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Updated: February 18, 2012 17:28 IST

The Other Half: When children marry

Kalpana Sharma
Comment (26)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Time to leave it behind. File Photo: AP
Time to leave it behind. File Photo: AP

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.

Still high

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.


A messy corner of India’s modernity June 30, 2012

Yes, I see your point. The minimum age for women should actually be
21. I've seen my own batchmates from such well-off backgrounds dressed
like soap-opera stars at their college farewells, because they've just
been married. But to each his own I suppose. Maybe their happiness is
something I don't understand because studies aren't necessarily
important for everybody. And perhaps I'm assuming too many things.
But that apart, I really don't see these consent ages as an excuse for
people getting 10yr olds married, or newborns for that matter.
I feel people need to stop taking marriage itself as something sacred-
a lot of compromise can be made around the institution to ensure
individuals a happier life.

from:  Ipsita
Posted on: Feb 23, 2012 at 13:45 IST

The sad truth is that in most cases, authorities and police officials are unable to stop such practices even when they are aware of it. These are revered as ‘traditional’ and ‘customary’ and questioning them would mean losing a vote bank or invoking the wrath of Khap Panchayats/Sarpanches or self-proclaimed guardians of a group for ‘hurting their regional sentiments’ . I would have said education is the answer, but in that department too we cut a sorry figure. Our education system is one that is adept at churning out degree holders rather than rational, clear-thinking, inquiring human beings.

from:  Vrinda
Posted on: Feb 23, 2012 at 10:35 IST

After seeing so many women expressing their thoughts freely in this
forum, I think it would be realistic to assume that India is progressing
in empowering its' women. We the men should come out and say No to dowry
and other evils against women. My brother's son-in-law not only spent for his wedding but also taking care of my brother who is physically paralyzed now. This boy is not feeling any special for doing this but quite natural. A great gesture and a model to emulate.

from:  C Narayanaswamy
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 13:55 IST

Parents of the girls are in such a state that they just want to get rid of the burden once they turned 18. They just want to hand over her to a guy so that they no need to bother about her in the future. I happened to hear such comments directly from parents of girls ! Its quite shameful in a country like India, where women are given respect and considered as mother.
This very attitude of the parents should be changed, I think.

from:  rajesh
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 12:21 IST

Poverty and tradition are only the tip of the problem to which we
already know answers as to how to deal. But what answer do we have for
situations like post tsunami as mentioned in the article?
I know a colleague whose sisters were married at 15 because the
village where they live has lots of killings and feudal spats going
on(If you know what it is like to have feudal spats in villages). The
parents just did not want to risk their daughter's lives and so got
them married.
Apart from this, shouldn't the general mind set of people that "People
are destined to marry whether they want it or not" change?
If you ask a villager why he is marrying off his daughter so early, he
will answer : what else has she got to do? Her sole destiny in life is
to marry, bear children and raise them (even though she is educated)
These are real time experiences and when I faced these questions, I
did not have an answer. I would definitely like some opinions on this!

from:  Divya
Posted on: Feb 21, 2012 at 22:53 IST

Kalpana Sharma realisitically portrays the present condition of todays's children. The condition is that poverty leads to child marriage, people should be provided with child law and the act passed for their welfare. Though government takes initiative steps people should come forward to eradicate child marriage.

from:  priya nandhini
Posted on: Feb 21, 2012 at 08:22 IST

The sentence with which you ended the article, summed it up very well!
As you rightly pointed out, there's no easy solution; then too all i can
say is, if we respect, and strive for each and every woman we know, it
would really go a long way in eradicating these problems.

from:  G.Deepak
Posted on: Feb 20, 2012 at 18:45 IST

Age 18 is neither too young or full adulthood. In fact marriages at
around 21 will give the people enough healthy years to raise a family
and groom them. Apart from education a decent livelihood should be
assured and marriages should not be the ultimate goal. In India, in more
than majority of cases, mere survival is the main occupation and people
rarely live their life.

from:  mvrangaraajan
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 18:23 IST

I wonder how you people are concluding that poverty is the reason for child marriage. I am pretty sure that in rural areas they also have to pay dowry. So getting them married as soon as possible does not look like a viable solution. Infact according to me the only way to actually eradicate this practice is to educate the rural adults of its consequences.

from:  Anurag
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 18:22 IST

According to me govt should create a new law in which if people even dare to cross it they should have to pay a huge amount of fee to the govt and that accused should be helped by govt by providing him/her several facilities and education better facilities should be provided in the rural area, as its the most imporant base of devleopment.

from:  Jyoti
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 18:03 IST

@ Mr. Rohit ...I agree a bit and disagree with your views a lot. It has now become a practice to drag the media into everything. Of course they do play an important role in social awareness. My strong feeling is you don't need the media to teach you something which you already know! Killing some body or stealing some one's property is a crime, and you don't expect the social media to tell you that. I am more than convinced, the awareness about child marriage has been created, but it is not followed! India and other countries differ a bit here, in most of the countries it is the economy or the poverty which force it on them, Not the same with India, we have a peculiar term called 'Indian customs and culture', which we feel proud of. My personal opinion is, it actually gives us more reasons to be ashamed, because it packs more social evils, especially against women. Don't tell me that people still need awareness about the evils of dowry! They all know, STILL DOWRY LIVES, AND KILLS MANY IN INDIA! Many of the evils we face today has got into the system of us and our society in the name of culture and customs. Leave alone Social media even laws are helpless! We have to fight against ourselves, fight the society we live in, to find a solution.

