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Kailash Satyarthi Condemns Exploitation of Girls

Turning down of the children’s bill by the legislators of the Nigerian Parliament, a month ago, is not a big surprise for me. The progressive legislation for the protection of the rights of the children could not be passed because the popular sentiment was against raising the marriageable age limit of girls. Traditionally, child marriage is a common practice in some parts of the world including Nigeria, which condemns millions of young girls to a life of misery and pain. In the name of culture, this retrogressive inhuman and anti-women practice is based on the patriarchal attitude, which always considers women as mere commodities and not as human beings. Some men think age is no bar and that they are entitled to marry any number of women. Thus they are always on the lookout for a pretty young girl for marriage, who must be out of the shadow of any other male in her life. Hence, in most cases, women and girls are treated inferior and subordinate to men. Their role just becomes one of childbearing and house keeping.


It was a mere coincidence that I had a series of meetings in Abuja with the high ranking officials in the Nigerian government, UN agencies and NGOs as well as some common people on various aspects of the child rights, only a few weeks before the rejection of the children’s bill. The sensitivity and importance of this bill was raised time and again in those discussions. It was also by chance that the issue of Miss World beauty contest became hypersensitive in that country. Fortunately, at that time I was in Abuja and not in Kaduna (northern Nigerian city), where communal clashes claimed the lives of over 200 people. More than 1,000 were injured and 11,000 made homeless in the fight that ensued.


There are thousands of positive and liberal elements in all cultures and civilisations, which should be explored, used and popularised for the formulation of children’s rights. The technical and legal language of the UN Conventions, constitutions and the statutory books are not just enough as their reach is limited"

The havoc was felt throughout the country. Flying from Abuja to Lagos, I sensed that the people were very reactive and found their opinions divergent in the discussions that followed. On the one hand, there were those who were in favour of the beauty pageant and pretending to be progressive. While on the other, the opponents were acting to be the saviours of the sanctity of women. According to me, both viewpoints were mocking against women. It is beyond doubt that such beauty contests are nothing but marketing ploy of multinational cosmetic companies and advertising agencies that reduce the beauty of women to mere objects of display. And, those who opposed it did not want to see women as liberated human beings either. Therefore it did not surprise me when I talked to some people in power and found them somewhat uncomfortable about the pending legislation. I came to know that there were some agreements in reducing the marriageable age as originally suggested in the bill, from 18 to 16 years, which was definitely irrational but shockingly enough many politicians did not even agree upon 16 as the marriageable age limit.


These happenings made me recall some of my confrontations in a village in Alwar district of Rajasthan, a western state in India. The incident took place few years ago, in the early morning to be precise. Along with some of my colleagues, we were opposing the marriage ceremonies of two very young sisters. While trying to protest, we narrowly escaped the brutal attack of a violent mob, the so-called liberators of culture and traditions of the village who were witnessing the ceremony. Many people including the local politicians cutting across the party lines came to bless the child couples. People were making merry, dancing, singing and drinking country liquor. The children were so young that one of the girls was on her father’s lap and the other one was holding the hand of her father while performing the rituals of marriage. The whole event took place in the middle of the night, to avoid public attention. Though child marriages were outlawed in India long before but still thousands of child marriages are taking place regularly in India on religious occasions especially on Akha Teej (a Hindu religious festival which is considered an auspicious day for performing marriage ceremonies during the month of July and August). To make matters worse, even babies are married off as a part of this annual festival.


I can well imagine the same fate meted out to young Muslim girls when they are pressurised by their parents to marry. The poor young girl who has hardly seen life is forced to comply sometimes under extreme circumstances. Child marriage is an age-old slavery, which ruins all the opportunities of physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social development of a girl. In the name of religion and tradition people have reduced this holy institution of marriage to a rotten and organised crime against young children, especially in the case of girls. We come across a number of cases in South Asia where wealthy people (specially the aged ones) from the Gulf and other countries marry poor and vulnerable girls and then treat them as mistresses, domestic help or even sell them off as prostitutes. Only a few years ago, an airhostess rescued a 12 year old little girl Ameena, who was crying whilst boarding the plane in Hyderabad in India, accompanied by an elderly Arab sheikh husband. But there are many more unknown and unheard Ameenas who are less fortunate and are sold, or rather married to wealthy immoral Arabs.


All these incidents highlight the extent to which a girl can be exploited. In India, the birth of a girl child is usually treated as a matter of bad luck and sorrow whereas the birth of a boy is ushered in with celebrations and drum beats (specially in the interiors of India). In the rural areas, there is a commonly held belief of breaking earthen pots whenever death stalks a family or a girl is born. Also, led by the fear of paying heavy dowries for the daughters, female infanticide has become a common occurrence in the Indian culture for many generations. Moreover, modern health practices have also led to a rise in female foeticide despite the law coming heavily down on them. And coupled with an unscrupulous doctor, abortions of baby girls run rampant in India.


It is hard to imagine that such practices and beliefs still exist in the 21st century. Many are forced into marriage at a tender age and in some cultures, husbands are often several years older than their young brides. And if the husband dies when the girl is still young she is not allowed to remarry. Furthermore, the girl’s family is unlikely to accept her back once she is widowed. There is no dearth to the kind of hardships they have to countenance throughout their life. Shunned by the family, shunned from any kind of family rituals or traditions to speak of, they are forever doomed to a life of misery and isolation. If one ever visits Benaras and Vrindavan (cities based in the northern part of India), one will be appalled to see the number of young widows reigning on the streets as beggars and prostitutes, as they have been either disowned or abandoned by their families. Then we have the cult of dedicating young girls to temples as ‘Devadasis’ (female slaves of the deity), prevalent mostly in southern India. They are not allowed to marry a person and their dedication to temple service is considered as constituting a marriage with the deity. Here girls at a tender age, are inscribed to the temples and offered annually to Gods and thus lead a life of prostitutes with a religious sanction. For girls from certain castes, this is considered a hereditary obligation. Actually this is just a ploy to ensnare a girl into a world, which provides them with nothing but abuse, and a life stripped of respect and dignity. And despite the efforts to eradicate the Devadasi system, it still flourishes in certain parts of India.


Is it not a shame that such a custom is still prevalent? Why do children particularly the girls become victims of comfort and pastime, cheap and submissive labour and be subjected to the animal instinct of the exploiters? The nimble finger myth in the production of handicrafts has been perpetuated for years to employ children. The shrewd arguments of the family trade and heritage at the cost of mainstream education is still widespread. Finding an excuse for perpetual economic exploitation is being portrayed radically as the right to work for children. In the Indian subcontinent, the so-called tradition forced generations to join the workforce right from childhood. Again to maintain the social apartheid of caste and the realm of culture, the fight against the exploitation of children in general and girls in particular, is a struggle against the age-old mindset and the negativity of our tradition and culture.


There are thousands of positive and liberal elements in all cultures and civilisations, which should be explored, used and popularised for the formulation of children’s rights. The technical and legal language of the UN Conventions, constitutions and the statutory books are not just enough as their reach is limited. Hence it is very important to form a new culture where the children are recognised and respected as human beings; girls and women become the real partners and decision makers in the society; and the human dignity and rights become just our way of life.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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