'Are We Victims or Criminals?’ Child Brides in Gujarat Fight For Nutrition

Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.

7 min read
Hindi Female

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

Gaura*, who turned 18 this year, is pregnant for the third time.

Barefoot, with the pallu of her saree covering her head, and her hand on her belly, she made her way to the Anganwadi in Khavda, a nondescript village in Gujarat's Kutch district, for the third time this month.

"Ghar mein khaane waale bohot hain aur kamaane waale sirf do. (There are only two earning members in the family and many mouths to feed.) Rani*, my neighbour, told me that the government is giving dal and cooking oil free of cost to pregnant women and new mothers at the Anganwadi," said Gaura. "But I am turned away. I am told I'm not eligible... must be a fault in the mobile she's using. Can't she see I'm pregnant?" she asked.


Gaura knows the real reason why she is turned away from being a beneficiary of this scheme called the Mukhyamantri Matrushakti Yojana (MMY), which was launched in June 2022. She is a child bride and cannot register on the MMY app, via which the government keeps track of women who are benefitting from the scheme.

"We cannot register her on the app. It will require her Aadhaar card details. This will get her into trouble," revealed Hetal*, an Anganwadi worker in the village.

As per the scheme, pregnant women and new mothers are entitled to two kg chickpeas, one kg tur dal and one kg edible oil free of cost across Anganwadi centres in Gujarat. Rolled out on a budget of Rs 800 crore, the Gujarat government claims the Mukhyamantri Matrushakti Yojana will benefit approximately 1.36 lakh women.

Gaura, despite knowing she won't make the cut, shows up every few days with hope in her heart. She is not the only one unable to benefit from the scheme.

According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), one in every five women in Gujarat aged between 20 to 24 years had been married by the time they were 18 years old, which is the legal age for marriage.

Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.

*Gaura sitting outside her house in Gujarat's Khavda. 

(Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

Also, at the time of the survey, 6.7 percent of married girls from rural areas in the 15-19 age group were mothers or pregnant, while the figure was 2.6 percent in urban areas.

This is the story of several such Gauras in rural Gujarat, who are not only forced into child marriages but also early pregnancy, which automatically makes them ineligible for this healthcare and nutrition scheme.


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On a hot November afternoon, The Quint met Devi*, a 17-year-old girl who is six months pregnant. "As of now, there haven't been any complications," said the girl's mother-in-law.

Devi, however, has had no access to a doctor, despite a civil hospital being only a kilometre away from her house. 

Khavda, where Devi lives, is one of the only few villages in Kutch district's Bhuj taluka to have a functional civil hospital. People from nearby villages of Dinara, Ratadiya, Godpar, and Dhoravar come to the Khavda civil hospital for treatment.

"Visiting the civil hospital for a check-up means disclosing her (Devi's) age to government doctors," said the child's brother-in-law, Mahesh*, rather reluctantly. "If there is an issue, we will take her to a private hospital in Bhuj or Anjar," he added.

A visit to the private hospital, however, will cost money and with Devi's husband and brother-in-law being the only breadwinners in a family of nine, this might be tough. The two men earn Rs 250-300 a day each.

Meanwhile, Gaura's family, in the same village as Devi's, has found a "solution."

"With the help of an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, we got a 'Mamata card' made... My last pregnancy was tough. I was 14 years old and it was a premature delivery. My baby was admitted in a private hospital for over 40 days. It cost us Rs 2.5 lakh. We are still in debt. So, this time we have a Mamta card," she revealed.

Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.

Several women have multiple Mamta cards with multiple date of births.

(illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

So, what is a Mamta card?

A Mamta card is the Gujarat government's Mother and Child Protection card which keeps track of hospital visits, check-ups, and vaccination for pregnant and lactating mothers and their babies.

As per Gaura's Mamta card, seen by The Quint, her age as of November 2022 is 21 years. Another copy of the card says she is 26 years old. None of the two match with the age calculated as per the date of birth on her Aadhaar card - 8 July 2004. As per that, she is 18 years old.

