Child marriage in India

Context:The Supreme Courtdismissed a PIL petition seeking a judicial order to lower the legal marriageable age of men from 21 to 18 years.

Definition:

Child marriage in India is defined as the marriage solemnized between two people where the female is below the age of 18 years and the male is below the age of 21 years.

Child Marriage: Statistics

  • According to a UNICEF Report, 2018, the proportion of women who were married as children decreased by 15% globally in the last decade, with south Asia witnessing the largest decline (from nearly 50% to 30%) owing largely to progress in India.
  • Though, there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriage nationally (from 54% in 1992-93 to 27% in 2016) and in nearly all states, the pace of change remains slow, especially for girls in the age group 15-18 years.
  • Child marriage is more prevalent in rural areas (48%) than in urban areas (29%).
  • There are also variations across different groups, particularly scheduled castes and tribes. Although some tribal groups, have lower rates of child marriage compared with the majority population.
  • In general, rates of child marriage are highest in the central and western parts of India and lower in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

Major reasons for prevalence of child marriage in India

  1. Economies of marriage:
  • Poverty and marriage expenses such as dowry may lead a family to marry off their daughter at a young age to reduce these costs.
  • Patriarchal Indian society considers a girl as an economic burden. Marrying her off at an early age is away to transfer this burden to the marital family.
  • There is another dimension to the economies of marriage. The marriage of the boy brings home an additional hand to assist the unpaid household and economic activities.
  1. Lack of education:
  • Poor educational opportunities for girls, especially in rural areas increase the vulnerability of a girl child to be married off early.
  • Also, in the current patriarchal setup of the Indian society a girl’s right to education is regarded as a secondary priority to her labour in the household. This aggravates the situation as the girls’ power to resist marriage and opt for alternative aspirations is decreased.
  1. Patriarchy and gender inequalities prevailing in the Indian society is one of the major reasons for persisting high incidence of child marriages.The status of women in society plays a key role in child marriage, women are seen as inferior, and hence, they are neglected and despised (World Youth Report, 2003)
  2. Declining sex ratio:In rural parts of northern India, particularly in Rajasthan, the declining sex-ratio has allowed the growth of a practice known as Atta Satta where a daughter is exchanged for a daughter-in-law, irrespective of her age
  3. Prevailing cultural perspectives: There are instances where despite the existence of both laws and a fairly affluent economic background of the family concerned, child marriages have occurred. In most such instances, a cultural practice, or what is believed to be a cultural practice, is the reason behind the continued occurrence of child marriages.

Impact of Child Marriage:

Though child marriage affects both the sexes, girls are disproportionately affected and are the worst victims. The major impacts of child marriage are:

  1. Health risks: Child marriage leads to maternal mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer among others
  • Sexually transmitted diseases: Child marriage exposes the young girls to risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Maternal mortality: Maternal mortality is high among women who have conceived at an early age. Risks and complications associated with pregnancy also remain are higher.
  • Infant Mortality: Mortality rates of children born to very young mothers are high. The children that survive are likely to develop health problems and are more at risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS.
  • Mental health is also a major concern. Violence and abuse at marital home can lead to post-traumatic stress and depression.
  1. On Education: Girls are forced to drop out schools. Drop out of school have a low-paid job and limited decision-making power at home. A girl with 10 years of education has a six times lower chance of being pushed into marriage before she is 18. It is to be observed that there lies a cause and effect relationship between education and child marriage
  2. On fertility: Lower age at marriage directly affects fertility rates. Lower the rate of age at marriage higher is the fertility rate.
  3. Domestic Violence:Domestic violence thrives in an environment where women feel powerless and lack access to vital resources and decision-makingpowers. Generally, young brides are more likely to be exposed to violence due to the limited power of negotiations.
  4. Violation of Rights of Children: The Rights of Children are denied by early marriage. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is designed to guarantee certain individual rights. Child marriage denies the following rights:
  • The right to education,
  • The right to be protected from physical and mental violence, injury or abuse, including sexual abuse, rape and sexual exploitation,
  • The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health,
  • The right to rest and leisure, and to participate freely in cultural life,
  • The right to not be separated from parents against the child’s will,
  • The right to protection against all forms of exploitation affecting any aspect of the child’s welfare and
  • The right to eventual employment

Government Response:

Legislations:

Child Marriage Restrain Act or Sarda Act of 1929:

The main aim of the Act was to restrain solemnization of child marriages in India. It prohibited marriage of boys below 18years and of girls below 12 years of age.

