Fiji’s hidden menace

Normal, Weekender

Fijian student KALPANA PRASAD , RACHNA LAL and SHARISHMA KUMARI explore the plight of teenage girls forced into early marriages

NATASHA (not her real name) was not the typical, happy bride on her wedding day. At 16, she felt she was just not ready.
The man she was marrying wasn’t only twice her age, but she hardly knew him.
But under pressure from her poverty-stricken parents, there was no escape for her.
Natasha lived with her family a tin shack in Veisari, just outside Suva. Her parents could not afford to send her to school.
They told her that having a young, single girl living in the house was not good for family’s reputation in the community.
Furthermore, her getting married would mean one mouth less to feed.
“I was made to feel like I was burden on my parents,” says Natasha sadly.
Natasha’s feeling of gloom on her wedding day was an omen of what lay ahead. Life with her demanding and abusive husband, who refused to work, was hard. By the time she was 21, Natasha had three children.
She was expected to assume the full responsibilities of a grown woman, which she was unable to handle due to her immaturity.
“In the first two years of my marriage, I faced so many difficulties carrying out the responsibilities of mother and wife,” she said.
“I felt there were things in life I had not explored. I had wanted to become so much more than just a housewife.”
Natasha considered divorce but thoughts of her children prevented her from going through with it.
With 16 being the legal age of marriage for females in Fiji, stories like Natasha’s are neither unique nor rare.
Social workers and women’s group say that there are too many girls in Fiji getting married at too young an age, especially in the rural and peri-urban areas. Poverty, and a cultural notion that girls are better off married soon after puberty, are the main social causes.
While issues like HIV and AIDS, domestic violence and the under-representation of women in decision-making positions are widely debated, early marriage seems to be a dark, hidden problem in Fiji.
It hardly features in the national discourse, and not many people seem to be aware of the seriousness of the issue.
Attempts by Wansolwara to uncover research conducted on the issue turned up little. But those working in this area say it is a serious matter.
The director of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Shamima Ali, says that early marriages are more common in Fiji than people realise.
It happens more frequently in Indo-Fijian communities because the structures are still traditional, conservative and religion-bound.
Recent cases of early marriages that surfaced and the associated consequences prompted the FWCC to conduct further investigations.
It found that circumstances such as Natasha’s were not in any way “one-off” cases. Ali says that in poverty-stricken families, young women were regarded as commodities for parents to use for the survival of the rest of the family.
“It is not unusual for parents to sell their daughters for $100 to $150 because at that time, that is what the families need.” This, Ali says, is a form of prostitution.
She adds that in some cases, parents give their girls to older men even before they are 16. Once the girl is of legal age, they are legally bonded, often against the girls will.
“The girl is not empowered to seek assistance, particularly in rural areas, because of lack of education,” says Ali.
The FWCC has even encountered cases where parents or families force young female rape victims get married to the rapist, or live with him in a defacto relationship until of marriageable age. Often the rape victim is ostracised because of the stigma.
Sending the rape victim back to the perpetrator can have horrendous consequences for the girl.
“A man who rapes is an abusive man and as a result, the girl suffers a life of violence and exploitation,” says Ali.
The Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM) media officer, Tara Chetty, believes that there are many cases of girls under 16 living in defacto relationships with older men.
Chetty describes Fiji’s marriage laws as archaic. She says that the inconsistency in law is evident with the legal age for girls being 16 while for boys it is 18.
“We should be pushing for international human rights standards to apply across the board. This would mean a kind of basic equality where the marriage age is the same for both girls and boys,” says Chetty.
Ali supports this contention. She points out that the United Nations Convention on Children’s Rights categorises children as aged between 0 to 18, and Fiji, having signed this convention, needs to revise its laws.
Ali says that at 16, young girls are often exploited and become virtual slaves in the household. Beatings by their husbands and in-laws are not uncommon.
Ali adds that putting girls in a situation in which they are expected to bear and look after children when they have not reached full adulthood is yet another denial of their rights.
She says that this, and other stresses of early marriage, can lead to tragic consequences such as infanticide.
“These things manifest themselves in what some people call unnatural behaviour, meaning they (the women) seem mentally challenged. They lose the will to live and end up committing suicide, or even killing their infants.”Ali’s comments are corroborated by a recent Fiji Times article in which the supervisor of Women’s Prison, Ana Wilikibau, said that seven of the 31 inmates were serving time for either manslaughter or infanticide.
She attributed these crimes to marriage and pregnancies at a very young age.
The head of the Methodist Church of Fiji’s Indian Division, Rev William Lucas, says he has encountered many cases where problems have surfaced due to early marriages.
He says that in one recent case, a 16-year-old girl forced to marry a 25-year-old man was hospitalised after she drank a cleaning agent due to family problems.
Rev Lucas says all religious organisations and NGOs should jointly lobby for a change in the marriage age.
Rev James Bhagwan, also of the Methodist Church in Fiji, attributes Fiji’s high divorce rate to young people marrying straight out of high school mainly due to pregnancy.
The 2007 Family Court statistics show that the national total divorce cases for that year was 1175, with 3409 cases pending. The 2008 statistics shows 1319 cases with 5319 pending.
Rev Bhagwan believes that advocacy needs to start at the grassroots level because it is a matter of changing stereotypes and dealing with entrenched beliefs.
For the likes of Natasha, who still lives in poverty despite the best hopes of her parents, any change in law will come in too late. But it could save her daughter, and many other vulnerable girls from a miserable future. –