Back in 2008, Jeroni Tawo was just five years old when negotiations for her marriage began to take place. Promised to a man much older than her, she was witnessing herself become a victim of child marriage. On May 31 this year, she decided to take a stand and free herself.
Her story began when she was in the third standard and was promised to be married to Tania Pinche who was in his late twenties. Her father, Taru Tawo, had begun the process of accepting bride price from Pinche and the marriage was solemnised in 2013. This summer, when her vacation began, she was taken to Pata Cheda Village in Papu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district in Northeast India. Two weeks in, she escaped to freedom.
“She walked through thick forests to reach the deputy director’s office to tell her story,” informed Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the East Kameng unit of the Women Welfare Organisation.
Last year, the WWO had organised an awareness campaign highlighting the wrongs of social evils including the archaic practice of child marriage. The campaign organisers had asked people to come forward and report cases of child marriage in that area and had also given out the address of a WWO member from the area in case they wished to approach them in private. While Jeroni could not muster the courage to do so publicly last year, the campaign message, and more importantly the address of the WWO member stayed with her and it is there that she first reached out for help.
Natung said that the 13-year old “escaped” on the morning of May 31 when everyone was asleep. The matter was brought to the attention of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services cell and together with the WWO and the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organization began talks to arrange for her release from the marriage.
While it is clear that Jeroni is a victim of a practice that was much prevalent at one time, Pinche isn’t exactly a villain.
Both Jeroni and Pinche are Puroiks, a community that has been marginalised for years. Awareness about their rights amongst community members is less and yet, Pinche himself willingly accepted the decision taken during the meeting which ended on June 3.
“It is a historic and bold decision by Pinche,” Natung said from Seppa and added that “if someone from the Puroik community can stand up and take such a decision, why can’t others”.
The amount of bride price was fixed at Rs 1,12,500 which Pinche did not want returned to him. During most such cases when marriages are cancelled, the bride’s family is required to return the bride price in full. In acknowledgement of his decision, Pinche was awarded Rs 40 thousand by the WWO.
Natung said that child marriage is not prevalent in the urban areas of the district and that most people are against it. However, in some rural areas, it is still practiced and Natung says that many cases go unreported.
One of the challenges to abolishing the practice entirely is to ensure that the victims do not find themselves in similar situations later in life. Jeroni has gone on record to put down in writing that she will not get married before she turns 18.
Speaking over the phone from Seppa, the shy 13-year old said that she wants to grow up to become a teacher. When asked if she has a favourite subject, she initially says she likes all subjects the same. A brief pause later, “science”, she says.