Thursday, May 12, 2005

No child's play

My morning paper tells me that an anganwadi worker's arms were chopped off, when she tried to dissuade a man from marrying off his minor daughters.

And while this makes my soul go numb, I can't help wondering if we're going about 'progress' the wrong way.

This was pretty much what had happened in the Bhanwari Devi case - a local volunteer with the Saathin movement was gang-raped, after she complained about child marriages.

The rape still makes me angry, but to think that child marriage should be so vital to local communities that they are willing to kill and rape and burn, to be allowed to continue the tradition.... maybe we're going about tackling social change using the wrong methods.

I do not approve of child marriage. And I especially have no desire to see twelve-year-old girls bearing babies of their own, and dying at nineteen, or younger... although in most communities, the girl is NOT sent to her husband's place until she's mature. That is what the concept of 'Gauna' or 'Gohna' is all about - more like a betrothal and delayed consummation, than marriage, per se.

But perhaps, sending in an outsider (which is what most social workers are) to motivate villagers directly, or through local volunteers or anganwadi workers, might not be such a great idea.

I try and put myself in those villagers' shoes - suppose everyone I know gets their kids married off pre-puberty?

Suppose I know that if I don't follow suit, I'll be scolded by the priest, shamed by my peers and have a lot of explaining to do to my own family?

Suppose I run the risk of excommunication?

Suppose I actually believe that daughters should be married as soon as possible because they don't belong to me anyway, and that if I wait too long, their lives will be ruined, and I will sin against them, and against my duty as a father?

Just suppose... you are that person.

Would you take kindly to an outsider telling you that you must not marry your girls until they're 18, or 20, or 25? Would you not ask them who they'd be married to, because all the grooms will be taken already? You wouldn't be worried about the greater good of society nor care about reducing maternal mortality rates in this country. You would be worried about finding a groom for your girl, right now! Or tomorrow. Or in five years.

Why, even my family is more worried about getting me married off, sooner rather than later, than about social institutional change, or the greater good of womankind!

We do not like our ideals and our ideas about marriage being messed with. We think it should be a matter of choice - something full of love and driven by love and ending when the love ends, perhaps. But it is not and never has been this ideal for most communities, for most of the centuries we've known of.

It is and probably will remain a socio-economic arrangement, and as long as people believe they have a right to make their children's decisions for them, marriage will remain a parental duty and parent's privileged tool of bargaining.

If we can allow separate sets of laws, for instance the Muslim Personal Law - if we can resist a Uniform Civil Code, and find excuses for doing so - for one group, why not for another? No, that doesn't sound right... that is not what I want to say.

What I want to say is: People are short-sighted. People are clannish. People are conservative and people are not going to change simply because you tell them that it is time to change.

I am aware that there's a flaw in all my arguments. I am also aware that there will be total chaos if we let people form fifty different sets of personal laws - though lawyers will have a field day - and we will contend with a whole new bag of vicious social practices.

But we've got to find other ways of doing this social change business. Other than sending in lone women whose heads we've filled with ideals, but whom we can offer no protection against a violence they don't deserve.

There has to be another way.


Anonymous said...

came here thru Dilip Dsouza's blog - good post - I agree with what you say about a lone crusader being inadequate - do you remember reading about Bhanwari Devi in rajasthan - she reported on a child mariage in a prominent family - and got gand raped in turn - by members of the same family - 'taught her a lesson'

but the issue here is not about changing behavior - people will not accept it when an outsider walks in and tells them not to do something wich they believe is right - it is about going deeper and making a change in their belief system - and how does one do this?
is working from within a way - talking to the influencers - since in rural communities, local influence is very strong - say, the headman (but as I write this, I realise the headman would be the most difficult to convince) - or the school teacher...? or is it a good idea to mobilsie the women and make them understand...?

Morquendi said...

Change is always difficult...for all involved...

But cutting off someone's hands or gang-raping them?

Here in Sri Lanka, the worst a villager would do (not like we have many real villages anymore) if they didn't like the change you were trying to bring about, is ignore you.

I once had a friend who was doing some work in several communities where caste was a big issue, trying to negotiate sharing a well and something like that, and the response was fairly good. But the ones who didn't agree with what these guys were trying to do just cut their own well and ignored the change.

But I guess if people respond violently to change, the fault lies with the system that tries to bring about the change.

Like the International Alert supported peace talks in Sierra Leone that ended up getting even more people killed because they were not welcome.

So I guess all moves for change need to take into consideration the socio-politico-econo-everythingo context in which that change will be pursued (perhaps a little more seriously than it is done now)...and maybe also factor in variables like men with big knives who are liable to cut your hands off...

Monica said...

To believe I can depend on myself, if no one else, to "be the change". Then to realize my natal family doesn't understand why I would want this. Doesn't care. Change is welcome as long as it happens divorced from the self, their daughter's self. And I find my principles wavering: surely I can subvert the system from within?

This is how insidious it all is.

Anonymous said...

I actually think you had it just right at the point in your argument where you declared that you were wrong. The point is that we've built up a culture of impunity in which any kind of claim with the supposed weight of tradition or faith behind it is treated by both liberals and conservatives with this hideous deference. It doesn't matter whether what faith or tradition legitimize -- child marriage, rape, murder, bring down mosques -- a functional multi-cultural society has to able to enforce the rules that allow it to function. The State ought, among other things, to be a coercive instrument, but its remarkably poor at doing this, at least so far as the defense of victims is concerned. What's happened now is just a symptom. Look at our abysmal serious-crimes conviction rate, and the message that's going out is only too clear: you can get away with it, whatever it might be.

livinghigh said...


PS: the fakiri legends were nice. heartfelt.

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