Hetal, the Anganwadi worker, explained, "Sometimes, ASHA workers issue Mamta cards on the basis of just what they are told. Many of these girls don't have Aadhaar cards. The ASHA workers also know that sometimes the age on the Mamta card is incorrect but what's the choice?"

She said that without a Mamta card, "most of these girls have no access to healthcare. They do not go to the civil hospital out of fear and private clinics are unaffordable."

A Mamta card, however, cannot ensure that these women get free ration under the MMY scheme. "For that, you need the Aadhaar card number," informed Hetal. 


The Stats Behind the Stories: Cases of Child Brides in Gujarat

As per the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, parents and in-laws of girls like Gaura and Devi can be sentenced to two years in prison or a penalty up to Rs 1 lakh, if proven that the girls were minors at the time of the wedding.

Gujarat too has a law against child marriage since 1964.

Yet, the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, for 2019-2020) revealed that in the district of Kutch, 19 percent of women aged between 20 and 24 years had been married before they turned 18.

And in the same district, 5.7 percent of women aged between 15 and 19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.

Across all of rural Gujarat, that figure stood even higher - 6.7 percent of rural women in the age group of 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant, while the figure was much lower in urban areas - at 2.6 percent.

Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.
Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.

Child, Bride, and Mother: One Person, Many Roles

Gaura remembers little about the birth of her two children or their childhood - both born when she herself was a teen.

"My elder one is four and younger one is two. Everything happened so fast that I couldn't even figure out what it means to be a mother," she said, as she put them to sleep.

This time, she hopes, it's different.

Gaura, like many around her, was pulled out of school earlier than she would have liked. In the sixth standard in her case.

"I wanted to study further. I have decided that my children will marry only when they want to," she said, fully aware that the possibility is bleak, considering that the decisions are made by the men and the elders of the family. Girls and women have little say.

Meanwhile, Devi never went to school. "I don't think I missed much. I am happy with how my life is. After my baby is born, my husband (Rajesh*) and I will go to the mountains," she said, as her eyes lit up at the mention of her future.


Rooting Out the Evil: What Are the Authorities Doing?

The Quint also spoke to Dr Rohit Bhil, the medical officer at the civil hospital in Khavda. He said, "Education is a huge issue here. People don't understand the concept of family planning. Pregnancies are not well-spaced. There are women who conceive again within six to seven months of delivery."

"There have been times when women, after their sixth or seventh pregnancy, have asked us to sensitise their in-laws and husbands about the toll childbirth takes on their health."
 Dr Rohit Bhil, Medical Officer, Civil Hospital, Khavda
Child brides forced into early pregnancies are being left out of the state government's maternal nutrition scheme.

At the local Police Station, sub-inspector Dharmendra Singh Vaghela said that no cases of child marriage have been brought to their notice.

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

As per the 2011 census, Khavda has a population of over 4,000 people and is a part of the Bhuj sub-district in Kachchh. The male literacy rate in Bhuj is 80.83 percent whereas the female literacy rate is only 65.08 percent.

Village Sarpanch Jesungbhai Patel added that the Panchayat is also aware of the problem and is trying to initiate a dialogue with concerned communities.

"In March-April this year, we held meetings with people from different communities who live in the village. We informed them that child marriages will now be penalised," he said.

Patel claimed that since then, no case of child marriage has come to the Panchayat's notice.

Meanwhile, local sub-inspector Dharmendra Singh Vaghela, head of the Khavda Police Station, claimed that he was not aware of any recent case of child marriage. "Most people come to us to register complaints of theft or accidents. We do not know anything about the child marriage problem," he said.

As per the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there have been only 12 cases of child marriage registered in all of Gujarat in 2021.

Gaura's and Devi's houses, on the outskirts of the village, are less than a kilometre away from the police station.

With the administration turning a blind eye, their struggles continue even as their delivery dates get closer.

Gaura says she will continue her visits to the Anganwadi with the hope of getting free ration. And Devi dreams of that trip to the hills.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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