I grew up in a country where some children dream of their wedding day; The dress, the location, and the dancing all seem like components of a magical day that signifies spending the rest of your life with the person of your dreams. I also grew up in a country where some children do not; Instead, they dream careers, or adventures, or education, or family. The nuances of what marriage means is less important as the main difference here: In much of the Western world, we have a choice of who we marry, and when we marry. Yet, for over a quarter of children living in India, this is not the case.
As HEEALS is an organization that seeks to empower local Indian communities in the sector of health, education, environment and livelihood, we thought it would be appropriate to focus a blog post on a prominent issue that has an effect on almost all of these areas: Child Marriage. This post will focus on defining child marriage, exploring its justifications and impacts, analyzing what the government has/is doing to stop it, where the government is lacking, and finally, where third-party organizations have a potential to bridge this gap.
Child marriage is defined as a marriage to which either of the contracting party is a child; For girls, a child is considered one below the age of 18, and for boys, a child is considered one below the age of 21.
Child marriage is something that is ingrained in societies worldwide, and the justifications for this inhumane practice can range. For some, the reasoning for child marriage could be cultural, in that it is justified by traditional patriarchal attitudes that see the female child as a burden to be married off as soon as possible. For others, the decision could be economical; Some parents see child marriage as a route to secure the female child’s economic future. In addition, from an economic perspective, many still participate in the act of giving and receiving dowries, despite the illegality as of 1961. In this sense, a dowry is less expensive relative to the youthful age of a female bride, encouraging early marriage. Finally, another common belief suggest that child marriage is a protection for girls against unwanted male attention and promiscuity, though in reality, child marriage opens the door to cycles of sexual, mental and emotional abuse. From this perspective, child marriage is seen as a way to ensure chastity and virginity of the bride.
Regardless of the various justifications for child marriage, the impacts of this practice are detrimental all the same. Physically, child marriage is cited as a prime cause for high maternal and infant mortality, as well as inter-generational cycles of malnutrition. Child marriage exposes young girls to early motherhood, reproductive tract infections, STIs, HIV/AIDs and other health complications. It provides the legal sanction for engaging in sexual activity and procreation, amounting to sanction for sexual abuse and rape. In extreme cases, female foeticide results in the buy-in of young brides, particularly in states with a skewed sex ratio; some girls are victims of “fake marriages”, after which they are trafficked for either sexual exploitation or for labour. From a psychological perspective, child marriage leads to a sudden decline in social networks for young girls, with such social isolation posing challenges to promote their own health, development and well-being. On top of this, it imposes social and decision making roles for children who are not mentally or emotionally prepared, preventing them from obtaining education in the meantime. As a whole, the practice of child marriage is a blatant violation of rights to care and protection, basic rights to good health, nutrition, education, freedom from violence, abuse and exploitation.
The first measure taken by the Indian government in preventing child marriage was the “Child Marriage Restraint Act” (CMRA), or the “Sharda Act” of 1929. This act prohibited marriage involving girls below the age of 15 years old, and boys below 18. Amendments to the CMRA in 1978 sought to make the act more effective, as well as to raise the minimum marriageable age by three years (18 for girls, 21 for boys). The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) was established in 2006 to overcome constraints in the former legislation in effectively dealing with the problem of child marriage, and still exists as the primary legislation dealing with child marriage today. The PCMA applies to all citizens of India regardless of religion, with exceptions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Pondicherry.
Under the PCMA, child marriage is an offence punishable with imprisonment of up to 2 years, or a fine of $100,000 (1 Lakh), or both. Those who can be punished under this law include: whoever performs, conducts or directs child marriage, a male adult above 18 marrying a child, or anyone having charge of the child at the time. Child marriages are voidable and can be annulled when sought within a period of 2 years after the child becomes a majority, or, if a minor, when filed through a guardian. The PCMA also specifies that the adult husband (or guardian of husband if a minor) must pay marriage to the minor girl until her remarriage. The legislation designates the role of Child Marriage Prevention Officers (CMPOs), empowered to provide all possible aid to children affected by child marriages.
In addition to the PCMA (2006), other laws that may provide protection to a child bride include the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (2000), The Domestic Violence Act (2005) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012).
Despite the PCMA having been implemented to overcome constraints in the former CMRA, government intervention is still lacking due to a limited detailed knowledge of how to apply the laws, as well as little trust in institutions in general. Although the PCMA has outlined the prohibition of child marriage on a legal level, it has done little to enforce said policies in many (primarily rural) communities across India. Even in communities where there is knowledge of the PCMA, individuals feel that traditions and norms supersede laws and institutions. In these cases, officials and CMPOs have limited capacity to go against the community that they, themselves, are a part of.
Yet just as there is a lack in government ability to transform policy into action, so is there a potential for NGOs to fill this gap with information. By increasing awareness in communities through gender sensitization programs, community-based workshops and educational programmes, NGOs have the potential to finish the job that the government began in creating the PCMA, by encouraging communities to act on implementing it. In addition, NGOs can serve to check loopholes in the provisions of the PCMA, correcting shortcomings in order to strengthen the law. Finally, NGOs can intervene through reporting witnessed cases of potential child marriage scenarios in communities where members feel obligated to stay silent, acting as an impartial third party without any reservations to reporting these cases to CMPOs.
As an organization, HEEALS works in the implementation of capacity-building workshops in schools and rural communities in states across India, educating populations about the truth about child marriage and empowering communities to report these cases as they arise. In addition, we work in creating content that gives a firsthand perspective of the child marriage situation in rural India.
I encourage whoever reading this, from wherever you are reading this, to research how this practice informs your home, your country, and finally, your globe. Noting that the only difference between me and a child bride in India is privilege and opportunity is a harrowing yet crucial realization.
Child Marriage Handbook
UNICEF- Child Marriage
CRS India Case Studies
Poster : HEEALS