Every second girl in the high prevalence child marriage districts of West Bengal were married off before they reach 18, the legal age for girls to get wedded, a UNICEF report said.

Murshidabad (61.04%), Birbhum (58.03%), Malda (56.07%) and Purulia (54.03%) are the districts having such dubious distinction, the report said quoting latest figures.

Though only these four districts have reported over 50 per cent child marriage cases, they are enough to pull the state figure of child marriage to a staggering 53.9 per cent.

Jalpaiguri (17.5%) is at the bottom of the 19-district list, with Kolkata (19.04%) preceding it, said the report which was released at an event on Friday.

A UNICEF spokesperson said girls should be enrolled in schools to push down the wedding age and there should be alternatives like vocational training for school drop-outs.

Lori Calvo, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF, West Bengal chapter, said, “Evidence shows that educated girls grow into agents of change for their families, communities and societies as a whole.”

“We can have more of these change agents amid us if we can give quality education to girls which can be an effective tool to address poverty and fight diseases,” she said.

The UNICEF report attributes the State’s situation to the patriarchal system where getting a daughter married early means one less mouth to feed, less dowry to pay and to the prevalent skewed gender values among the poorer section that for girls marriage is a must and education a waste.

The first State consultation on child marriage organised in November 2009 by UNICEF and Separtment of Women, Child Development and Social Welfare framed a strategy with convergent district action plans in high child marriage prevalence districts, Ms. Calvo said.

More than 90 child marriages had been prevented in these districts in the past two years with support from the administration, the UNICEF spokesperson said.

Existing schemes and infrastructure should be streamlined, she said and advocated information sharing on the role of different stakeholders in the whole process, most importantly the family and the social circles.

Legal step should be the last resort to stop child marriage, she said.

Popular Bengali actor Koel Mallick, chosen the UNICEF celebrity advocate for the girl child in West Bengal, said she was serious in reaching out to girls who have been robbed of their childhood and their families.

“If I can give them a new lease of life with my role, my goal will be realised. As long as the practice of child marriage continues, ensuring real development can never come,” Mallick said.

West Bengal Women and Child Development Minister Sabitri Mitra said awareness campaign among parents and village elders was being launched with active involvement of panchayat bodies and other grass root organisations.

She said awards could be considered for anyone having prevented child marriage.