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Child Mothers

Child Mothers

NEHA DIXIT discovers a shockingly high number of teenaged mothers in a Haryana district
I USED TO play ghar-ghar all day before my marriage. Now there’s just no time,” says 16-year-old Saina. Married at age 10, her day starts early, cooking for a family of 12. That done, she takes a brief while to tend her eight-month-old, massage and bathe him before heading out to the fields to work there all day with her husband. Coming home means getting down once again to cook for the whole household. With so little time for herself, Sania hasn’t yet realised how her once favourite game is now her life.
Cover Story
Problem of plenty At 34, Amman Begum (in black) is the mother of 15 children
At a time when television soap Balika Vadhu has compelled otherwise passive citizens to take notice of and condemn child marriage, the Ministry of Women and Child Development recently announced that only 78 cases of the heinous crime had been reported nationwide in 2008. The unreported reality is very different, as may be seen only 50 kms from New Delhi in Mewat, Haryana, where hundreds of girls are married off each year before they hit puberty.
Populated largely by a sect of Muslims, called the Meos, Mewat was carved out from Faridabad and Gurgaon as a separate district in 2005. Its inhabitants are believed to have converted to Islam under Sufi influence in the 14th century, but retained traditional customs like dowry and restrictions on marriage between gotras. Child marriage was another institution faithfully preserved. Today, Mewat is characterised by its disproportionately high number of teenage mothers. The official figure of an average family is eight.
8 The official figure for the average number of children in a family
166 deaths per 1,000 deliveries. The maternal mortality rate has risen as there is pressure on girls to produce as soon they reach puberty
98 percent of the pregnant young mothers are malnourished leading to pregnancy complications and death
854 females per 1,000 males. Mewat’s sex ratio stands significantly lower than the national average, 927 to 1,000.
Lean, wrinkled Jamila, 60, was married at age nine. The first part of her life was spent bearing children and the second is now invested in helping her daughters and daughters-in-law do the same. “The day my periods started, my mother-in-law told me she would get my husband another bride if I did not produce four sons in the next four years.” Jamila is now the ‘proud’ mother of 22 children: 16 boys and six girls. When we ask her their names, she quietly folds her hands and smiles. Consecutive deliveries every nine months not only made backaches a defining feature of her life but gave her a permanent limp — she walks today on crutches. She insists she has no complaints, however. “It’s a woman’s duty to produce as many children she can. They are God’s gift.” Her 15-year-old daughter-in-law died recently, 10 days after delivering her first child. Jamila is matter-of-fact. “All girls here start reproducing at 14. Maybe she didn’t have the ability.” The general opinion in the area suggests that any girl who is 19 should have at least three children.
THE PRESSURE on barely pubescent girls to reproduce has led to a maternal mortality rate as high as 166 per 1,000 births. Saina’s friend Humaira was married at the same time as she. Pregnant at 14, Humaira died during childbirth due to cephalopelvic disproportion, a condition when a woman’s pelvic opening is too small to allow the infant’s head to pass through, something frequently found in young mothers.
Says HS Randhawa, Mewat’s Chief Medical Officer, “With girls as young as 13 getting pregnant, the risks increase exponentially.” Like Rafiq and his two sisters, who all have squints. Doctors have told their mother, 23-year-old Salma, that her children’s problems lie in her gross malnutrition during pregnancy. Salma has been bed-ridden for two years since she suffered a haemorrhage while delivering her last child. Ninety-five percent of Mewat’s people live in rural areas and their primary occupation is agriculture. There is little irrigation in the district, and with rain depleting every year, 51 percent of Mewat’s population is currently below the poverty line. Acute penury further hampers proper antenatal care.
During last October alone, only 462 births of the district’s 4,000 recorded deliveries took place at a hospital. The rest were at home. Despite government health centres offering pregnant girls free checkups, their families are wary of availing the facility because they fear forced tubectomy.
Mewat’s sex ratio stands at 854 females per 1,000 males, significantly lower than the national 927 to 1,000 average. Though early motherhood takes a toll each year, the maternal death rate here still remains unknown.
Amman Begum, 34, is a ‘Paro’, a term for girls brought from distant places to marry into Mewat families, a clandestine practice meant to mask the scarcity in the district of women of reproductive age. Amman is the mother of 15: six daughters and nine sons. She says in her Hyderabadi accent, “Since the time my tenth child was born, I’ve had a persistent, crushing pain in my lower abdomen. I feel like my insides are dropping out of me.”
While child marriage and trafficking are prohibited by law, Mewat SP KK Rao chooses to remain passive. He says, “We have heard about such practices but we have never got an official complaint.” Before such apathy, there is little to prevent Mewat’s quagmire of custom and patriarchy from sucking little girls and their childhood into its womb.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 7, Dated Feb 21, 2009
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