On one of my trips down south to Kerala, India last year, I heard a story that is sadly not unique. A woman working at a small organization as a cook and housekeeper came up to my mother to invite her to her daughter’s wedding. An event that should be a cause for great joy and indeed the mother did look happy.
But the girl is only just turning 18 and has just finished high school. I was shocked, a little angry, but soon I discovered I had no right to really feel these things. The girl had been the victim of continued and persistent eve teasing. For those not very familiar to what this involves, in her case it meant a boy following the girl while she walked back from school, pressing letters on her even after being refused, threatening to carry her away (kidnap her), all this under the guise of having fallen in love with her. The girl barely fifteen years of age was at first bewildered, a little flattered and then very quickly it became scary for her and her family. In India the virtue of a woman is considered tantamount. She has a younger sister too. The pursuits were joined and encouraged by the boy’s so called friends, a gang of people known in the locality to be involved in petty crime and other forms of misdemeanours like eve teasing.
In a society and a culture where women are seen to be better when submissive and quiet, it becomes a source of encouragement for elements such as these to ape popular cinema where pursuits like these generally end with the girl giving in and the couple getting married. But reality is very different. Apart from the fact that the girl is underage and that marriage is not a suitable end for her at this stage in life, she is also unwilling to accept those advances and fears for her and her family’s honour.
Even sadder is the girl’s family’s economic and social background. Belonging to a family of four, the mother is the primary bread earner working as a cook and a laundress at a small establishment. The father spends his days drinking and abusing his wife and daughters verbally and physically if he is not given money for his alcohol by his wife or more often when there is no money left. The younger sister younger by just a year is considered by the family to be more academically proficient because of better marks in school. Both the girls are studying vocational computer courses provided by an organization free of cost. The mother has till date managed to scrape the fees required post subsidies provided by the government and scholarships earned by the girls and some help from friends and relatives. The mother, herself a graduate was unable to get a job more fitting to her level of education and had an arranged marriage to her husband.
Kerala is a state in India considered to have the highest rates of literacy at 97.5% and also ironically, the highest levels of unemployment at 7.4% much higher than the national average of 2.3%. 
The girl in focus however is to be married very soon because the mother is painfully aware of messages from the boy, his gang and even his family threatening to carry the girl off and force her into marriage if they don’t consent to the give her hand. Ironically in situations like this, the parents decide that the only way to protect the girl from trauma like that is to arrange for her to be married to a “more” suitable boy. And the fiancé is suitable because he has a salaried job making a very mediocre amount, a family which seems to have a good background, and the possibility of inheriting his ancestral home. All this in the eyes of the girl’s parents make her future with him secure. Once the girl is married, the eve teasing will stop. It will stop because the girl will be spoken for and will have moved away from the area and be living under the shelters of a more stable, stronger family and community.
Now while she has consented to the arrangement, she waits for the wedding day generally confined to her mother’s place of work or home, never left alone, always escorted to classes by her mother and sister. The mother is partly relieved because marrying the child will also be the end of a financial burden that a girl’s upkeep and marriage imposes on her limited resources. She says that once the girl is married, she will be able to afford higher education for the younger child. She being “brighter” at academics would do well and deserved a chance to make a better life for herself. Marriage in her community also involves the payment of dowry to the boy, which in her case was lowered because the boy really liked the girl, but still is an extremely steep amount for them to come up with without taking a loan.
Now what are the options they really have as women, as a mother, as a wife of an alcoholic, as a sister?
They could have fought back? There is a law enforcement system, they could approach the police; file an FIR against the boy for eve teasing etc.; they could inform the community to request support. Apparently not; the boy’s criminal connections make him immune to police action and till he actually physically does something, they will not try to restrain him or warn him. Additionally, his arrest if it did take place would place the girl in graver danger from his gang and family. Then there is the question of paying bribes to the police to ensure they stay on your side and the lawyer’s fees if the case goes to court both of which unaffordable.
They could have asked for support? The community like all communities in settings such as these would rather protect their own. They feel weak and helpless especially if they have daughters of their own and would not risk being in the limelight for speaking out against occurrences such as these. The larger family comprised of the mother’s brothers tried to reason things out with the boy’s family, to no avail. The father of course takes no responsibility and is one of the major reasons why the boy and his gang took such liberties with the girl and her pursuit. A man in India is considered essential for a family to be valid and is supposed to be responsible for its upkeep and safety.
They could continue to protect her best they could? Well it would be important to note that the situation started over two years ago. It has been a constant fight. The family even moved to a different locality over 30 km away from where they belonged hoping that the boy would leave her alone. They set up their own house in the suburbs for rent and moved to more expensive rented accommodation in the city, walking distance from the school the child went to. They did all this with all the secrecy they could afford. The boy however found out where they moved to and was back in his pursuit within a week of their shift. They also have to be mindful of the younger sister who may also be in danger if this continued.
It’s a vicious trap, one that was easy for me to judge because I was lucky enough not to be in so deep and tangled in it. If you need help, you need money, connections, and most importantly a will to be brave and face the consequences if you lose the fight. I don’t have the answers really, only more questions and what if scenarios.
In this situation, the mother with her larger family studied the risk. The girl studied her situation and looked into the future of her life. If she was asked about what she foresaw, maybe she was too young to articulate an ambition and like most girls dreamt that at some point she would have a family of her own. So she consented, like hundreds and hundreds of girls here. It is consent because they have no other alternative future. They are born and conditioned into that one aim of it all ultimately, leading to marriage and motherhood. So for someone with a very limited outlook of the world, of the possibilities of what could lie before that state, after it and even the alternatives of liberation within it, this seems to be an obvious and faultless conclusion. It is the obvious conclusion because the world in which she lives does not allow her the freedom or the possibility to even dream of a life that can be lived in another way.
As a girl and a young woman in her conservative environment, if she makes a public stand, she becomes an outcaste, if she refuses to be married, she risks being labelled immoral and stubborn, if she stands up to her aggressor she risks giving in to exactly what he wants. And at the age of barely eighteen its simply too steep a hill for her to climb on her own, so she resigns herself to tried and tested methods of adjustment, compromise and an assurance that after all this is what her aim as a woman was and she was just achieving it a little earlier and it was all going to be ok in the end.
I am not justifying her decision; my aim is to highlight the lack of empowerment and the level of helplessness experienced in a patriarchal society that occurs when there are added burdens of poverty and lack of equal opportunity. I earlier said I did not have the right to express anger at the arrangement of her marriage and its occurrence; I do not have the right, because I have no alternative to offer her or her family.
She on the other hand, the beautiful young woman who is the centre of this story will smile on her wedding day, be a loving wife and a caring mother and hopefully will not have to make the same decision for her daughter if providence deems it to bless her with one.The Path to Participation Initiative from World Pulse and No Ceilings