September heralds the beginning of the festive season. One hopes it will also bring in some good news given the run of bad news that people in Mumbai, in particular, have had to live with for over a month now. Yet, even if there is good news, the type that makes you believe that there is reason for hope, there is no guarantee that it will be reported in your newspaper or on your favourite television channel. Such stories do not make it to the front pages; they are not shocking, dramatic, and political enough. So sometimes, if we are lucky, we spot them on an inside page.
I came across one such story about a woman called Savita Chaudhary who lives in Himmatnagar in Rajasthan. The State she lives in does not distinguish itself when it comes to empowering women. On the contrary, Rajasthan has some of the worst social indicators so far as women are concerned: low female literacy, high female infant deaths, child marriage and fairly high levels of violence within and outside the home.
Savita, like many other girls her age who belong to the Marwari Jat community in Rajasthan, was married off at the age of three. Today, she is 20 years old and remembers nothing of this so-called "marriage". Yet by tradition, she is expected to honour the vows made on her behalf 17 years ago by her family.
But Savita has decided she will not do this. Despite ostracism by her community, she says child marriage is illegal, which it is, and that she will never accept it. When she met the man she had married as a small child, and was given his photograph, she tore it up. "I've seen many child marriages," she told a newspaper reporter, "but I don't like the whole idea."
Savita apparently supports her family of six people her father died recently by running a grocery store in her village. Her so-called "in-laws" have demanded Rs. 5 lakhs to annul the marriage. What is worse, instead of coming to her aid, the village panchayat head, Mangilal Chaudhary says, "She's an immature girl. Our culture accepts child marriage and she'll have to accept whatever the community decides."
None of this has stopped Savita from seeking the help of non-governmental organisations and lawyers to fight the issue out in court if necessary. Fortunately for her, the family, including her brothers, are supportive. The very fact that someone from the media has picked up the story also means that Savita stands a slightly better chance of fighting this out than if she had to do it on her own.
The Bhanwari Devi case
The adversity that women like Savita face in a State like Rajasthan often produces spectacular stories of courage. Remember Bhanwari Devi of Bhateri village in Rajasthan? She had fought against precisely this type of child marriage in her village. Her opposition to an influential man's decision to marry off his one-year-old daughter brought Bhanwari in direct confrontation with the powerful people in her village. And for that "crime", Bhanwari, who was herself married at the age of three, was doled out the special "punishment" designed for women who dare to question custom gang rape. Bhanwari's case is now the stuff of legend and also a Bollywood film. And even if her struggle, and those of others like her, against customs like child marriage has not succeeded in ending this terrible ritual, something is clearly getting through to the next generation of girls.
Is there a difference?
I often wonder whether all the women-centred policies by the Central Government and different State governments, the battles fought by women's groups for changes in the law and for creating consciousness in women, women's access to power through the Panchayati Raj system, etc, have made any difference on the ground. When you continue to hear stories about how disempowered ordinary women are, particularly in our villages, you have to ask whether anything is changing.
Even if it is, the problem is that we do not hear about it because we in the media are looking elsewhere. Good news is not "breaking news". It doesn't appear all of a sudden; it evolves over time. And only if you monitor what is happening, do you even recognise that there has been a change.
According to Union Health Ministry statistics, 68 per cent of girls in Rajasthan are married off before the age of 18. And research into the incidence of child marriage in Rajasthan, which has been banned under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, records that there are few signs of the custom disappearing. On the contrary, despite the law, and the government's stated aim to implement it, on Akhateej, the festival considered auspicious for solemnising such marriages, hundreds of weddings are held across Rajasthan with no one stopping them. Tiny boys and girls, some of them asleep and all of them unaware of what is happening, are betrothed to each other. The reality sinks in when they attain puberty by which time they are told they have no choice.
In fact they do have a choice and Savita is one brave woman who has decided to exercise it.