Can #MeToo succeed where child marriages are so rampant?

Can MeToo succeed in a culture where children are married off for social or economic exigencies?

Looking at the challenges women face at their place of work or even at home in India or Pakistan, among other venues, I wondered how Prof Kailas Nath Kaul would have analysed the phenomenon. The late raconteur believed that our languages harboured our ugly past, samples of which may still be lodged in our DNA waiting to jump out at a tiny provocation.

Being a Lucknow-based brother of Nehru’s wife, Kamala, Kaul Saahab was a permanent invitee at family gatherings among the city elite. He was also a botanist by training, and set up the city’s fabled botanical gardens where as a child I first saw Nehru.

According to Prof Kaul, certain phrases in Indian languages are commonly used in a quarrel or even in jest, and that reveals a cannibal past. Likewise, mothers, sisters and daughters are at the receiving end of a widely accepted sexual violence that’s ingrained in our daily conversation.

People threaten to drink each other’s blood, chew each other raw or eat one alive, or make mincemeat of the other at the drop of a hat. Even a vegetarian doesn’t have trouble at the prospect of a blood-drenched threat in a rage. Where did we recently see a foetus plucked from the womb of a slaughtered woman and hoisted on a sword to a mob’s glee?

I believe the cause of women’s liberation or equality in our region continues to be challenged by a deep-seated culture of male violence, of which they were victims then and remain so today.

As a journalist, I have met the kangaroo court that ordered the torture and murder of a boy and a girl from different castes in Barsana near Mathura, the legendary Radha’s village, after they had apparently eloped. The upper caste chiefs of the girl’s village disapproved and the police looked the other way. The victims were first hanged low by a banyan tree, and their bodies tortured, before they were thrown on a pyre amid bizarre public rejoicing.

At one level, the pervasive abuse of women might seem like a particularly tribal or rural phenomenon, but Tehmina Durrani revealed years ago how gender violence and an inbuilt injustice against women has been woven in our modern power structures.

It is thus that in cosmopolitan Mumbai, MeToo-inspired women have publicly spoken of their experiences of rape and harassment in the movie world, while in Delhi, senior and respected journalists are in the dock for alleged abuse of their women colleagues.

The accused men are not unconnected with their social origins, nor for that matter are the women. Part of the problem lies in not respecting the facts of history.

A well-regarded parochial historian has argued, for example, that Hindus have had a social renaissance, which Indian Muslims lacked. That’s an exaggeration given the fact that there were liberalising elements in both communities and both were bludgeoned by a surge of reaction from within their folds.

It was the seemingly urbane men at the helm of India’s national movement who fought shy of social reforms that were pushed by a more enlightened group of men and women. The result is that child marriages, among other social evils, are pervasive in India.

Can MeToo succeed in a culture where children are married off for social or economic exigencies?

While there has been a decline in child marriage across the country, research has revealed that Rajasthan has reported the highest incidence of child marriages.

The study, based on the 2011 census, states that 2.5 per cent of marriages of minor girls were reported in Rajasthan, which is followed by 15 states, including Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Nagaland, Assam, Maharashtra, Tripura, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Karnataka. Where is the renaissance? And child marriage is equally a Muslim problem.

“In terms of numbers, we find that 69.5 lakh boys and 51.6 lakh girls have been married before their respective legal age according to census 2011,” says the report.

The study shows a minor decline of 0.1 per cent in the marriage of minor girls. The decline in rural India, between the 2001 and 2011 census, was marginally higher than in the whole of the country.

Here comes the rub: “However, the incidence of child marriage among girls increased substantially in urban India from 1.78 per cent in 2001 to 2.45 per cent in 2011… the absolute number of girls married below legal age was 5.1 million.”

Justice A.K. Sikri of the Supreme Court, who supervised the report, observed that there was a conflict between the “secular” Prevention of the Child Marriage Act and personal laws, which needed legislative intervention for a resolution. Anyone stepping forward?

Marrying children is an offence under the secular laws, but it is only “voidable” at the girl’s instance after she attains majority. Well, when she does attain majority after dodging the early marriage trap, she meets the predator at work.

By arrangement with Dawn

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