Consanguineous marriages: When blood relatives tie the knot

Consanguineous marriages contribute to certain ailments, but there are ways to prevent them

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines Consanguineous as part of a family of blood relatives that descend from the same ancestor. Latin sanguis meaning ‘blood’. Another meaning says the word refers to people descending from the same ancestor.

In lay terms it refers to brothers and sisters, first cousins from either side of the parents’ families. When these relations intermarry, the marriage is called a Consanguineous marriage.

I was happy in my own little world being a teacher and helping mould young  minds  into eager learners. Then I joined the Devnar Junior College for the visually challenged and dived into this whole new world —- where the narrow confines of societal rules have generated an unusually large number of visually challenged (read blind) kids. 

The farsighted ophthalmologist Padmashree Dr Sai baba Goud has started a school for the blind in Secunderabad. The Devnar school (and now college also!) is giving blind kids another chance at life. When I volunteered to teach spoken English there, I was amazed and awestruck at all that I saw and learnt. My whole perspective on life and local society changed.

In my class I had these three girls, with unusually large and beautiful eyes., that were totally sightless. They were obviously sisters. 

My first lesson in class was always a self-introduction: I would talk about myself and then ask the kids to speak about themselves. 

Thus I asked one of the three if their parents were sighted. She said, yes

Do you have any other siblings?

Yes, she replied. The three of us are sisters.

That I had understood, the resemblance was very striking. 

Any brothers?

 Yes, I have one brother

 And is he sighted?

Yes, he is sighted!

That really blew me – how could that happen? As it is the odds are stacked high against the girl child. Now three blind girls and then they have a son who is sighted. 

The next question was waiting to be asked—- is he from the same parents? Or is there a different mother?

No he is my mother’s child

Why consanguineous marriages?

I continued with the lesson although my head was abuzz with the unfairness of it all. Yet the girls had no cribs, no despondency, no self-pity. They were happy being in the hostel and studying for their Class XI exam. They had done their basics in the village school where they were provided lessons in Braille. 

They had all the text books in braille in the Junior college too. These were being done by the college itself.

That was when I met up with Dr SaiBaba and asked him the same question. 

What is the reason for this unfair gender disparity?

He gave me one of his many articles he had written, to take what I wanted. So here is an extract from it:

It was late in the evening one day. A young lady entered my consultation room with her child.

“Doctor, this is my 10-day old child, who has not yet opened his eyes, I am afraid”.

I examined the eyes of the child after separating the lids with great difficulty. 

“Alas, there are no eyeballs,” I said looking at her.

“Do you know why this has happened?”

“Doctor, I didn’t listen to your advice, when you asked me not to marry my cousin. This is the punishment.

Childhood blindness is a source of constant worry to parents. Therefore, it is time people realized that consanguinous marriages are a more potent cause of it than any other factor. 

In India we do not have proper statistical figures about childhood blindness. Studies made in different schools for the blind, reveal that about 50% of childhood blindness is due to congenital anomalies generated by hereditary factors.

In a number of communities, it is a common practice for the offspring of brothers or sisters to marry each other. In one case I learnt of a brother and sister who, after the passing away of the parents, married each other to protect their family property from predators. Then there was this beautiful   woman who was married to her mother’s youngest brother—difference between them was about 15 years.   

A common excuse given is that the girl and the property are safe and protected. 

That the offspring are likely to have deformities and abnormalities is not explained nor is it understood.

The fact remains that Consanguineous marriages, which are very common in our country, contribute to such diseases. They also contribute to the retinitis pigmentosa, congenital cataracts coloboma, macular degenerations besides mental and physical retardation.

Measures to drastically reduce blindness 

Dr Sai Baba has a solution which, if diligently followed, can drastically reduce blindness in kids:

Genetic counselling and parental education will reduce the incidence of childhood blindness which is more common in South India. About 50% of the childhood blindness can be prevented by proper health education of the community. The community should become aware of the risk involved in consanguineous marriages.

Genetic counselling, laboratory diagnosis of the genetic diseases will help and reduce childhood blindness attributed to genetic factors.

The fact remains that information, education, communications and resource mobilization will play a major role in reducing the genetically determined diseases. The societal mores have to change. The community has to think of the future and not allow genetic mutations to destroy the lives of those who are yet to be born.

The good part of it all is that these anomalies can be prevented through the above measures.

Shyamola Khanna

A free soul, teacher, freelancing journalist, writer, published author and a storyteller and oh, what not! Shyamola has More »

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