The Issue of Child Marriage in India – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The Members of the Steering Committee of the Global Programme to End Child Marriage recently visited India. They praised India’s efforts and success in bringing down child marriages. The Global Programme to End Child Marriage is a joint initiative of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and it promotes the rights of adolescents to delay marriage.

What is the current status of Child Marriage in India and the World?

Child marriage is defined as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18.  It includes both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married.

Global

About 40 million girls ages 15-19 are currently married or in a union worldwide.

Each year, some 12 million more girls are married before reaching the age of 18 years. Of these, 4 million are under the age of 15 years. By 2030, it’s estimated that 150 million girls will lose their childhoods due to child marriage.

The Global Girlhood Report by Save the Children estimates that an additional 5 million girls are at risk of child marriage globally between 2020 and 2025, as a result of reported increases in all types of gender-based violence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Save the Children, about 15 million girls and boys will never return to school following pandemic lockdowns and school closures. Children who don’t come back to school are at greater risk of early marriage, child labor and recruitment into armed forces.

Global Incidence of Child Marriage

Source: UNICEF

India

Child marriage reduced from 47.4% in 2005-06 to 26.8% in 2015-16, registering a decline of 21 percentage points during the decade. In the last 5 years, it has declined by 3.5 percentage points to reach 23.3% in 2020-21, according to the latest National Family Health Survey-5 data.

8 States have a higher prevalence of child marriage than the national average — West Bengal, Bihar and Tripura top the list with more than 40% of women aged 20-24 years married below 18, according to NFHS data.

According to UNICEF, at least 5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for ~33% of the global total. Nearly 16% adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.

Proportion of Child Marriages NFHS-5 India UPSC

Source: NFHS-5, UNFPA

What are the harmful impacts of Child Marriage?

Child Rights Issues: The Convention on the Rights of the Child is meant to protect individual rights of the children which are taken away by getting married too young. Children who are forced to get married young lose their rights including the right to an education, the right to be safe from physical and mental violence, injury, or abuse, including sexual abuse, rape, and sexual exploitation, and the right to the best possible health among others.

Health Issues: (a) Children born to adolescent mothers have a greater possibility of seeing stunted growth as they have low weight at birth. According to NFHS-5, prevalence of child stunting is 35.5% in 2019-21; (b) Premature Pregnancy: Most young brides don’t know much about contraception and don’t have easy access to reproductive health services. They get pregnant at a younger age and have more than one child before their mind and bodies are ready; (c) Maternal Mortality: Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth or pregnancy. The leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 around the world is pregnancy-related deaths; (d) Infant Mortality: Babies born to mothers younger than 20 have almost 75% higher death rates than babies born to mothers older than 20 years. The children who do make it are more likely to be born pre-mature and with a low birth weight; (e) Mental health: Abuse and violence can lead to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and depression; (f) HIV/AIDS: Young girls are more likely to get sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because of working of their bodies. They have less access to reproductive education and health services, and they often can’t force partners to use contraceptives.

Illiteracy: Child brides are often taken out of school and not allowed to get further education. Their children are also more likely to be illiterate. Research shows that child marriage and pregnancy are the biggest factors that keep girls from going to school.

Intergenerational Cycle of Poverty: Child marriage negatively affects the economy and can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Girls and boys married as children more likely lack the skills, knowledge and job prospects needed to lift their families out of poverty. Early marriage leads girls to have children earlier and more children over their lifetime, increasing economic burden on the household.

Teen Widows: In a society that allows child marriages, it is not unusual to find widows and divorcees under the age of 18.

What are the reasons for prevalence of Child Marriage?

Child marriage has strong roots in culture, economics and religion. It’s a chain of events that leads to children being locked up in marriages.

Poverty: Poor Families ‘sell’ their children through marriage to pay off debts or to get out of the cycle of poverty. Child marriage makes families poorer because young girls who get married won’t be educated or skilled enough to do well in the workforce.

“Protecting” the Girl’s Sexuality: In some cultures, marrying a girl young is thought to “protect” the girl’s sexuality and the family’s honour.

Customs and Traditions: In places where child marriage is common, families are put under a lot of social pressure to get their daughters married or face ridicule, disapproval, and family shame. Traditions like dowry put a lot of stress on the family because the parents have to give a lot of money, jewellery, land etc. for their daughter to get married. Generally the amount of dowry rises with age of the girl (beyond a certain limit). So families prefer to marry their girls young.

