Child Marriage in India:
An illegal practice with a devastating impact
Image source: The Hindu
Child marriage remains one of the ugliest flaws in the fabric of contemporary Indian society. To most, it would seem incredible that the practice continues in many parts of the country today; but in fact, according to figures published by Unicef, a third of the world's child marriages take place in India, even though it has been declared illegal since 2006. In addition to this, the country caused international outrage in October 2013 when it refused to sign a UN resolution on early and forced marriage.
The evidence is stacked against child marriage: not only does it deny girls their right to a childhood, education and freedom of choice, but it may also physically endanger them in many ways: girls who give birth during adolescence are much more prone to complications during pregnancy or childbirth, and the infant mortality rate in India for women under twenty is a huge 76%. Marrying young also puts girls more at risk from sexually transmitted diseases, anaemia and hypertension among a host of other potential issues.
When considering these facts the question is, why is it still such a widespread phenomenon? The answer is not a simple one. To start with, India, in practice, is still very much governed by religion and tradition, making it difficult to enforce laws that many consider to be an attack on their religious and cultural rights or beliefs. The problem is not restricted to a specific cultural group or geographical area, however. The majority of child marriages take place in impoverished and/or rural communities, which suggests that poverty, isolation and a lack of education are major factors in the perpetuation of this practice. Daughters in these areas are often seen as a financial burden on the family, and are therefore married off as soon as they are deemed old enough (sometimes as young as 12 or 13). The custom of giving dowries (a financial gift from the bride's family to the groom's), although also illegal, is commonplace, and as the dowry tends to be larger the older the girl is, they are married off young to avoid the financial pressure. Another factor that keeps child marriage in play is fear that the daughter may create a scandal by having sex or simply falling in love with someone before marriage or outside of her own caste. It is therefore common thinking that if a girl is married off young the risk of shame being brought on the family is reduced.
Some steps are being taken in the right direction: several child brides have turned to the courts for justice, setting precedents that will make it easier to implement the Child Marriage Prohibition Act (CMPA). In September 2015, a historic case took place in Gujarat High Court: Muslim Personal Law was overridden by the CMPA, resulting in the conviction of a man who married a 16-year old girl. This sets an important precedent, meaning the CMPA now 'override[s] the provisions of Muslim Personal Law, Hindu Marriage Act or any personal law' (2015: Express News Service). However, cases of child marriage actually making it to court are relatively rare, and the costs involved are often unthinkable to girls living in poverty. As well as this, in many villages overlooked by the state because of their remoteness and impoverished situation the law is, understandably, a far away concept that does not directly affect the way they live.
It seems obvious that until women and girls cease to be treated as incapable of making decisions for themselves, as property to be effectively bought and sold by their male counterparts, the gender inequality problems India faces will not be going away anytime soon. Child marriage is the symptom of a disease that affects all levels of a society in which women are routinely abused, humiliated and treated as inferior entities, often to the indifference of the general public. If a change is to be made, child marriage needs to stop being seen as 'normal', and communities need to become aware that having educated, independent daughters who are able to earn money for themselves could be a long-term solution to the cycle of poverty. It needs to come from the bottom, and begins with education, with teaching women and girls how to see themselves as independent and valuable members of society. This doesn't have to mean a total rejection of culture or tradition; the important thing here is establishing and maintaining womens' and girls' right to make informed decisions for themselves on how they wish to live their lives.
To do this, grassroots action that is respectful of cultural traditions and beliefs and that directly involves the communities affected by child marriage is essential. There is no sense in pointing a proverbial gun at people’s heads and demanding that the practice cease immediately: a considerate approach involving open discussion and the participation of the community as a whole is extremely important. This is the idea behind Behaviour Change Communication programmes, such as those implemented by Heeals. These initiatives aim to change people’s attitudes towards women in a positive manner, and to help them reach the right decision for themselves, rather than having it imposed on them by an unknown faceless entity. It is through small, local actions like these that we can begin to truly make a difference in the lives of women and girls across India, and empower them to become valued members of society.
● The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/may/27/india-child-marriage-annulment-brides-go-to-court
● The Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/On-world-stage-India-lets-down-its-child-brides/articleshow/24108817.cms
● The Indian Express: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/prohibition-of-child-marriage-act-to-prevail-over-personal-laws-hc/