For nearly a decade, Kamatchi* harboured dreams of becoming a District Collector. She was regular at school and did not miss any classes. She was certain that once she achieved her dreams she would be able to allocate new houses for the residents of Kannappar Thidal, where she lived with her family. But the increasing instances of child marriages in Chennai, especially in its resettlement colonies, have shattered the dreams of many like Kamatchi.
“We have been here all our lives near the Ripon Building where many IAS officers work. I wanted to enter that building only as an IAS officer and first take action to provide proper housing for citizens,” she said. Her hopes lasted only till her parents got her married, still very young. At 18, she is now the widowed mother of a three-year-old girl child and the sole breadwinner of her family.
Kamatchi’s case is not an isolated incident. Speaking to parents, youth and social workers in Chennai’s resettlement colonies, one finds that misguided eviction drives have a big role to play in the rise in child marriages.
Child marriages in Chennai
According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, a “child” is defined as a person who, if a male, has not completed 21 years of age, and if a female, has not completed 18 years of age. The punishments for conducting child marriages range from imprisonment to levy of hefty fines and removal of custody of the child.
Despite the provisions to punish those getting the children married, the instances of child marriages in Chennai have only been on the rise, especially after the pandemic, noted Virgil D Sami, Executive Director of Arunodhaya trust, a non-governmental organisation that has been working with the around 90 slum communities across Chennai.
She further added that their organisation had alone stopped at least three child marriages in different resettlement areas in Chennai in the last month and stopped at least 12 child marriages in the past two years. “The most recent incident happened a week ago at the All India Radio site. Before the pandemic, we used to get information on child marriages in Chennai once in 3 or 6 months. I find the cases have increased now,” she noted.
“These child marriages usually fall under one of two cases: one where the parents get the girl child married off due to a combination of reasons from loss of livelihood in resettlement areas, lack of safety, schools dropouts due to mid-academic year evictions, limited access to schools and so on. In the other cases, the girl child gets enticed by a schoolmate or a boy/man in the same locality and elopes with them,” observed Virgil.
Read more: Families in Chennai’s resettlement colonies need urgent attention and a fairer policy
Livelihood issues leading to child marriages in Chennai
J Mary, a resident of Thideer Nagar in Raja Annamalaipuram who earlier worked as a household help and cook in the apartments nearby, was evicted along with hundreds of people and allocated a tenement in Kannagi Nagar. She was earning a sum of Rs 6,000 a month working in a house for four hours a day. After moving to Kannagi Nagar, she found herself unable to find employment. When she approached the nearby apartments in Kannagi Nagar, they agreed to employ her but only for Rs 2,000 a month for a day’s work.
“My husband is an alcoholic. My daughter is 16 now. I am the sole breadwinner of my family. Since the amount would not be sufficient to make ends meet, I have to travel for more than an hour every day to Raja Annamalaipuram to work as household help. My daughter also accompanies me to work since we could not afford her education. Besides, the more we educate her, the more dowry we’d have to pay. We have started receiving good marriage proposals for her and we are considering taking up one. This is also better than her finding the wrong guy and eloping,” said Mary.
Mary believes that getting her daughter married as early as possible would reduce her burden and also keep her daughter safe.
According to data from the Urban October Campaign of Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), 18,723 families (around 74,000 individuals) were evicted from 2015 to 2022. In the last two decades, 61,432 families (around 2,34,728 individuals) were evicted from Chennai and resettled in sites located in the peripheral areas of the city. Of this, 44 per cent of the women-headed households have lost their livelihood after resettlement.
Lack of safety
Keerthana*, a student of Class X, is studying in a private school in Thousand Lights. She has to travel from Perumbakkam every day. “I leave school at around 5.30 pm but reach home only by 8.30 pm as there are no sufficient transport facilities. I have to walk for another 15 minutes to reach home from the bus stop. The path has no street lights and the roads are also damaged. Many boys are around, smoking weed and teasing us. It feels unsafe but I am scared that my parents will pull me out of school if I complain to them,” said Keerthana, who has seen many girls of her age getting married.
“We had been living near Thousand Lights for many decades. We know all our neighbours as we grew up with them. But with the shift to Perumbakkam, we find ourselves amidst a bunch of strangers. These blocks house people from more than 20 different eviction sites across Chennai. Since we do not know any of them, we are scared to leave our daughter alone at home or send her alone to school,” said Kamala, the mother of the 15-year-old girl child.
Virgil also pointed out that allocating houses to people from different areas in the same building destroyed the social fabric of the community which gave a sense of safety to the people.
A study titled ‘Forced to the Fringes: Disasters of ‘Resettlement’ in India Report Two: Kannagi Nagar, Chennai’ conducted by the Housing and Land Rights Network and IRCDUC in 2014 found that lack of security has resulted in many girl children having to drop out of school and has also triggered the phenomenon of early marriages of girls.
Read more: Life in the many Thideer Nagars of Chennai
Child marriages due to school drop out
Be it livelihood issues or safety concerns, children are the ones who are most affected. IRCDUC’s Urban October campaign again revealed that 88% of the evictions carried out in Chennai from 2015 to 2022 were carried out in the middle of the academic year affecting children’s education.
