The 21st Century has been one of the most significant for India in its long history as a civilization. We have the youngest workforce in the world, the second fastest growing economy and have managed to eradicated polio completely. Yet, a little over 12 years into the 21st century and India has become home to 1/3rd of the world’s 142 million child brides.
While most of us would like to imagine that child marriages are either a thing of the distant past or a fantasy confined to the four corners of our television, they are a grim reality facing one of every two Indian women who get married. According to UNICEF 48% of rural girls and 29% of their urban counterparts in India became child brides in 2011.
The UN defines child marriage as a marriage where either one or both participants are under the age of 18. Though child marriage affects boys as well, girl children are affected in a considerably disproportionate amount and the consequences for them are much graver.
As per the NFHS-III survey conducted from November 2005 to August 2006, 47.3% of all women between the ages of 20 to 24 were married by the age of 18. 44.5% of these were married between 16 and 17. 22.6% were married before they were 16; and 2.6% were married off before they even turned 13 years old.
The eastern state of Bihar leads in the number of child brides with 69%, Rajasthan follows close behind with 65.2% girls being married off before they turn 18. According to a survey conducted by the Women and Child Department of the Government of Rajasthan, the ten districts of Udaipur, Alwar, Barmer, Pali, Bundi, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bikaner, Tonk and Bhilwara were most notorious for child marriages with Bundi being the foremost of these.
It is severely ironic how we express shock over the prevalence of child marriage even in this day and age while we comfortably live in and defend a culture that feels no shame in calling a daughter paraya dhan, that is, property of the marital home – yes, property, not a person.
Families see little practicality in investing in sending their daughters to school because they believe her ultimate destination is the kitchen in her husband’s home and that an education will only be a waste of their money. Even if the girl does find employment, her husband and in-laws will benefit from her earnings and not her parents.
Less than one third of the girls aged between 15 and17 attend school in rural areas with 5.8% of girls between the ages of 6 and 17 having dropped out because they were married off. The numbers are only slightly better in urban India where 50% of girls between 15 and 17 attend school.
Lack of education and opportunities in life is one of the factors that push girls into child marriage. The converse is also true. Often, girls are made to give up their studies early on and learn to take care of the household, thus preparing them for a marriage that’s waiting right around the corner for them to hit puberty. Girls from poor economic backgrounds, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and with lower levels of education tend to marry at a younger age.
The parents of these girls see greater economic benefit in marrying them off as early as possible. Not only does this save their monetary resources from being spent on their daughters’ education but the demand for dowry is comparatively lower as the girl is young, often illiterate and easy for the in-laws and husband to exercise complete control over.
Although dowry is an outlawed practice in India under Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, this does not deter the groom’s party from demanding it. In remote rural areas of Mewar, Samaj Panchayats, a parallel and unconstitutional legal system set along the lines of Khap Panchayats, have made it mandatory for 1 kilogram of gold and 4 kilogram of silver to be given to the groom’s family or the marriage will not be registered and the bride’s family will be penalized and ostracized from the community.
Additionally, to cut costs further, parents may marry off all children at one ceremony or try to merge ceremonies with other functions. If the girl has an older sister who is being wed, chances are the girl and all the other sisters of the girl will be married off at the same ceremony. Similarly, if there is a festival being celebrated, the parents of the girl will try to couple it with a marriage in order to save money on the wedding ceremony.
However, the reasons for the continuance of this cruel practice from the dark ages are not merely monetary. Child marriages indicate the sick objectification and lower-than-cattle status of girls and women in our society. An unmarried girl is seen as a liability not only by the community around her but also by her own parents. They see an early marriage as a simple and effective means of ensuring that the chastity of the girl remains intact and that she does not ‘malign the family honour’.
For a country where even the word sex is considered a taboo, we sure do place a whole lot of importance on one thin membrane in the female body.
Virginity seems to be the defining virtue of the bride. However, no such restriction in placed on the groom. The groom, often an older male, has social sanction to be as promiscuous as he pleases and maintain multiple partners as well as visit brothels, thus being at a higher risk of contracting HIV.
When the underage wife contracts HIV through her husband, she is blamed for her husband’s illness, accused of cheating on him and is thrown out of her marital home. Young, uneducated girls become destitute and are easy targets for brokers of the flesh trade (and with this, the risk of HIV spreading further increases manifold).
Child brides are easy prey. Their age and inexperience with the world makes them a likely target for abuse. Girls who are married before they turn 18 are twice as likely to experience domestic and sexual violence within their marital homes. Wives who are abused or raped by their husbands have a higher risk of contracting HIV. 7 of 10 females in India who suffer from HIV have rural or poor urban backgrounds.
India is home to 2.5 million people infected with HIV. The highest rates of infection are found in females below the age of 18 years. For child brides the risk of contracting HIV is 75% higher than the average person. Children born to HIV positive mothers are at risk of being infected themselves.
When it comes to maternal health, India fares worse than any other country in the world. According to the UN, one woman dies every 10 minutes from complications arising due to childbirth. Pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19, who are twice as likely to die in childbirth as compared to women in the age group of 20 to 24. Whereas, for girls younger than 15, a pregnancy can be 5 times as lethal.
Not only is an early marriage and subsequent pregnancy dangerous to the health of the mother but it also affects the health of the child. Children born to mothers under the age of 18 have a 60% lesser chance of survival in their first year compared to children born to mothers over the age of 19. If the children do make it through their first year, they suffer from malnutrition, stunted physical and cognitive growth and are severely underweight. India has the highest child mortality rate in the world. Almost 1.83 million die in India each year.
Child marriages are illegal, inhumane and stall the process of the much-need emancipation of women in India. Yet, they continue unperturbed in the name of culture and tradition. The question is, is culture and tradition more import than the Constitution of India? The self-styled judiciaries of oppressive, patriarchal village councils and Samaj Panchayats are supportive of this system and because the men who make up these Panchayats dictate which candidate the entire community will vote for every time an election comes around, the government turns a blind eye all too willingly. Is gaining a few measly votes more important a girl’s right to a safe and abuse-free life? Hypothetically, if these cases of child marriage were prosecuted under the law, would the government not be an accomplice?
In April, 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) heavily criticized the Government of Rajasthan for not only failing to crackdown on child marriage but also indirectly sanctioning funds through welfare schemes for promoting child marriage. One such welfare scheme of the Rajasthan Government called Sahyog was amended in 2009 and under this scheme; the government would provide financial assistance to BPL families of Schedule Castes for the marriage of every girl who has completed 18 years of age. However, the CAG report for the year 2010-11 highlights 35 cases where assistance was provided even though the participants of the marriage had not reached legal age.
If the government that is supposed to protect the rights of these children is busy giving them away in holy matrimony, then how do we end child marriage so that no more innocent lives have to live under the constant shadow of fear and death? Sensitisation, education and a change of mindset seem too simplistic to be real solutions to this crime of gargantuan proportions. At this point of time, child marriage has evolved into a complex law and order problem which seems non-tangible from marital rape, sex trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse and dowry along with health-related concerns of high rates of maternal and child mortality, high fertility rates among young brides leading to a population boom and the spread of HIV.
The truth is, adults don’t marry off their daughters (and sometimes sons) to protect the family’s honour and financial resources. Adults give away their girls to an organized system of violence, rape and tortured death because they can; and unless the government instils the fear of the law within them, they will continue doing so.
Children are not their parents’ property for them to do as they please. Children are individuals with their own set of inalienable basic human rights. The denial of these rights is not a personal, familial or social issue. It is a legal one. Please, don’t let culture and tradition excuse the inexcusable.