The findings by a central government study that over half of the women get married before reaching 21 years in Jharkhand and West Bengal also revealed that the scope for sustainable job opportunities for young women is limited, experts said.
It is clear from the findings that the benefits of government schemes are not reaching the desired section of the population.
However, some experts expressed doubts about the data authenticity given that the survey was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was found in the study that Jharkhand and West Bengal are the only two states in the country where more than half of the women are married before they are 21 years old.
While 54.9 per cent of girls are married in West Bengal before reaching the age of 21 years, the figure for Jharkhand is 54.6 per cent as against the national average of 29.5 per cent.
“Women, particularly in rural areas, face a lot of problems. They do not get decent sustainable employment. And then parents have only one option left – to marry them off,” said Deepika Pandey Singh, a Congress legislator, who has launched a crusade against early marriages in Jharkhand.
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Early marriage is prevalent in all sections of Jharkhand society – tribal, Hindu, minority, educated, uneducated, rich or poor. Consistent efforts are needed to create awareness among them, Singh told PTI.
She was echoed by Sukanya Sarbadhikari, Professor of Sociology at Kolkata’s Presidency University.
“Due to limited sustainable job opportunities for a young woman in rural areas, she and her parents might be looking for the option to get her married off as they can’t wait for a longer period for her to become economically independent,” Sarbadhikari said .
As some parts of West Bengal are contiguous with Jharkhand, the situation could be similar on this issue in those areas, she told PTI.
“It speaks volumes about the lopsided development in these states. It reveals that there must be some part of the population which is still away from the benefits of the state and central government policies,” said Alok K Gupta, Associate Professor and Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Central University of Jharkhand.
“It reveals that even after 75 years of independence, our policy interventions towards women empowerment and laws on prohibition of child marriage, enhancement of girls’ enrollment ratio at educational institutions have not delivered the way they should have done,” Professor Gupta said.
Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, Leena Gangopadhyay, said, “All that I can say is that I personally visit all the districts and my experience doesn’t corroborate the findings flagged in the report.” “There can be a tendency to marry off girls early in a few cases in two-three districts but whenever that is brought to our knowledge, we take immediate action to thwart it,” she said.
Projects like Kanyashree have done a lot in helping girls of West Bengal voice their views strongly, Gangopadhyay added.
Kanyashree is a conditional cash transfer scheme aiming at improving the status and well-being of the girl child by incentivising schooling of teenage girls and delaying their marriages until the age of 18. It received the United Nations Public Service Award in 2019.
Prof Sarbadhikari, however, said that West Bengal’s Rupashree scheme financially helps a guardian marry off the adult daughter.
West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights Chairperson Sudeshna Roy said if a woman above 18 years is married, that is her own independent decision as she has already become an adult.
“In states like West Bengal, women are more liberated and cannot be forced to take any decision against their will,” Roy claimed.
Former Jharkhand MP Salkhan Murmu, a prominent tribal leader, said there could be several reasons behind it including lack of awareness and extreme poverty.
However, some of those PTI spoke to on the issue wondered how the survey was done in 2020 when the country was in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and conducting fieldwork would have been impossible for a considerable time.
“I am not saying anything about the veracity of the report. But we are not clear about the methodology adopted in those difficult times. The government is working on a war footing to stop child marriage and marriage of young women against their wishes and we achieved considerable progress,” a top source in the West Bengal government said.
The Jharkhand university professor also said that on many occasions, such statistics are misleading.
“Yet, I believe that if these statistics are true, the government and society should take up the cause of women’s empowerment more seriously,” Professor Gupta said.