Of all the original programming on Zee TV’s new free-to-air channel &TV – a glamorous quiz show hosted by Shah Rukh Khan; sweeping historic epics and mafia sagas – one programme appears to have struck a chord deeper than most among viewers.
‘Gangaa’ is the story of a young girl who is widowed and orphaned at a harrowingly young age – a fate even worse than the one which befalls countless thousands of girls who become child brides in India, some as young as six or seven years of age.
The word “widow” assumes the person is an elderly woman. However, in India, it could also refer to a grade three student, a widow for the rest of her life, shackled to a life of untold hardship and ostracized by family, community and – most gallingly of all – society at large.
The figures are difficult to come by but campaigners estimate the number of child widows aged between ten and nineteen is a shocking three million plus.
Often their ‘marriages’ are organized by elderly relatives. Rarer is an understanding as to what has happened and why they are marginalized – kept away from religious ceremonies, community gatherings and considered “dirty” or “unlucky.
The irony is that many child marriages are justified by families in ‘low-caste’ communities on the basis that it is too expensive for them to get their daughter married but when the child becomes a widow, she is “returned” to her family which is once again “burdened” with getting her married again.
Worse still more than the child widows are the young widowed mothers - the responsibility of raising the children forces mother and children into utter destitution.
Child marriage is illegal in India.
However, the law fails to impinge on rural communities crippled by poverty and stricken by archaic “traditions”.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed during British rule in 1929, specified that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 before they can wed.
Since independence in 1947, however, the Indian governments have done little to implement the rule. During the wedding season, hundreds of mass ceremonies involving children as young as four take place across the country.
Rajasthan has the highest number of child marriages in India. While there are local authorities dedicated to preventing child marriage, little happens as the communities where they happen are either beyond the rule of law or find some way to avoid detection.
Often, relatives will announce the date of a wedding and then change it at the last minute.
Weddings are often “mass ceremonies” where up to 20 girls from a particular village or area can be married off – a way for families to cut costs.
Fearfully few will have any semblance of “normality” in their lives.
For the vast majority it is a world of dumbstruck acceptance – a result of being born to a community, a society that places their worth at the lowest-possible rung.
And for the little widows who are forced to forever drape themselves in the customary white – a colour that is supposed to signify innocence and purity – it is a life significantly worse: servitude, loneliness, abuse.
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