Written By: SukanyaChatterjee, Assistant Manager – Eastern Region
Child marriage is a world-wide phenomenon transcending regional and cultural boundaries. While the practice can be found across South Asia, Mexico, Brazil and many countries in Africa, India leads in the highest number of child brides in the country (UNICEF 2013).
In India, nearly half (43%) of women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18. While there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriages nationally (from 54% in 1992-93 to 43% in 2007-08), the pace of change remains slow.
Child marriage practiced in India for centuries is rooted in a complex matrix of religious traditions, social practices, economic factors and deeply rooted prejudices. A dominant patriarchal mindset which places value on the girl’s chastity and is strongly linked to honour and status of the family, creates tremendous pressure to minimize, through early marriage, the risk of “improper” sexual activity. Added to this are the values promoted by the caste system where exogamy (marriage outside of one’s caste) brings shame and dishonor to the family or community – hence, the need to control the girl’s sexuality becomes even more imperative.
While traditional notions related to marriage and the role of the girl child provide many reasons for early marriage of girls, modern processes and constraints strengthen such a tradition. Poverty and related problems promote early marriage by limiting the daily expenses of the girl’s family with regards to education, food, and clothing. Though marriage for boys is considered a boon for the household, girls are groomed and encouraged to marry early irrespective of the implications on the child’s health and the economic stature of the family.
While it is flagrant that child marriage violates a girl’s basic human rights, there is also a growing body of evidence which documents the consequences of child marriage. When young girls are compelled to marry, they often drop out of school – in fact, it is extensively believed that it is futile to invest in a girl’s education as it will only benefit her husband’s household and would, in no way, help her own family.
Early marriages often translate into repeated pregnancies at an age when the body is not fully prepared for child bearing. Girls aged 15-19 are more likely (66.6%) to experience delivery complications compared to 30-34 year-old women (59.7%) as well as higher neonatal, infant and child mortality rates. Additionally, children born to these young mothers are often weak, leading to malnutrition (stunting and underweight) among children aged less than 5 years (District Level Household Survey 3, 2008 – 09).
Unfortunately, minor girls who are still coming to terms with their own anatomy and are struggling to meet the pressures created by the onset of puberty are more likely to experience violence and abuse by an intimate partner, often forced into conjugal relations – leading to irreversible psychological damage which cannot even be comprehended.
India acknowledged the urgency of the problem by signing both the UN Child Rights Convention and the International Convention of Trafficking and Immoral Act as well as enacting the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. However, it is imperative for the pledge undertaken with the signed convention to be translated into immediate implementation in aspiration for change.An attempt to seek redressal or file a complaint is the substantial first step required for effective application of law. Considering that the people entrusted with the implementation of these laws also belong to cultural groups which directly or indirectly support the same institution of child marriage, the magnitude of the problem goes undetected. Strict measures to legally register the marriage and adhere to the age prescribed in the Constitution for marriage is neglected, thus adding to the situation.
It cannot be pushed under the carpet that there is lack of data which documents the economic consequences of child marriages in terms of loss of economic opportunity and financial costs, medical costs, lost education and earnings, lower growth potential, and continuing poverty.If economists and policy makers responsible for developing national development plans are provided with stronger cost-benefit analysis and data which point to the increased benefits of investing in ending this practice, the issue would become a developmental priority.
Given the problematic nuances of the situation,worthy socio-political efforts are required to provide greater options for girls so as to bring about a change in ideology and cultural acceptance of child marriage as a benign issue that vastly influences a girl’s health and life choices.