ENDING CHILD MARRIAGE IN INDIA

By Anouck Dubois
Contributing Writer

Deeply rooted in traditions and aggravated by rampant poverty, child marriage continues to reach sad records in India. With 47 percent of children married before the age of 18, India has the twelfth highest rate of child marriage worldwide. Almost one half of Indian children marry before reaching 18 and almost one fifth before 15.

Child marriage persists as an unrecognized human rights violation—adding another point of incompleteness to the Convention on the Right of the Child. Undeniably, it remains a threat to the child’s life, a hindrance to its development and a denial of his childhood. But child marriage does not only harm the individual; this personal violation affects the country’s development as a whole.

Indeed, how can the Indian government hope to decrease mortality rates when girls are exposed to early pregnancy and sexual relations with older men, who are more likely to carry HIV? How can the government hope to improve gender equality when girls are taken out of schools to engage in mandatory matrimony with men 20 years older than themselves? How India improve unemployment and poverty when child marriage maintains poor socio-economic advancement?

Child Marriage, A Century-old Tradition

True, the government has shown concern for this issue since the 1920s and has taken legislative steps against it. In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act defines a minimum age for marriage, which has been successively raised to 18 years for a female and 21 years for a male in accordance with international law. It has been replaced in 2006 with The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act which is stronger and more complete. It raises the applicable penalty to a fine and up to two years of imprisonment and makes child marriage voidable, or void under certain conditions.

This legal framework is, of course, a much welcomed, significant step in the right direction. Yet, the problem would have been solved long ago if the Indian government established a complete prohibition. Indeed, child marriage still persists in India today because it is a century-old tradition fed by entrenched poverty and the absence of concrete alternative for families and communities.

Raising Social Awareness and Law Enforcement

Child marriage is not a temporary problem. This social phenomenon has deeply rooted itself in the Indian tradition, consequently, a wholesale prohibition at this point would be necessary but insufficient in ending this ugly emergent order. Not to say that the enacted The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is useless. On the contrary, this legal framework, more complete and stronger that the previous Child Marriage Restraint Act, is a necessary basis that India needed in order to efficiently take action against child marriage, and offers great potential for progress.

However, pitiful implementation and enforcement have resulted in meaningless change for victimized girls. Communities and even officials are unaware of the new legislation. For poor states like Rajasthan where we find the highest rates of child marriage, 86 percent of the population continues to be unaware of the illegality of many child marriages. Officials are frequently corrupted and no formalized measures exist to punish those who do not fulfill their duty. On the opposite side of government, people who try to resist and prevent child marriage expose themselves to real danger. From the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a social worker who was trying to stop child marriage in Rajasthan, to the attack of Shakuntala Verma, another social worker from Madhya Pradesh—these examples disturb our conscious and reveal the lack of political will and support from civil society.

Without question the Indian government needs to improve law enforcement and social awareness. Several studies carried out by NGOs found that if families had known that child marriage was prohibited and subjected to two years of prison, a significant percentage would have abstained. Therefore, having informed and active officials appears critical.

A first step would be to sensitize government enforcement agencies through training camps and workshops. They would be provided detailed information about the scale and scope of the law, the actors in play, and how to operate to enforce it. A study carried out in Rajasthan also revealed that sending a letter to the family reminding them of the legal risk they take by moving forward with a child marriage in progress was quite efficient, although rampant illiteracy would still be an obstacle.

Widening the Scope and Scale of Programmatic Policies

As mentioned before, legislation is a necessary but not sufficient step to eradicate child marriage. A strong and well implemented law can contribute to lower child marriage rates, but it needs to be matched with effective policies and social programs, more likely to impact traditional communities and changes social behaviors. Those communities should not merely be aware of the existing law but understand why child marriage is a harmful. Without question, there must be a provision of concrete alternatives.

Let’s be fair. The Indian government has made strides to improve this social detriment. For two decades, it has allocated funds to enact specific programs to end this practice. A vast majority of the programs implemented in the country are the result of NGOs action especially US Aid, the International Center of Research on Women (ICRW) and UNICEF. In particular, the ICRW program “Our Daughters our Wealth”, implemented in 1994 in the northern state of Haryana, seems very successful even though it still has to be evaluated.

