While child marriage in India was officially outlawed in 1929 with the Child Marriage Restraint Act its enforcement and definition have been a constant source of political debate up to current times within the country. When India was under British Colonial rule the legal minimum age for marriage was fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys. In 1978 the Indian government officially raised the minimum age for marriage to eighteen and twenty one for girls and boys, respectively. In 2006 the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was passed; it reinforced the 1978 age of legal marriage, created punishments for those complicit in child marriage, and allowed child marriages to be annulled, although the latter relies on the willingness of the child’s family to contact authorities. Child marriage, particularly among girls, is prevalent in India. According to UNICEF 18% of girls age fifteen and under were married and 47% of girls under the age of 18 were married in 2016 alone. According to the 2001 Indian census there were an estimated 1.5 million girls in Indian under the age of fifteen who were married, and of those girls roughly 300,000 were already mothers to at least one child. The problem with combating child marriage in India is how entrenched it is in society; action beyond the passing of legislation is required to fully eradicate it.
While child marriage in India is not exclusive to girls it is significantly more prevalent among females. Whereas some 16% of boys under the age of 21 are currently married in India, 47% of Indian girls are married before eighteen. Furthermore, the consequences of child marriage for girls are tremendous. Girls who are married as children are more likely to drop out of school, perform low-wage jobs, and have less decision making authority within their home and family. Child brides lack of education results in them having fewer employable skills and less negotiating power. For instance, once a girl has achieved ten years of education her chance of becoming a child bride is six times less than if she had not achieved that educational benchmark. Keeping girls in school is key not just to preventing child marriage but to furthering society as a whole; educated women earn more, are less likely to be victims of domestic violence, and are more likely to have educated children. Child brides are also more likely to face domestic violence and contract HIV/AIDS or other STI’s. 13% of married Indian females between the ages of 15 and 19 are victims of sexual assault by their husbands. This number drops to 10% when women are between the ages of 30 and 39. Furthermore, their are serious health risks surronding child and teenage pregnancy. One in six Indian women have their first child between the ages of 15 and 19. With each subsequent child they have while in this age range their chances of delivery complications as well as maternal and infant mortality increase. The infant mortality rate for women who give birth between the ages of 20 and 29 is 50%, versus 76% for women who give birth before the age of 20.
Child marriages are most prevalent among lower socioeconomic classes. The Indian caste systems accentuates this problem. Families from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to marry their daughters off at a young age because they are seen as an economic burden. By having their daughters marry, families transfer the financial strain from themselves to their daughter’s husband and his family. Furthermore, dowry and marriage costs often incentivize poorer families to have their daughters marry at younger ages in order to reduce these cost. Location as byproduct of socio-economic class is also a large factor in the age in which a girl is married in India. Some 70% of the Indian population lives in rural settings, however a majority of the wealth is concentrated in the cities. Wealth disparity has also been growing in India at a rampant pace, due in a large part to gloablziaiton and economic liberalization. As a result, 49% of girls from rural settings, compared to 29% of girls from urban areas, are married before their eighteenth birthday.
Child marriage in Indian varies drastically according to geographic area as well. Central and Western India, in general, have the highest rates of child marriage. Whereas Eastern and Southern India traditionally have lower rates of child marriage. There are also some Indian states whose child marriage rates vastly exceed the national average, such as Bihar and Rajasthan, where over 60% of females who are currently between the ages of 20 and 24 were married as children.
A traditional feast at a Hindu Rajput wedding, by Jaisingh Rathore
The Indian government is counteracting its high rates of child marriage through several initiatives. First, it is partnering with UNICEF to increase child marriage prevention laws and create a child marriage telephone hotline; to empower girls through life and protection skills; to mobilize communities by working with key local leaders, counseling, and media; and to create education and social protection programs. Second, in 2013 the Ministry of Women and Child Development drafted a National Action Plan with the goal of preventing all child marriages; unfortunately it has yet to be enacted. Its key focuses are law enforcement, high quality education, shifting traditional mindsets and social norms towards women, and empowering adolescents. Third, India uses cash incentives to prevent child marriage, specifically the Dhan Laxmi scheme and the Apni beti apna dhun programme. Furthermore, India is a member of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC). This initiative has a regional action plan, which they are implementing between the years 2015 and 2018, and aims to end child marriage.
The international community also aims to end child marriage in India. India is one of twelve states that was chosen to participate in UNFPA as well as UNICEF’s Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. UNICEF partners with local organizations within India to combat the problem. UNICEF emphasizes community relations, education, and publicity; the goal is to change entrenched mindsets on women’s role in society which will by default lessen child marriage. There are also various NGOs who are working to eliminate child marriage in India including Breakthrough, the Girls not Brides initiative, the Saarthi Trust, and Vasavya Mahila Mandali.
If you want to help combat child marriage in India, check out UNICEF’s webpage for up to date information regarding the current situation. You can also take immediate and effective action to stop child marriage not just in India but globally through the Girls not Brides Initiative. You can donate to specific projects in India such as empowering adolescent girls in urban slums or ending child marriage through education in India. If you do not currently have the means to make a financial contribution you can spread the message through social media. By sharing the facts on Facebook and Twitter you will help raise awareness and activate more people to advocate for the end of child marriage in India.