05/12/2005, 00.00
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Woman activist opposed to child marriage assaulted

For the past month, she was involved in a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness about children forced into marriage. The ancient tradition survives thanks to local governments.


Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Shantuntala Verma is a woman from Dhar, a district in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She is an activist who was assaulted, severely beaten by a mob, her hand cut off. Her crime: campaigning against forced child marriage.

For the past month, she had been going door-to-door to raise awareness among her fellow citizens about the issue in order to turn them against the traditional practice.

Last night, as she was returning home, she was assaulted. One attacker was wielding a sword and chopped off her hand, wounding two fingers in the other hand. Now she is in intensive care.

Her family said that for several weeks she had been receiving death threats.

Under a 1929 law, child marriage is illegal, but those that are contracted cannot be declared null and void. They remain valid in the eyes of the law.

Child marriages are still widespread in the state because local authorities turn a blind eye.

For instance, Babulal Gaur, Madhya Pradesh's Chief Minister, recently said that "no serious action would be taken as child-marriages are a social custom".

Given this attitude, women rights' groups have accused the government of complicity in the "serious assault" against Shantuntala Verma.

In Madhya Pradesh, where the custom goes back several centuries, thousands of child marriages are celebrated each year during the festivals of Akshaya Tritiya, Akha Teej, Ram Navami, Basant Panchami and Karma Jayanti.

Tribals and minorities have similar customs.

An Indian activist told AsiaNews that the "government doesn't care about the welfare of women and children. Often girls have not even reached puberty when they are married off. Little girls are sent to their husband's home almost immediately," she lamented.

"They become victims of the elderly male members of the households into which they are married [and remain] uneducated and illiterate all their lives exposing them to lifelong exploitation and abuse, both sexual and physical," she added. "So far, no one has been arrested for such crimes".

According to a 2002 survey conducted by the Bihar Social Welfare Department, 57 per cent of all child brides become mothers within the first three years of their marriage and end up suffering profound psychological disorders.

What is more, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19-year-old girls in India. (NC)

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