This is the first “conditional cash transfer” program implemented with the specific aim of delaying girls’ marriage, and it also works as “an incentive to encourage parents to value their daughter.” The program works as such: “Upon the birth of a daughter . . . mothers are entitled to receive 500 rupees (about $11) within 15 days of the birth to cover post-delivery needs. The government also invests 2,500 rupees (about $55) in a long-term savings bond in the girl’s name, which can be cashed out for a guaranteed total of 25,000 rupees (about $550) after the girl turned 18 – but only if she isn’t married.”

Communities need to be providing an “enabling environment for girls’ empowerment” . They will not change their century-old traditions unless they are provided with powerful, concrete and accessible alternatives. Since child marriage is mainly based on girls submission to their family and husband, developing an environment centering on girls’ empowerment carries preeminent priority. Three aspects prove to be key: developing women’s collectivities, mobilizing communities and influencing key decision makers.

India has a “strong tradition of collective action and community organizing for social change.” Therefore, developing women collectivities in the forms of sanghas (small community). Sanghas are a very common practice in Indian culture would be a great opportunity to empower girls while fitting traditional customs. In these self-governed groups of women, they could seek information, discuss their lives and learn how to get control of their lives without suffering from the pressure of the family or males, thereby challenging gender discrimination.

Giving girls tools for empowerment cannot be fully efficient in a hostile environment, hence the necessity to mobilize not just women but the whole community. The government should be constantly informing the population on existing legislation and the dangers of child marriage on health, poverty and the existence of other positive alternatives. Of course, the optimal way to regularly reach a maximum of persons in a country of this size would utilize mass media, whose limited implementation has proved to considerably impact people’s knowledge and behavior. However, newspapers and the radio do not reach the part of the population living in rural areas without access to electricity and who are often illiterate. Indeed, this is the populace needs the most help. There has to be more innovative means of communication, such as puppet shows or village theatre.

This is why I advocate instead for the use of human medias. They might not be optimal in the number of people they can reach at once, but I believe that human contact is one of the most effectual ways to change people’s behavior. The account of positive role models – for example, girls that have resisted child marriage – has great potential because it shows that positive alternatives are possible. They can convince parents of the importance of education and the value of their daughters.

Another human media could be the government itself. Indeed, officials should not be seen as punitive agents but rather as providers of information and a support for girls’ empowerment. Fostering dialogue between officials and communities would contribute to build a more positive image of the government.

Also, religious leaders, which are extremely influential in their communities, carry the most pull in convincing parents to avoid child marriage. The success of the Early Marriage and Early Pregnancy programs in Rajasthan, for instance, can be primarily attributed to Muslim clerics. With the help of the government, religious leaders could convey information on child marriage, promote discussion and facilitate acceptance of change. It would be a significant step in mobilizing the community and empowering girls while staying culturally accurate.

Image by Raj Kumar

VIVA LA EDUCACIÓN: RESHAPING EDUCATION INEQUALITY IN CHILE

By AJ Thomason
Staff Writer

From its independence in 1818 until Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power in 1973, Chile stood as one of South America’s most economically stable countries while also remaining absent of the frequent springs of militaristic governments that plagued Latin America. Pinochet’s reign, assumed after a successful coup de’tat, lasted 17 years and left behind some 3,000 dead, a polarized citizenry and, among other things, a broken educational system.

In 1981, Pinochet began dismantling the free public education system and replaced it with a voucher program for primary and secondary education. This dissolved the centralization of Chile’s higher education, switching it with three tiers of schools run by municipal entities: government-funded public schools; private schools subsidized by the government; and private, fee-paying schools. The growing inequity of the quality of education between these systems, their accessibility and funding sources has manifested itself throughout the years and currently leaves Chile in the midst of its largest state of social unrest since its return to democracy in 1990.

The protests began on August 4, 2011 in the capital city, Santiago, after the decades old, ever-growing disparity came to light. Students took to the street en masse. Nearly 100,000 people organized to voice their collective message that inequality between the education systems available to the upper class and that available to the lower class is unfair.

