Sue Lloyd-Roberts, BBC, June 8, 2006
Manemma sits forlornly, surrounded by family members, on the floor of their two roomed house.
Dressed in a bright red dress and with her hair in plaits, she looks even younger than her 11 years.
“When I was getting married, I had no idea what was going on. I was only six and all I knew was that I had to leave home. I cried and cried and said I didn’t want to, but they made me.”
I look accusingly at Manemma’s father, Ghandrappa. How could he let such a thing happen to his daughter?
Unembarrassed, he returns my stare, shrugs his shoulders and answers in a matter of fact tone, “it’s the way things happen here.”
Tens of thousands
“It’s the tradition,” he says “Girls are married at a very young age, regardless of the age of their husbands, and they’re expected to adjust to the situation.”
Tens of thousands of children get married in India every year and, as soon as they reach puberty, they are expected to conceive.
According to the census of 2001, 300,000 girls under the age of 15 had given birth, some for the second time.
Now, five years later, the number could be as many as half a million.
Child weddings are illegal in India. The Child Marriage Restraint Act passed during British rule in 1929, specified that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 before they can marry.
But, during the spring wedding season, hundreds of mass ceremonies involving children as young as six years old take place. Large, garishly coloured wedding marquees litter the landscape, in full view and in defiance of the law.
When I arrive at one wedding tent in Rajasthan, the women are singing as they carry the brides’ dowries, wrapped in silk carpets towards the grooms’ enclosure.
There are several young girls in the brides’ tent including a six year old, dressed doll like in crimson and gold, who stares at me with kohl encircled eyes, uncomprehending as the events unfolds around her.
By the end of the day, the girls will leave their homes forever and move to their husbands’ houses to begin a term of slavery to their mother-in-law and then, once they mature, a life of repeated pregnancies and unremitting childcare if, that is, they survive their first pregnancy.
In some Indian states, a law has been passed to enforce the registration of marriages making it compulsory for the bride to produce a birth certificate proving she is 18. But the law is not being enforced.
In Andhra Pradesh, the spokesman for the Department of Child Welfare, Prabakar Thomas, explains that the marriage registration officers have not yet been appointed but, he promises, they will be soon.
Meanwhile, at the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, a 15 year old is rushed into casualty. She is having convulsions and is writhing in pain.
“She offers a classic example of what can go wrong if you have a baby too young”, Dr Shailaja says. “She has high blood pressure and, because her body is not yet fully developed, her pelvic passage is too small and the baby will get stuck. We shall have to carry out a Caesarean.”
The girl travelled two hundred kilometres to get to the hospital. She is lucky. The majority of mothers give birth at home and, with similar problems, both mother and baby would die.
India has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world and doctors blame early childbirth.
But the children of India are beginning to fight back. I met 14-year-old Jengri as she was addressing a group of younger school children.
She was married at the age of 11 to an alcoholic truck driver more than 20 years older than her. Three days after the wedding, he was killed in a traffic accident.
Because the wedding was never registered, she received no compensation. As a widow, albeit 11 years old, it appeared that her life was effectively over until she decided to change from victim to activist.
One small voice
She now lectures other children and their parents on the perils of early marriages to older men.
Surely the parents do not want to hear what she has to say, I ask?
Her expression is anxious but determined. “Of course, I get scared when I talk to parents but I steel myself, telling myself that I must do it. I tell them my story and I hope that it will change their minds.”
She suddenly breaks into a huge smile. “You see, I thought my life was over but now I have a cause and I have a new life.”
Jengri is one small voice in a vast country.
But it is a beginning. Unless more people speak out, thousands more girls will suffer trauma, rape and the possibility of death in childbirth in the name of time honoured tradition.