A young girl gets forced into marriage every three seconds worldwide. The implications are enormous for women's rights and health issues.
Count up to three. By then, another young girl would have been forced into marriage somewhere in the world. Yes, forced child marriage is a reality not just in India but also in many countries around the world. In fact, India is one amongst 13 nations worldwide with some of the highest prevalence of child marriage.
Yet, this is a problem that appears almost intractable. It is also an issue that is often forgotten or overlooked even as we discuss women's rights, children's rights or the health and nutrition problems of girls and boys.
Latest data reveals that although there has been a decline in the prevalence of child marriage in India, seven out of every 100 women getting married are under the legal age of 18. This is happening despite a law banning child marriage dating as far back as 1929 with subsequent amendments in 1949 and 1978. And the passage of a comprehensive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006. In fact, the National Family Health Survey 2005-06 revealed that 44.5 per cent of women between the ages of 20-24 years had been married before they turned 18.
The prevalence of child marriage is a worry for obvious reasons. First, it results in girls being pulled out of school. Guaranteeing all children the Right to Education has no meaning when these girls are left with no choice.
Second, if girls get married so young, their bodies are not ready to bear children. These underage mothers are most at risk of dying during childbirth, thus contributing to the already unacceptably high maternal mortality rate in this country.
Third, these girls are also at risk of having multiple pregnancies. Most of them are poor, illiterate, and not aware of reproductive health or their right to decide when and how many children to have. Given their young age, they are powerless in their marital homes. This takes a huge toll on their health and that of their children.
According to Plan UK, a non-governmental organisation working on the rights of girls, an estimated 10 million girls are forced into marriage worldwide each year. This, according to their report, “Breaking Vows, Early and Forced Marriage and Girls' Education” works out to a horrifying 27,397 girls a day, 19 every minute and one every three seconds.
In all the countries where this practice occurs, implementing laws, if at all they exist, is difficult because child marriage is wrapped up in tradition. Therefore, people will not question it. It is also entangled in poverty. Families with no hope of overcoming their economic plight feel compelled to send their girls off so that they have one less mouth to feed.
After a natural disaster, that last justification becomes even more acute. In Kenya, for instance, Plan UK noted the prevalence of ‘famine brides' during a time of acute famine and food shortages. After the 2004 Asian tsunami, in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and even India, there were instances of young girls being compelled to marry ‘tsunami widowers'. In Indonesia, people living in camps for the tsunami displaced thought it was safer to marry their young daughters even to older men rather than risk their getting raped.
Another interesting point that emerges from several studies on the prevalence of child marriage is that it is higher where the laws on age of consent are unequal. For instance, in India, where the prevalence is an estimated 47 per cent, the age of consent is lower for women (18) and higher for men (21). Is there any justification for this discrepancy? Why should it not be the same age of consent for men and women? After all, when it comes to other laws, such as child labour for instance, there is no difference between girls and boys with regard to the age at which they can be legally employed.
Role of education
No one will argue that the custom of child marriage, in India or elsewhere, is a hugely complex issue and that there are no easy solutions. Clearly, a law banning the practice is not enough. It has to be coupled with efforts to make sure girls enroll in schools and stay there. If the prevalence is declining in India, this could be one of the reasons.
There are many other steps. But I would suggest that at a time when the media has become omnipresent, intruding into areas of our lives that many would prefer to keep private, this is a legitimate area into which it can intrude, investigate and focus. It can also pester lawmakers and law enforcers about the lax implementation of the law, another major reason for the continuing prevalence of child marriage. If you shine a bright light into a dark corner, you might not scare away the problem, but you will at least see that it is there.