The persistent rise in the number of child marriages in Dharmapuri district, despite ongoing awareness campaigns by the Union and State governments, as well as NGOs, has become a cause for deep concern. Shocking statistics from the past eight months of the previous year indicate a significant increase, with 77 reported complaints of child marriages in the district.
Authorities from the Dharmapuri District Social Welfare Office (DSWO) and the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) have been actively working to address this issue, managing to prevent a total of 153 child marriages in Dharmapuri up to October 2022. Among these cases, 43 FIRs have been registered. The DSWO successfully intervened to stop 92 child marriages, while the DCPU prevented 61. Additionally, 74 rescued children were placed in the care of the Child Welfare Committee by the DSWO, with 20 FIRs filed. The DCPU, in its efforts, booked five cases under the Child Marriage Act and 18 cases under the POCSO act.
Child Rights and You (CRY) reported a concerning spike in child marriages, particularly in May 2021, with a 40% increase totaling 318 cases. The prevalence of child marriage is noted in 10 blocks and 72 tribal hamlets across Salem, Dharmapuri, Ramanathapuram, and Dindigul (Kodaikanal) districts, as highlighted by the organization.
Government statistics underscore ongoing efforts to combat child marriages in the state. In 2017, a total of 1,586 child marriages were prevented from January to November. Similarly, in 2016, the government thwarted 1,113 child marriages across the state from January to October, with 1,082 prevented during the same period in 2015.
Sankar, a member of the NGO Thozhi, addressed the sociological complexities of the issue, emphasizing that child marriage has been a longstanding problem in the district. He noted that while reported crimes are averted by entities such as DCPU, DSWO, and Childline, unreported cases likely outnumber reported ones significantly. Sankar highlighted the fears of families, who worry that leaving a young woman alone at home might expose her to exploitation. Digital media’s role in highlighting crimes against women has only intensified these concerns. Moreover, the district’s low population density and challenging terrain contribute to the difficulty of identifying crimes unless reported.
DSWO data indicates that in 2021, Dharmapuri district reported a total of 105 child marriage cases. However, in the first nine months of 2022 alone, 92 cases have already been reported, signaling a higher incidence this year. Officials stress that there is a 100% intervention rate when crimes are reported through helplines such as 181, 1098, or 1077.
Despite concerted efforts by authorities, the root causes of child marriages persist. Families cite insufficient awareness, lack of education among parents, economic hardships, and the belief that simpler, lower-cost marriages are more manageable. In remote areas such as Eriyur, Ponnagaram, Palakkodu, A K Thanda, and surrounding villages, low literacy levels and reliance on agriculture contribute to the prevalence of child marriages. Factors like poverty, pressure from relatives, and the promise to cover wedding expenses often lead to early marriages, with groom ages often significantly higher than those of the young brides.
Social activists advocate for vigorous campaigns across various media platforms to raise awareness about the consequences of child marriage. They suggest incorporating lessons on adolescence and sex education into school and college curriculums and creating employment opportunities to dissuade locals from seeking livelihoods elsewhere.
The reasons behind the prevalence of child marriages in Dharmapuri are multifaceted, ranging from insufficient awareness and lack of parental education to economic struggles forcing families to seek livelihood through the simplicity and lower costs associated with marrying off their daughters. In villages like Eriyur, Ponnagaram, Palakkodu, A K Thanda, and their surroundings, where the level of literacy is low and agriculture is the primary occupation, the issue becomes more pronounced.
A distressing incident from Eriyur highlights the extent of exploitation faced by young girls. A 16-year-old girl, after a dispute at her husband’s home, lodged a complaint with the police. Shockingly, a 55-year-old Special Sub Inspector named Sahadevan took advantage of her innocence. Instead of intervening and taking action against those involved in the child marriage, Sahadevan exploited the young victim, keeping her in a separate home and impregnating her. Ponnagaram women police arrested Sahadevan after the girl reported the situation, revealing a grim reality of exploitation, poverty, and helplessness.
The backdrop of low literacy levels and the predominant occupation of agriculture in Dharmapuri’s villages contribute to the prevalence of child marriages. When families migrate in search of livelihood, young girls are left in the care of the elderly, paving the way for exploitative situations. Poverty and pressure from relatives to marry off girls to older men with hefty monetary offerings exacerbate the issue. In some cases, anti-social elements exploit vulnerable girls, subjecting them to sexual assault or sharing them within their circles.
Despite these challenges, there have been instances of girls, determined to avoid early marriage and pursue education, alerting authorities through helplines, teachers, or friends. Authorities, in many cases, have successfully intervened, preventing marriages at the last moment and counseling both families and the girls about the challenges associated with early marriages.
During the first eight months of 2023, reports from childline helplines to district authorities revealed over 110 instances of child marriages. Of these, more than 13 victims were rescued after marriage and placed in homes. Complaints of 77 child marriages were reported and successfully halted by proper action through August. These figures, however, only scratch the surface, with unreported cases likely constituting a significant portion.
Police and revenue officials, although registering cases on both sides, often conclude their involvement without taking the necessary steps to ensure justice. An official stated, “Our aim is not to penalize them but to understand the socio-economic factors that pushed them into marriage and plan intervention. FIR is filed only in serious cases, such as rape or abuse or if the girl wants to press charges.”
Social activists emphasize the urgent need for a robust awareness campaign through social media, TV channels, print media, and short films, shedding light on the problems associated with child marriage and the health risks faced by girls married at a tender age. They advocate for the involvement of schools and colleges in this effort to reach out to girls effectively. Furthermore, they propose the inclusion of lessons on adolescence and sex education, covering topics like recognizing good and bad touches and protecting against suspicious sexual predators, in textbooks.
Amidst these efforts, Dharmapuri’s struggle against child marriages remains an ongoing challenge. Creating employment opportunities for locals is seen as a vital step to prevent families from migrating to other places in search of livelihood, ultimately reducing the vulnerabilities that lead to child marriages.
A study conducted by NCC cadets of D G Vaishnav College in 2011 highlighted the prevalence of female infanticide and foeticide in 22 districts of the state, with Salem topping the list. Subsequent measures have eradicated these practices, offering a ray of hope in the broader efforts to address deeply ingrained social issues in the region.