as the district with the highest female literacy, Malappuram in Kerala
has gone the other way with increasing instances of child marriage and
girls leaving school
scaled a high about 15 years ago when Chelakodan Ayesha, then a 68-year-old
grandmother of 18 from a remote village in the district, announced Kerala’s
total literacy status by reading a verse from the Quran before a thundering
higher studies: Girls at a Malappuram school
Photo by Aneesh Anjali
The preference to marry
off daughters by the time they are 14 is the major reason for
the dropouts in Classes VIII and IX
That event heralded
a new era in the history of this Muslim-dominated district by opening
the possibilities of education and empowerment to its unprivileged women.
Though the then government crippled the continuing education programme
attached to the literacy mission for political reasons, the mass initiative
succeeded in ensuring over 80 percent female literacy in Malappuram.
Now it’s downhill
for the district. According to data available with the state education
department, an alarming number of Muslim girls are dropping out of school.
As many as 2,152 girls, who were promoted to Class x from Class ix this
year, had decided to discontinue their studies. The data also shows
that over 1,500 girls stopped coming to school in Class viii this year
and 1,834 at Class vii. The number of enrolments in Class i is another
reason for worry. While girls dropped out right from Class ii to Class
v, there is no dropout in the case of Muslim boys.
cite poor finances as the reason for mid-school dropouts, the growing
preference among parents to marry off their daughters by the time they
are 14 is being identified as the major reason for the dropouts in Classes
viii and ix. Though the unaffordability of higher education can also
be blamed for the situation, growing priority for early marriages stands
out as the main villain, say teachers. Now, this district with over
80 percent female literacy is also known for a large number of early
marriages, high rate of infant and maternal mortality and poverty.
The decrease in
admission of girls to primary classes can be viewed in the background
of the skewed sex ratio. Though the district had a healthy sex ratio
in the 2001 Census, a recent study of the district panchayat found that
the ratio among the 0-6 age group in Tirur taluk fell to 925 females
per 1,000 males.
The education department
data can be viewed with a rapid household survey conducted by the Union
health ministry in 1999 in Kerala. As per the study, only 9.1 percent
of girls in Kerala get married before they are 18. However, in Malappuram
district, 36 percent of girls are married before they reach 18.
parents do not mind sending daughters to school as long as they do not
go to Class x. That was my experience during the last few decades. However,
mid-school dropouts are also increasing alarmingly now,” said
a senior high school headmaster, who preferred anonymity. “Last
year, a parent asked me to fail his daughter, a good student, in Class
ix. He feared she would not get a husband if it were known that she
had turned 15 (average age of a Class x student). When I refused, the
man withdrew his daughter from the school,” he added.
Most women in Malappuram
are grandmothers by the time they reach their early 30s. “The
age of the groom is never taken into consideration, though a 15-year-old
girl is considered unmarriageable,” laments Ayisha bi, who had
two of her daughters married at 13 and 14. Her younger daughter died
during childbirth. Her elder son-in-law, in his 40s, died soon after
the fourth child was born. “My elder son-in-law and I were of
the same age, but we can’t be choosy,” she says. The steady
rise in marriage of minor girls is linked to the large inflow of Gulf
money into the Malabar belt in recent years. Once the men start earning
petro-dollars, they prefer to marry off their daughters as soon as possible.
In some marriages,
the grooms also go to work in the Gulf after marriage. They often return
only when their minor bride is already a mother. Psychiatrists say the
long years of separation have also led to a rise in cases of depression
among young girls.
Many young girls
also suffer from the “Friday Syndrome” — complaining
of extra anxiety and stress on Fridays when their husbands usually call
from the Gulf.
Since the Muslim
Personal Law does not specify the marriageable age for women, the community’s
religious heads have encouraged the practice and sanctioned the onset
of puberty as the ideal age for marriage.
A recent Kerala
High Court judgement - that a Muslim girl, even if she is a minor, can
enter into a valid marriage agreement if she has attained puberty —
will only foster such unfair marriages.
The court also upheld
that the married minor’s husband is legally bound to provide maintenance.
A case was filed by Raihanth, a Malappuram girl, when she was 17 and
was refused maintenance after a quick divorce.
With the rise in
minor marriages, the district is fast becoming a doctor’s nightmare.
“Deliveries are complicated. The district has one of the highest
maternal death rates,” admits a senior medical officer in the
“Only a concerted
effort by clergy, ngos, citizens and government can resolve the issue.
Awareness drives must be intensified,” said VP Suhara, president
of nisa, a progressive Muslim women’s outfit based at Kozhikode.