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For UNICEF staffer polio round turns into mission to stop child marriages

© Sondeep Shankar/UNICEF/1997
In many parts of the country, it is believed that early marriage protects the chastity of a girl and also makes the girl's adjustment to her new life easier.
By Michel Saint-Lot

As many as 24 child brides were rescued by a UNICEF staff member in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on Sunday. 

UNICEF Assistant Programme Communication Officer Sunil Verma was in Bijapur region of the state reviewing health department arrangements for a major immunisation effort when he intervened and stopped the wedding of a large numbers of child “brides” and “grooms”.

The officer chanced upon the mass marriage function that was being attended by 50,000 people on the National Immunisation Day of the ongoing nation-wide Pulse Polio Immunisation Programme. “I approached the dais where the organisers and the religious heads were seated to request them to make an announcement about the availability of polio drops,” Hyderabad-based Verma recounted.

“I came across young decked-up children waiting to be married. Obviously, many were under-aged,” he said.

Stunned, Verma’s polio monitoring in urban Bijapur that day took a backseat. Instead, he set about preventing marriages of minors brazenly flouting the 75-years-old law that prohibits child marriage. Although no boys were examined, 24 “brides” were.

“I am sure there would be more girls,” remarked Dr. Zebunissa, a local medical officer. “But we cannot make conclusions without a bone X-ray. I am making assumptions based on the girls’ physical features, veins and questioning.” But the law in India says brides must at least be 18-years-old and grooms 21.

Predictably, this particular UNICEF intervention faced tough resistance. The clerics argued it was uncalled for. “The marriages are not forced onto the couples,” they declared heatedly.

Verma realised the need for tactful action. UNICEF Child Protection Officer Sudha Murali was contacted and her advice sought.  The district administration and health departments were alerted. The Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Mohsin issued instructions to the medical team to conduct a check up on the girls to determine their age.

Dorai Swamy, Deputy Director of the Department of Women and Child Development, with the Chief Medical Officer completed their examinations and confirmed 24 cases of under-age brides.

With police protection, the team was able to evacuate the 24 girl children. 

To know more about Child Marriages in India click here

Michel St.Lot is the UNICEF State Representative for Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka

 

 

 

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