Child Marriage Restrain (Amendment) Act of 1978

The Act rose the minimum age at marriage for girls to 18years and that of boys to 21 years.However, the marriage performed in violation of this condition still remained valid.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006

  • Under this Act, “child” means a person who, if a male, has not completed twenty-one years of age, and if a female, has not completed eighteen years of age.
  • Boys and girls forced into child marriages as minors have the option of voiding their marriage up to two years after reaching adulthood, and in certain circumstances, marriages of minors can be null and void before they reach adulthood.
  • It provides maintenance for the female contracting party.
  • Children born of child marriages are consider to be legitimate.Responsibility laid on the District Courts to decide upon the parental custody of the child, keeping in mind children’s best interests.
  • Punishment of male adult marrying a child: A male adult above eighteen years of age, if contracts a child marriage is punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees or with both
  • Punishment for solemnising a child marriage: Whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage is punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years and shall be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees unless he proves that he had reasons to believe that the marriage was not a child marriage.

Note: In 2017, the SC criminalized sex with a child bride

Schemes:

  1. Dhan Laxmi Scheme: In order to prevent child marriage, the scheme offerparents an insurance cover of Rs.1 lakh when the girl turns 18-years-old and if the girl hasn’t yet been married.
  2. ApniBeti Apna Dhan: The scheme is State Sponsored Cash Transfer Programme and is being implemented by the Government of Haryana. It aimed to improve parents’ perceived value of daughters by offering them economic incentives.

  1. Kishori Shakti Yojana: aims at empowering adolescent girls so that they may become responsible citizens. It looks at all aspects of adolescent girl development.
  2. Lado Campaign:Lado Campaign is a flagship programme of the Government of Madhya Pradesh aiming at eradicating child marriages, in mission mode through preventive and proactive measures. Major objectives are:
  • Creation of a sustainable community based human resource to advocate eradication of child marriage.
  • Strengthen Social Accountability / Acceptance of Law by Community
  • Nurturing and mentoring children as Crusaders / Brand Ambassadors/Change Agents

International Collaborations:

  1. Regional Campaign to end child marriage: India is a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which adopted a regional action plan (2015-2018) to end child marriage.
  2. India is one of 12 countries selected to be part of UNFPA and UNICEF’s Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage.

Challenges
Legal and policy related issues:

  1. The legal and policy-making system has failed to efficiently curb child marriages in Indiaprimarily because of the lack of feminist lawmaking and policy-making and the lack of implementation of the legal provisions and policies.
  2. Inconsistencies with personal laws:The personal laws are largely inconsistent with PCMA. For example:
  • The age of marriage under Muslim law is the age of puberty which is 15 years. However, marriage before the age of 7 even if contracted by a lawful guardian, is void ab initio. (Note: Muslim law is not codified in India)
  • Under Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act (PMDA), a child marriage is invalid. However, the Act is silent regarding age where the provisions for an invalid marriage are listed. Under Jewish Personal law, minimum age of marriage for girls is 12 years. (Note: Jewish law in India is uncodified)
  • Under Hindu Marriage Act, there are no provisions for punishing the parents or people who solemnized the child marriage.
  1. Loophole in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act: It does not declare child marriages illegal, but leaves an option that the girl can keep it alive and the marriage can be ‘revived’ after the girl turns 18. Since there is a window of the girl’s consent, in many cases police don’t take action against those responsible for marrying off children
  2. Fake age certificates: Often people obtain fake birth certificates through manipulation. Panchayats also sometimes play a dubious role of issuing panchnamas with fake date of birth, based on which marriages of minors take place.

Economic Challenges: Poverty remains a major challenge in eradicating child marriage in India. Wherever poverty is acute, a young girl is often seen and regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older man is believed to benefit the child and her family financially.

Child Marriage as Human trafficking:

Forced child marriage perpetuates the exploitation of health, rights and body of young girls and this treatment of young girls is a form of human trafficking. Bride trafficking has been a booming business in the states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan in north India. According to the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau, 33,855 people were kidnapped or abducted for the purpose of marriage. Half were under the age of 18.

Child marriage and early widowhood: The link between child marriage and early widowhood is of great concern.

Way Ahead

  1. All levels of education must be made more accessible to girls so that more girls will be enrolled and retained. Parents and community leaders also need to be sensitized to support girls in school. Further, education for married girls should also be encouraged.
  2. It is important to address social norms or economic constraints that putpressure on families to marry their daughters early. Thus, it is important to provide economic incentives to girls and their families
  3. Awareness and enforcement of law must be strengthened to discourage child marriage practices. In order to create awareness and sensitization of government enforcement agencies, orientation and training programmes need to be organized for sensitizing the officials of government enforcement agencies.
  4. There is a need to hold government accountable for enforcing the legal age of marriage for both boys and girls. The child marriage prevention Act should be effectively enforced to prevent early marriages
  5. There should be a proper monitoring mechanism along with a set of parameters, indicators and guidelines to ensure that the cash incentives are disbursed to the intended beneficiaries on time.
  6. Most importantly it is imperative to eradicate the gender biasness in the society to change the perception that a girl child is a burden to the family.
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