From time to time the newspaper splashes news of a child marriage in a remote part of India. Some traditional Hindus apparently still go along with early marriage - as soon as they find a good catch for their girl child. By and large support for child marriages is on the decline, though some continue and go unnoticed and unreported.
It was on a hot afternoon that Renu tip-toed up the small steps of the school and peeped through the window of the classroom facing the narrow lane in front. She watched the teacher who was engaged in blackboard work. It was normal for the teachers to encounter a parent or a child coming to school at odd hours and asking for admission as this school focuses on providing education to those who cannot go even to a free State-run school.
Looking at the teacher hesitatingly Renu asked, “Miss. can I join your class?' Hearing this question the teacher looked at Renu and went out to speak to her. Renu rattled on cheerfully, her eyes going constantly past the teacher to the open doors of the classroom.
“Miss, can I bring my little sister too?” she asked.
“Yes of course” replied the teacher. Renu was an unsophisticated migrant child whose father became blind after a tragic accident, mother worked as a daily wage earner while Renu took care of the household duties. Having no male child in the family was a great disappointment for the parents. Renu had studied 5 years in a State-run school but she could not read or write a correct sentence in her own mother tongue-Hindi. She knew some letters of the alphabet. Though she was 13 years of age she agreed to sit-in class with children who are much younger than her!
Next day Renu came to school on time with a pencil and an old note book. Not only was she enthusiastic about her daily studies but she also learnt quickly to express her opinions especially at value education class. Being older than the rest, she showed qualities of leadership and a sense of responsibility. Owing to pressure of work at home her absences were frequent and noticed by her teachers and class mates. However her happy school life was to be short -lived. Barely two months later, we heard that there were to be wedding bells for Renu and she stopped coming to school.
Renu's parents had collected a small amount of money, promised some gifts as bride price, fixed the day for the marriage ceremony. So the great day came, Renu was all dressed up, and went to the temple where she would meet her groom for only the second time with her small family. The Pujari (temple priest) too was ready to perform the ceremony. All waited for the boy to take the place assigned to him. Alas! The boy did not appear! Renu with her family returned bewildered and disheartened. Later, the teachers came to know that the whole drama had been staged by the groom's family as their demands for more dowry gifts had not been met.
Two weeks passed. The teachers went to meet Renu and encouraged her to return to school. After much coaxing Renu decided to attend classes again though she was very shy of meeting her friends after the humiliating turn of events. Putting up a brave front she came in one morning. She kept her eyes on the ground and rubbed her palms together as she walked into the class room. Her friends welcomed her with a sort of sympathetic silence as they were aware of all that had taken place.
Encouraged by her teachers she managed to attend classes for two weeks. In the meantime her parents struck a satisfactory deal with the family of the same boy. They promised more dowry gifts, fixed the marriage again and this time the groom arrived.
After a gap of three weeks Renu came to school to see the principal. The teachers gave her a warm welcome, enquired after her new home and life. Renu was a different girl!
“What had happened to her bright smile?” Her expectations seemed to have faded away. Her hair untidy, her finger nails dirty, her old clothes smelling, she pulled her thoughts back to school. Had she realized that she was one of those girls born and destined to an unknown fate in a poor family? Had she given up all expectation of being loved or understood? Had she fancied marriage as something that would bring her ultimate happiness and so let herself be married at an early age to a boy who like her mother worked as a daily wage earner?
She looked at the principal as if she wanted to ask something. Indeed she wanted something.” I want to do the tailoring course.” She said softly. The Principal assured her that she would be admitted to the tailoring class. The school runs this course for girls from poor families who can afford only the minimum fees.” It's a six month course”, the teacher in charge said, “Will you be here?” “Yes” She said, “I will be here for 4/5 years from now.” she added. This is in keeping with the culture and tradition of child marriage. Until the girl reaches 18 years of age she stays with her parents. Only then does the husband's family take her when all their demands have been met.
Renu is 14 now. For the next 4 years she will have to live with her parents with great expectation of her husband coming one day to take her with him. Perhaps he will. There may be some uncertainty that he might go for another girl who might offer more cash and gifts as bride price. We hope and pray that her destiny may not fall into the latter category. Four years is a long time for young Renu to wait before joining her husband. With the skill in tailoring she would have something to fall back on, to stand on her own feet.
Here Renu (name changed) is none other than one of our girls at Sophia Centre - Patna - Bihar. At present we are teaching her some functional literacy about measurements to prepare her for the tailoring course from January 2005.We have decided to keep in touch with her even after her tailoring course, follow her up as long as we can and help her to discover her own inner strength to face the life ahead.
“ And this is an essential part of education to learn to stand alone so that you are not caught in the will of the many or in the will of the one and are therefore capable of discovering for yourself what is true” J.Krishnamurthy
Mary Varghese rscj
Province of India