The Plight of Underage Wives
“My father brought me here and had married me off when I was very young. I have lived with my in-laws ever since but I was not allowed to live with my husband in the beginning. I used to play as a child in the house and used to sleep in the same room as my mother-in-law. It was in the fourth year that my menstrual cycle had started, and I was then sent to share the same bed with my husband”, says Neelmoni. This custom of underage marriage at a very tender age is very common for girls of Kalitali village of Thakurgaon, where Adibashis believe it to bring bad luck to a home if girls are not married before she enters her menstrual cycle.
A group of Adibashi women, victims of underage marriage
It's very common for the Adibashis in the Kalitali village to marry their daughters off at a very early age. They are very superstitious and believe it to bring extreme misfortune on a family if a girl is not sent off to her in-laws before her menstrual cycle starts. And it is due to this superstition that the girls of this village are sent off to their new homes even before they turn 12. No time is spent in worrying about the mental maturity and preparedness of the girl that is about to get married at an illegal age.
Lakshmi Debi, now 45, recalls that she too was not allowed to come near her husband before she her periods started. It was three years before she was sent to live with her husband after she was married. She says, “I was a child when I was married, and understood very little about it. Since then I played with my father and mother in-laws, and used to be fed by them as well. I started living with my husband after I had my first period three years after I started living here.” Most underage daughters of the village get married just like Neelmoni and Lakshmi Debi even before their minds have grown enough for them to realize the concept.
Residents of other surrounding villages, such as Gabindanagar and Fakdapur in the Upazila, follow the same ritual of underage marriage for girls despite it being against the law and constitution of the country, which states 18 as the minimum age for marriage. Giti Rishi, Bashanta Rishi, Jhumar Rishi and Sharifa Rishi of Kalitali village are getting prepared for marriage, and are only awaiting for a 'good date' from the priest. These girls are all between ages of 9 and 12!
Some Adibashi leaders informed that these young girls are suffering from premature child birth and are entering motherhood at a very tender age because the existing superstitions. They said such customs were evident in the Peerganj, Thamuriya Shaalbon and Bochaganj areas in the Dinajpur Zila.
Babul Tigga, the Adibashi Parishad President of the Thakurgaon wing, said he has tried and is still trying to bring these people out of such ignorance, but to no avail. He has tried explaining how harmful it is for such a young girl to bear children and the complications they form for the mother and child alike. He also mentioned that it's against the law. But alas! All his words were never paid any attention to. The fathers mostly replied with how they were under pressure because of social norms in following this custom and how they are not ready to lose face amongst their peers.
“They are just following the customs followed and handed down to them by their ancestors. This is religious to them and they believe they must follow this custom unless they want some kind of misfortune to befall their families”, says Babul Tigga. Babul believes that the state should get more involved in these areas to spread awareness regarding this issue.
Translated by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin
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