CHILD brides may seem an alien term to Sri Lankans, but the shocking news that 300 underage marriages will be annulled by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) proves that a harsher reality prevails. This is the latest disturbing trend that has emerged over the last few weeks where flurry of reports concerning children have gained massive publicity. As is often the case, when the news is terrible, it gets more mileage.
News of a 14-year-old giving birth was followed by the report that a 12-year-old girl had been molested by her 15-year-old brother – a fact the mother knew but refused to do anything about. And hot on its heels was an article over the weekend that each day three children are abused in Sri Lanka. Then finally on Tuesday the alarming number of underage marriages was published. This does not make for happy reading. While some can point fingers at the media and say that it is causing a snowballing effect by giving publicity to such sad events, it must also be remembered that awareness is also the aim. One can argue that keeping things under the carpet does not create solutions and these are topics that must be discussed if they are to be addressed. The pathetic state of children in this country shows that the traditional pristine attitude that is commonly adopted cannot be universally justified anymore.
Moving onto the issue of underage marriage, it cannot be denied that in some regions of the country it is an accepted practice and often the people entering into marriage are not under pressure to do so. Marriage with consent at a young age is sometimes welcomed by families for a range of reasons, including parents preferring to be ‘relieved’ of their children and to prevent them from eloping.
The NCPA had noted that the bulk of these marriages had taken place in the Badulla and Polonnaruwa regions and they are in the process of re-registering 240 of the couples who have passed the age of 18 and therefore can be legally married. What is surprising is that the marriage registrars allowed these unions to take place; however, the NCPA has assured that steps will be taken to punish these officials. Yet it also has to ensure that errant officials do not abuse their privileges.
While marriage at a young age should not be necessarily disapproved of, it must also be accepted that the socioeconomic stability of these families may not be high. It is realistic to expect that these couples are not well-educated and do not have sufficient incomes to rear children; so inevitably when the children do appear, they add more burden to the already-strained financial situation of the family.
Sri Lanka’s quest for development has to include these sections of society. Caught in a complex web of circumstances, these families find it difficult to tie into the development process, but they are the ones who need economic infusions the most. In simple terms, they need money to fund the basic needs of life. Proper education, housing and healthcare in many instances is not adequately supplied to them and this can spiral into these children having fewer opportunities than their counterparts from more affluent families.
While all this is obvious, it is reiterated for the umpteenth time because a country that is still at a developing level needs to focus on these social conditions. Economic growth that does not provide a better life for these people has little overall emphasis and in the long term will prove counterproductive. Waiting on the Government to provide solutions to all these issues is futile and the time has come for other stakeholders to shoulder the development responsibility for these people as well.