When she was 16, Preeti’s in-laws asked her family to allow her to go to stay with them for one month to help in the preparations for another wedding in their family. Preeti’s time with her in-laws was apparently uneventful. However, it transpired that there was a rule in Gujarat which stipulated that, if a pupil failed to attend school for one whole month, s/he was debarred from re-attending. We have no independent corroboration of this rule but the upshot was that Preeti could not continue her schooling in Gujarat. There was no suggestion that Preeti’s in-laws had in any way intended this outcome or even been aware of the implications of Preeti spending a month with them. Nevertheless, when subsequently asked by Preeti’s family to support their efforts to continue Preeti’s education, they declined, taking the view that no purpose would be served by Preeti continuing her schooling. At the time, Preeti was in 9th grade but did not complete the year or take the end-of-year examinations.
At around this time, Preeti’s family moved back to Rajasthan and settled in Kankroli. Despite their attempts to obtain permission for Preeti to resume her education, this proved impossible for administrative reasons.
Despite Manju’s unease, Preeti’s in-laws then insisted, when she was just 17, that she should go to live with them as her husband’s wife. Manju believed that her daughter should not go before she was at least 18 – but, again, the pressure was too great. One of her concerns was that Preeti might conceive and give birth. If she were then not happy in the marriage, who would look after the child? (It was interesting that, apart from Manju’s comment that she was still happily married to him, there was no other mention of Preeti’s father or his views or interventions at any stage, if any.)
Preeti spent three months with her husband in her in-laws’ house in Gujarat, then a long way from her own family. Whilst she did not want to speak in detail about the treatment she received, she confirmed that, during this time, she had been physically abused frequently by her husband who was supported by his parents. After three months, Preeti decided that enough was enough and announced that she was leaving to return to her parents. It appears that the husband and in-laws adopted a couldn’t-care-less attitude and said, ‘If you want to go, go! We don’t care!’
Manju was very supportive of Preeti and welcomed her back. The efforts to enable the teenager to continue her formal schooling having failed, Preeti enrolled for a six-month beautician’s course which she had completed about one year before the interview. She had been looking, until then without success, for some simple premises in Kankroli to set up a beauty parlour and was determined to continue looking. But Preeti would continue in the SHG and with the Sadhna training in any event.
It appeared that there had been some more recent contact from the husband’s family in Gujarat who wanted Preeti to return. But Manju was not prepared to send Preeti back unless the in-laws came in person with village elders to Kankroli. The husband, in public, would have to accept Preeti back as his wife and promise not to repeat the beatings. When questioned on the degree of confidence the family could have that the abuse would not continue, Manju appeared to place great store by the fact that the promise would be made in front of respected village elders from the husband’s community and that his behaviour would be monitored. In these circumstances, Manju would send her daughter back.
Preeti, when asked, said that, whilst she would not go against the wishes of her mother, she would personally never choose to go back to her husband and in-laws. Preeti stared at the carpet in front of her when giving her answer.
If the husband and his family did not come in person, Preeti would at some point apply for a divorce and probably marry again. Whilst this would again be an arranged marriage in name, Manju confirmed that, provided it was a marriage within their caste, Preeti would be free to choose her new husband; it was, at the very least, essential that the couple should know each other before the wedding. But marriage outside the caste was unthinkable: not only Preeti but the whole family would be outcasts.
Asked about her attitude to child marriage in the light of her own and Preeti’s experiences, Manju affirmed that she was resolutely against them. She spoke to her friends and family and advocated strongly that both daughters and sons should be in their twenties before marrying and have attained not only some degree of maturity but also financial independence with the skills to earn for themselves. Manju had even promoted this view to Preeti’s in-laws since they had young girls in their wider family who should be spared Preeti’s fate. Manju confirmed that her elder son had recently married aged 22 and that the younger son would not marry until he, too, was in his twenties.
For Manju, education for boys and girls was equally important: education would give (at least an element of) independence. But in Manju’s wider family there were couples with six or more children who felt the financial pressures to combine weddings for their daughters. The threat of child marriages was accordingly still a reality.
Asked about her own role as a future grandmother should Preeti’s elder sister and indeed Preeti herself have daughters, Manju confirmed that she would break with the tradition followed by her mother and grandmother. Yet we were left more than a little uneasy at the thought that, despite this stance, Manju would send Preeti back to her husband and in-laws if they came in person and the requisite public declarations were made. The complexities of abiding by and, at the same time, breaking with traditions were there for all to see.