The plight felt by these students is legitimate and backed by statistics. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has named Chile as the most socio-economically segregated country in regards to education opportunities. According to OECD, the average percentage of integration between students of different backgrounds is 74.8 percent worldwide. Chile rests at less than 50 percent.

Hugo Nicolás, a visiting Chilean student at the University of California San Diego, sums up the problem in the eyes of young Chilean academics. “The Chilean people” he said, “are in a process of significant change. Young people have awakened after 20 years. The problem is that in Chile education is a business, it is another product you can buy at the corner of your neighborhood. In Chile we want free education because the government can afford it.”

The protest and outcries have only grown since 2011; and the message has gotten engrained more deeply into the culture of consciousness that has swept Chile’s youth. April 11 saw the year’s first organized march—only this time a clearer message was presented. The cloudy Thursday morning was met with masses of students gathered in a dozen cities, with more than 150,000 people marching in Santiago alone. Rallies of this scale are organized by functional student run entities that have found that together the collective voice makes more impact than a myriad of individual cries of discontent.

Camila Vallejo is the vice president of the University of Chile Student Federation and also serves as a main spokesperson for the Confederation of Chilean Students. Camila provides an explanation for how marches of this scale are assembled. “What brings the students together, and the many organizations involved in this, is the fact that in Chile education has been turned into a consumer good, a commodity for consumption, which has created an enormously segmented socio-educational system,” she said.

Vallejo’s comments not only reify Nicolás’s claim, but also unify the message of the student body as a whole that the drag on justice created by the market driven nature of the educational system is no longer to be accepted. Vallejo adds that, even with 80 percent approval from the public, “our demands were simply not taken up and channeled through the institutional means, the political institutions that exist, and so there is a crisis really in political representation.”

The broken educational system in Chile is fortified and strengthened by the government lent media that, according to Noam Titelman, the current president of the Catholic University Student Federation, make it very difficult to reform. “They’re owned by the same people who want to maintain things,” he said.

Titelman highlights the classic struggle between the word on the streets that often rings most true, and the monopolized, faux-publicized word that reaches the ears of the global community.

Unique to this movement compared to others in recent history is the determination of those effected as a collective whole. After three years of tear gas, fire hoses, expulsions and blacklisting, students, educators and community members at large have maintained the cry for justice and change. With presidential elections just on the horizon, the dawn of that very change may be closer than ever for these soldiers of sense who believe that the government capable, be it for the people, is the government that should. November will mark a major movement either forward or backward for the Chilean students but, irrespective of the results, this generation of doers, who, in numbers found clout, will have had their message heard.

Image by Marie Barranco

LEAVES OF DESTITUTION: YEMEN AND QAT

By Lori Komshian
Staff Writer

Any traveler in Yemen would notice the impact of Qat on Yemeni society. Qat (Catha edulis) is a shrub native to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of African whose leaves have been widely chewed for centuries because of its narcotic effects. However, for millions of Yemenis this old tradition has evolved into an addiction.

The leaves of the Catha edulis contain cathinone – a compound similar to amphetamine – which causes excitement, loss of appetite, euphoria and insomnia. The most noticeable impact is the idleness especially exhibited by Yemeni men who spend an average of four hours a day chewing the mild narcotic and socializing during one of their daily ‘Qat sessions’. With The World Food Program estimating that 15 million person hours a day are spent chewing qat in Yemen, this phenomenon cannot be missed; allegedly seventy to eighty percent of adults chew qat.

Indeed, the bulging cheeks are a dead giveaway to this practice, yet this influence is spreading to children; fifteen to twenty percent of children under the age of twelve chew qat daily. These children view the chewing of qat as a rite of passage to adult activities, especially when they are permitted to start chewing qat at weddings where the leaf is commonplace.

