Religious Diversities and Child Marriages — A Saga of Social Change and Women’s Empowerment

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 26 June 2017

Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

26 Jun 2017 – Birth, childhood, youth, old age and death are all part of life of all communities and societies. Marriages are other features of all societies although the form and rituals of marriage, the age to marry etc. vary from community to community.

Christians are married by their priests in a church, Hindus by a Brahmin priest in front of a firewood fire and chanting of various mantras from Hindu scriptures. In Islam the boy and the girl sit separately and the Qazi (Maulvi) asks the boy if he agrees to marry the girl and the same question is repeated to the bride to be. When both give their assent the marriage or Nikah as it is called is solemnised followed by other arrangements such as signature of three respected persons and the Meher (money to be paid by the husband to his wife) in case the marriage is subsequently dissolved.

The marriage should take place when both the girl and boy are of marriageable age–in other words a few years after both have attained puberty. This factor has been ignored especially in relation to the girl’s age. Earlier many boys and girls who were not even 14 or 16 year in age were married. Sometimes the bride was only 12 of years of age or less.

Whatever may have been the justification for early marriages the fact is that in most societies — Western, Asian or tribal, early marriages were the norm rather than the exception. There were economic, social and religious reasons for early marriages and early motherhood.

In India many young Hindu girls were married when only ten years or so to escape the ugly prospect of these girls being kidnapped by invading Muslim kings or nobles. Similarly poor families in many parts of Asia including Nepal and India would marry off their daughters due to reasons of poverty. There is a saying in Hindi that a daughter is like a paraya dhan (other person’s property) so it is better to marry her to the family that symbolically owns her. In this connection it was also believed by traditional families that once the daughter is married she should stay in her husband’s family through thick and thin.

Marriages all over the world generally involve considerable expenditure and elaborate rituals including long drawn feasting. On the other hand there is the simplest of marriages called Gandharva vivah where the woman and man garland each other in front of a temple deity.

I may mention here, the interesting Mahabharata story of Krishna‘s cousin sister Subadhra whom her parents wanted to marry to a young prince of the Kaurav clan. Both Subadhra and Krishna did not like this thought and in a subtle manner Krishna arranged for his friend Arjun to elope with Subhadra to avoid the decision of her father.

As we know the Bhagwad Gita is the discourse between Krishna and Arjun on the questions of life, morality, duty and other philosophical issues, while the two armies are facing each other in the famous battle in Kurukshetra.

We also know that Gandhi and Kasturba were married when both were about 13 years old. Gandhi in his writings later regretted the fact of his early marriage.

In India one could earlier see a beautiful and unforgettable sight — marriages taking place between two or three year olds and the ceremony being conducted with the children sitting in their parents’ laps. What a beautiful sight although it was harsh on the children themselves. Occasionally if the boy who was thus married, died due to illness or anyhow, the young girl would become a widow at the age when children enjoy playing and having fun.

As indicated earlier child marriages were quite common in many parts of the world. It is known that Greece and Roman law encouraged marriages when the boy and the girl were in their teens. Marie Antoinette was married in Versailles at the age of only 15 years. In England which followed Roman law some women of nobility, not to speak of commoners were married before the age of 18 or even 16. In China and India child marriages were fairly common. On a personal note, my own mother was married at the age of 13.

Many initiatives were taken by scholars and social activists to eradicate child marriages and postpone the age of marriage. Raja Ram Mohan Roy of Brahmo Samaj in Bengal was also in the forefront of justice for women. He was against child marriage and the obnoxious practice of Sati where the wife was burnt alive along with her husband who had died separately. Today due to various legislative efforts the legal age of marriage in many countries is 18 and 21 years for a girl and boy respectively. Economic considerations are also postponing the age when marriages are taking place. This is also due to softening of patriarchal attitudes and empowerment of women. It is also an issue of good health of both the mother and the child. A later age marriage is considered helpful in curbing population growth.

Let us salute the well-wishers of society.

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 June 2017.

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