Security: Parents often marry their daughters off young to “secure” a good future for them. Abuse, rape, and other crimes against girls, as well as extreme poverty, can make parents turn to child marriage as a way to protect their daughters.

Discrimination based on gender: Child marriage is a manifestation of discrimination against girls and women. According to a UNICEF report on ‘Child Marriage and the Law’, “The discrimination often manifests itself in the form of domestic violence, marital rape, and deprivation of food, lack of access to information, education, healthcare, and general impediments to mobility”.

Laxity in Implementation of Laws: Laws are not implemented stringently. In many cases the ages of the bride and groom aren’t checked at the time of registration of marriage. Many child marriages aren’t even registered.

Reasons for Child Marriage

What steps have been taken to check Child Marriage?
Historical Efforts

In 19th Century, the social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Pandita Ramabai worked for uprooting this evil practice.

Colonial government introduced some legal measures against child marriage. Marriageable age of girls was raised to 10 years by the law passed in 1860.

Further Age of Consent Act, 1891 increased this age to 12 years.

The Sharda Act passed in 1929 raised the age of marriage to 14 years for girls and 18 years for boys.

Legislative Steps

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 prescribes age for marriage as 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006: This law replaced the Child Marriage Restraints Act, 1929. It criminalizes the acts of the person who performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage and provides for punishment with an imprisonment up to 2 years and fine up to INR 1 lakh.

Other laws that provide protection to a child bride include the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015; the Domestic Violence Act, 2005; and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee is weighing the pros and cons of raising the age of marriage for women to 21, which has been cleared by the Union Cabinet.

Government Policy/Schemes

Union Government: (a) Under the National Population Policy 2000 and the National Youth Policy 2003, there are strategies to address the vulnerability of girls in the context of child marriages. Some of these ideas included the provision of non-formal education and vocational training, development of livelihood skills and education and awareness of sexual and reproductive health issues; (b) The Government has launched schemes like the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana etc.

State Governments: (a) In Rajasthan, the Health Institute for Mother and Child started the Action Approach for the Reduction of Early Marriage and Early Pregnancy, as an initiative to involve young people towards the creation of awareness on reproductive health information. This was done through the process of community mobilization and key stakeholders; (b) West Bengal’s Kanyashree Scheme offers financial aid to girls wanting to pursue higher studies. Another Scheme Rupashree, provides a one-time payment of INR 25,000 to poor families at the time of a daughter’s marriage. The girl must be above the age of 18 to be eligible for this scheme; (c) States like UP and Bihar among other States have launched schemes to encourage girls to go to school and delay child marriage.

NGO and International Organisation’s Initiatives: (a) The Global Programme to End Child Marriage (second phase: 2020-2023, a UNFPA-UNICEF Initiative) promotes the rights of adolescents to delay marriage; (b) Child marriage is included in Sustainable Development Goal 5Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls‘ under Target 5.3 ‘Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation‘; (c) The Knowledge Hub on Child Marriage, India: The Knowledge Hub (K.Hub) is a web-portal exclusively focused on the issue of child marriage, designed to cater to growing need for evidence-based approaches on prevention of child marriages in India and neighbouring countries.

What should be the approach going ahead?

Empowering the Girl Child: The Governments should take all possible steps to improve access to education for girls e.g., the Governments can provide schools with proper sanitation facilities. Incentives may also be provided for girls to increase their enrollment in the school.

Proper Implementation of Laws: Village Panchayats must work closely with the Child Protection Committees and Child Marriage Prohibition Officers to prevent instances of child marriages.

Social Change: There is a need to sensitize the parents and society about the ills of child marriage. Rallying the wider community to stand up for girls’ rights will help bring the change. Social change will be more effective to check child marriage than coercive measures and laws.

Financial Upliftment: Providing families with livelihood opportunities like microfinance loans is an effective way to prevent child marriages that occur as a result of financial stress.

Conclusion

Child marriage spells an end to childhood, deprives children of their rights and leads to negative consequences for society. The efforts of the Union and State Governments, NGOs have led to a sharp decline in the instances of child marriages. However, all stakeholders should continue their efforts till this evil practice is eliminated completely.

Syllabus: GS I, Social Empowerment; GS II, Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation; GS II, Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes.

Source: The Hindu, Indian Express, UNICEF, UNFPA

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