This shrub is also detrimental to the economy of the country. Yemen stands as the poorest country in the Middle East and, no dobut, qat suppresses wealth creation. For example, Yemen’s water supply is quickly evaporating because of its integral role in the cultivation of qat. Of the three percent of arable land available in Yemen, qat accounts for twelve percent of arable land usage. Because of qat cultivation, the agricultural potential of the land is limited while Yemen’s rising food and fuel prices induce further poverty. The 2012 World Food Project Comprehensive Food Security Survey found that more than ten million Yemenis are food insecure –that’s nearly half of the population- and five million are severely food insecure. This means that 22 percent of the population is unable to buy the food that they need. This number nearly doubled between 2009 and 2011 and malnutrition is still rising. Despite the severity of the food situation, qat is still consumed relentlessly. Households spend about 10 percent of their budget on qat – which is more than allocated for clothes, health, and education combined. Even those households that are severely food insecure spend this much on qat.

The effects of qat in Yemen are clear. Qat saps time and energy from productive activity in Yemeni society and leads to aimless behavior. The high unemployment rate in Yemen persists as a testament to this. According to the CIA World Factbook, the unemployment rate stands at 35 percent. A country of 24 million, Yemen’s labor force is a meager 7 million. Moreover, the rising population only further agitates the qat-driven strain on economic resources. Indeed, the few farmers who have jobs prefer to grow qat because of its steady income. It is always in demand, as opposed to other fruits and vegetables that will not garner as much profit. Moreover, the alluring plant is hearty; it is not susceptible to many diseases which further incentivizes farmers to dedicate land, labor and capital to its cultivation.

Qat not only induces lethargy, but it takes away from the family as men and women spend a great deal of time apart during their qat sessions. They think that qat is solving their problems when in reality they have wasted hours chewing it, and their problems are getting worse. The reality is that 45 percent of the population lives below the absolute poverty line, and qat only upsets an already damaged situation. It is a cycle which leads to severe undernourishment, unemployment, water depletion and societal divisions. That is why the only way to solve this issue is through the passage of legislation that will prevent the new generation from using the drug and help current users to gradually reduce their qat usage.

In order for the parliament to even consider passing a law to ban qat, there has to be some sort of public demand for such legislation. Ideally once the population is educated about the reality of qat use and its negative attributes, they will demand action from the government. For such an uproar to occur the general population must know about the depletion of water sources in Yemen and the impact of qat on the economy. They must be wary of the narcotic effects of the leaves. Moreover, the public must be convinced that chewing qat is religiously immoral, even though it is not explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an like alcohol.

A public awareness campaign would be a pragmatic advancement to wind down Yemeni qat usage. Often the leaves are sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides that can lead to cancer, liver cirrhosis, and kidney diseases. The public must understand that qat is detrimental to the health and well being of individuals and to the nation as a whole. Moreover, people have to be inculcated with the message that there is a better use of time than sitting around for hours chewing qat. A hope of finding work for the unemployed and a chance of finding food, shelter and a happiness that is not derived from chewing qat has to be instilled. Otherwise the Yemeni population will resent an attempt to ban qat. Yet the question still remains: can any of this be achieved?

Thanks to the work of the Minister of Education, there is rising awareness in schools about the negative effects of qat. But this sort of education should be mandatory in all primary and secondary schools. Educating children is the best way to prevent this habit from continuing onto the next generation. Teachers must be exemplary role models to their students. “No Qat Campaign” posters should be made visible in conjunction with the distribution of educational pamphlets. Furthermore, social media has presented itself as a viable tool to spread the message as well since young adults are most likely to use Facebook or Twitter.

However, in some respects this goal seems almost implausible. The idea of Yemenis opposing a tradition that is so integrated into their society is not likely. Not only is it a custom, we must remember that approximately eighty percent of the population is addicted to this drug making it almost impossible to gain their support. Therefore, even if they were to be convinced of the effects of qat listed above, they would likely continue to use qat. Perhaps the way to assuage usage is to raise taxes on qat as an incentive to gradually stop qat abuse.

However, the greatest effort should go toward preventing children from using the drug and becoming addicted. If legislation can stop future or novice qat chewers from becoming addicts, this can have a huge impact in reducing qat use. Young children need to become educated about the dangers of qat and its aforementioned detriments. They are the future of Yemen, and though them Yemen can gradually cease to be reliant on qat.

Images by Kate B. Dixon