The study, ‘Forced to the Fringes: Disasters of ‘Resettlement’ in India Report Two: Kannagi Nagar, Chennai’ also found that relocation has been the major reason for 35% of children in the age group of 15-18 years dropping out of school.
One of the key findings of the study with regard to the human right to education of children is that 13% of children in the age group of 6-14 years are out of school. It was also found that 74% of the school dropouts of this age group are boys. Around 20% cent of the boys in this age group are out of school and 7% of the girls in this age group are out of school. Discussions with parents revealed that the boys of this age group drop out of school because they are either supporting their families by working or are into substance abuse. The school dropout rate has increased by 30% since the families were relocated to Kannagi Nagar.
An alarming finding of this study is that 35% of children in the age group of 15-18 years are school dropouts. Of this, 67% of the total school dropouts of this age group are boys and 45% of the boys in this age group are out of school, while for girls, the figure is 24%. The number of children discontinuing their education increases as they enter adolescence.
“When we were in Thousand Lights, we used to have schools in a radius of .5 km to 3 km. There are 6 government-run schools in Perumbakkam now but the facilities are very poor. There are issues with basic amenities and the children in resettlement areas were also name-called leading to stigma. The students there are also not very well disciplined. If our kids are put in such a school, we are scared that they would deviate from education,” noted a parent, Chandran. This forces children to either travel more than 10 km or drop out of school. The studies mentioned above also revealed that 56% of the children from the resettlement sites of Perumbakkam, Navalur and Gudapakkam, travel more than 10 km daily to access education.
“During the COVID-19 lockdown, online classes were not conducted for children studying in government schools. Many children dropped out of school to help their families make ends meet. Eventually, many girl children were also married off during the pandemic,” noted Isai Arasu, a social activist from Semmancheri.
Read more: Child Sexual Abuse: Laws and helplines to protect our children and seek justice
Challenges of community workers
While awareness among communities is essential to prevent instances of child marriages, access to timely information is very crucial in stopping every such incident. Pointing to an incident where such crucial information helped in saving a child, Virgil noted that a 15-year-old male child, who was part of the awareness programme and joined their children’s community group, came across a marriage invitation from his cousin who was also a 15-year-old girl.
Seeing the invitation, he sent the photo of the invitation to the community volunteers of Arunodhaya Trust. The volunteers eventually informed the child helpline 1098 and they were able to stop the marriage. The girl was also put back in school and is in Class XII now. “It was a fruitful experience as a result of conducting so many awareness programmes but not all cases end on a happy note,” Virgil said.
In a similar incident, a community volunteer who got to know of a 14-year-old girl’s marriage in her locality informed the child helpline. The parents agreed to stop the wedding for the time being but they took the child to a different district and got her married there. Guessing that the information would have been leaked through the volunteer, the family of the girl also tried to attack the community volunteer. “The volunteer had to move to a different place for her own safety,” Virgil said.
Keeping track of children, whether the ones who lived with parents after an attempt to marry them off or those who were produced to the Child Welfare Committee and put in homes, is an uphill task. Many parents are not aware that it is illegal. Many single mothers think that marriage is a safety net for a girl and that education is only secondary. However, creating awareness among the community has been helpful in prevention, she noted.
Evictions contributing to social ills
One of the primary reasons cited by parents and social workers in the community for the rise in child marriages in Chennai, and cities in general, is the manner in which evictions are carried out by the government. The failure to take into account basic rights of children in these localities is a key reason.
“Once the child is out of school, they fall off the radar and can no longer be monitored. Wherever there are issues related to the safety of women and limited access to education coupled with poverty, we have seen a prevalence of child marriages. While it is evident that evictions during mid-academic years lead to school dropouts which subsequently leads to instances of child marriages, it is not that hard for the government to prevent this,” said Vanessa Peter, Founder of IRCDUC.
Pointing out the need for policies that are inclusive of children in urban spaces, she noted that the Tamil Nadu State Policy for Children, 2021 has a mention of the creation of bala sabhas in gram panchayats. However, the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies (Ward Committee and Area Sabha) Rules, 2022 notified by the government on June 24, 2022, has no reference to the formation of bala sabhas or siruvar sabhas in the urban areas. “Since 48% of the population in the State is in urban areas, the government should also ensure the participation of children in urban area sabhas,” she said, adding, “The children should be given a chance to address these issues.”
N Karunya Devi, a social activist and an advocate who deals with child marriage cases said, “In areas like Semmenchery, the size of houses are very small. There is no privacy for both the adults and the children. The lack of sufficient space in the house also leaves no room for the kids to study. This affects education as well. “
“According to the law, the parents of both sides should be arrested. However, the practical issue with arresting the parents is that the child would end up with no place to go. Taking the child to a care home would also leave them traumatised. It becomes a punishment for the child for no fault of theirs. So in most cases, we warn the parents and try to follow up on them.”
Penalising the parents for getting their children married off is seen as a simple solution. However, unless the deep-rooted issues that lead them to get their minor children married off are addressed with care, the punitive measures in place will have little impact.