India is one of the few countries worldwide where child marriage continues to be widely accepted–legally and socially. Despite reports suggesting that child marriage is on the decline in the country since 2001, the latest Census report on the decadal headcount in 2011 reveals that child marriage is rampant, with almost one in every three married women being below 18 years. What is worse, a whopping 78.5 lakh girls (2.3% of all women or girls who were ever married or were married in 2011) were married before they were 10 years old. Even the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 data shows that 26.8% of women are married before the age of 18 years.
The high prevalence of child marriage in the first place speaks volumes of the times we live in. Even after 70 years of Independence, this discriminatory social practice remains widespread in many parts of the country and does not seem to be going away anytime soon because for the simple fact that it is a socially accepted custom in the first place.
Child marriage affects both boys and girls, however, in most cases it is the girls who are vulnerable. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education and are at a higher risk of being physically and sexually abused, contracting HIV and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth. Child marriage among girls perpetuates unequal community and family decision-making power, gender gaps in educational achievement and economic independence, and poor reproductive and sexual health. As per the NFHS 4, the percentage of women aged 15-19 years who were already mothers or pregnant is 6.3%
The Government of India has enacted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 to prevent child marriages, as opposed to only restraining them. States/Union Territories from time to time also regularly pursue the effective implementation of the Act. Despite all the efforts to curb the practice, in some states, the prevalence of child marriage exceeds 60% with the practice being more prevalent in rural areas as compared to urban areas—thanks to a poor conviction rate and loopholes within the law and system. As per the National Crime Records Bureau data, a total number of 280, 293 and 326 cases were registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 in the year 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively.
The reasons for child marriage are complex as it is a ‘mindset’ problem where girls are considered a burden and her sexuality a concern. Social customs, tradition, illiteracy, poverty, low status of women in society, lack of awareness about consequences of child marriage are the other reasons that encourage the practice. In Rajasthan, for example, child marriages are a part of the fabric of society and widely accepted. In other parts of the country like Bihar and Jharkhand, child marriage is practised due to poverty and economic reasons. Recent reports of child brides being sold to rich Sheikhs from the Middle East countries have sent shock waves across the country.
To prevent child marriage in the first place, strict measures must be taken by the government on an urgent basis. At the policy front, we need to promote girls’ access to quality secondary education by providing easier and safer access to quality secondary schools. We must develop stronger coordination among stakeholders such as government bodies, law enforcement officials, civil society organisations, and community leaders to create a social force that can change the norms around child marriage. We need to strengthen law enforcement as it is critical to identify and prosecute parties involved in child marriage so that the law becomes a deterrent. Lastly, and most importantly, introduce economic empowerment initiatives that empower girls and women, specifically in locations where there’s a high prevalence of child marriage and marginalised communities. Addressing poverty, one of the key precipitating causes of child marriage has the potential to reduce the practice drastically.
However, not all the issues involved in child marriage can be tackled by legislative interventions alone. The role of community assumes importance as well. For example, at the local level, Community Based Organisations or non-profit groups can develop systems for regular engagement with parents of high-risk families. These can include: home visits, promote livelihood programmes, vocational and skills-based training to help delay the marriage of girls and implement community education programs that emphasise the need to respect the decisions of girls to remain unmarried if they wish. NGOs also need to ensure that overall focus on the issue is not lost and child marriage prevention is kept among the primary objectives as opposed to a secondary or tertiary objective subsumed under other social initiatives.
These programmes and policies, if implemented in an effective and timely manner, will go a long way in delaying the marriage of girls and achieving the larger goal of reducing the prevalence of child marriage. For India’s child marriage epidemic to be cured, we need to creatively solve the problem, as merely enforcing laws may not be the answer