from:  Jaya Prakash
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 17:59 IST

Those parents who are illiterate, poor dont understand this issue. They go after tradition because of very less knowledge of modern day life and technologies. They dont know that, they are lagging behind in modern race.They have no access to social media, but awareness through this medium can do well.

from:  priya
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 17:46 IST

The focus should be on consent, not on the age per se. I wish I got married when I
was 5-years old.

from:  Amar
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 17:28 IST

Gayatri, are you being serious? Marriage is not something that can be chosen for a person, let alone a child who has no understanding of the complexities of human relationships. Binding two children together for the sake of seeing them grow into a "perfect couple" is nothing short of child abuse. First of all there is no such thing as a perfect couple. Secondly, a child should grow up being free to explore all facets of life, friendship and love. Since there is an already existing gender bias, coupled with child marriage, the female child does not even stand a chance to grow into a free independent woman. Only free people make free choices. To not even give a child a chance to choose their own fate is so normalised by Indian society it makes me doubt that we will ever progress into a truly secular democracy. The bottom line is that every human being should have the choice to naturally and organically find a partner for themselves. The choice is what's important.

from:  Jennifer
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 17:20 IST

Poverty is not only reason of child marriage .I myself have lived in village people have not realize problem they are going to face if there is child marriage.Your writing is not read by people who required this type of awareness .Only electronic media or social counseling can do a liitle change.

from:  Mukesh Kumar
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 17:05 IST

Make documentary films about the bleak and bloody side of child marriage and go on casting it in each village if not in each house of the impoverished villages. Link the supply of ration (under government public distribution system) to school attendance. School drop out shall means stoppage of ration to the family of the child. Education ,Education paraphernalia, transportation expenses, cloth and noon meal should be made free minimum up to High School. Let school teachers convene student parents meeting every month. The Sarpanch, Village Mooppan, Poojaris, Priests and the higher ups of Panchayath Grievance Cells(In some states there are no functioning civil courts, it is the local court held under the tree by village elders rule the masses) etc, shall be served with a government orders that they will be accountable for, if child marriage takes place under their area(Not the parents) .Few arrests and loc up will make conspicuous change in the society in no time. Vote being the main concern the question is who will bell the cat.

from:  Bose A Panicker
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 16:56 IST

Ipsita, let me answer your doubt as per my understanding.
Since law says 18yrs, people accept that there is nothing wrong, in getting their daughters married at 18. What is most wrong is -
Consider this, even in progressive well to do families, people think of marrying their daughter as soon as they turn 18. But at age of 18, that girl will be just 12th pass at max. Shouldn't she be doing her graduation for her own empowerment? Wont she be feeling like enjoying collage life?
For backward, orthodox and poor people, it serves as a card. If law allows 18, they wont mind getting their girls married at 17 - what one yr is going to do huge difference?
Legally, it denies equality. Socially it denies higher education and empowerment. Psychologically it denies individual life during early adulthood.
Society is changing. We need to change. Our laws themselves differentiate between sex, Then how can feudal society stop differentiating?

from:  Mahesh J
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 14:53 IST

Ms. Sharma, the difference in consent age between between boys and
girls is based on the fact that girls mature mentally faster than
boys (scientifically proven) - so would even say in a lighter vein
that that men never grow up.

from:  Dilip
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 14:45 IST

Its true that poverty is a big reason for child marriage
but you can not ignore the role of social media on this subject.
Media always look for spicy political and celebrity news
there must be some kind of social responsibility taken by the media.
The age of marriage must be questioned and it should be raised ,
disadvantages of child marriage must be carried to the rural people of the country.
Then only we can say them to fallow the law.
They must know the exact idea behind the law they are going to follow.

from:  Rohit
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 13:40 IST

I think child marraige is a good thing. Think of a couple knowing each other since childhood... they will grow into a perfect couple. But.. there is always that but. The boy's parents just gotta make sure that the kid-daughter gets a childhood too.

from:  gayatri
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 13:16 IST

An issue like child marriage has only one main reason: poverty. All social issues rise out of poverty which when subsided gives you education, better health care, decent standard of living and raised morals. The parents know what they are doing and they are just forced into it. Poverty will never be wiped out. Corruption can. The day the Government can feed the poorest households with Public Distribution System and Integrated Child Development Services and surplus job at the basic level, that day, probably these issues will be eliminated. We can only hope. The ones in the Government, well, you know it.

from:  Anobik
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 13:06 IST

There is no point in discussing child marriage & their education when girls who have finished their Engg from IIT & Management studies from IIM get married to a man who still thinks working women cannot run the household and these girls become Housewives. Either way, educated or uneducated the girls are not going to use their education after marriage unless the girls husband & in-laws are broad minded people. We cannot blame the poor people who do not have money to educate their daughter's get them married. The parents of upper middle class/middle class families spend lakhs on their daughter's education & still have to spend on their dowries. Might as well get married at a young age when a girl is still innocent than getting married after the girl is matured and starts thinking. The reasons for high divorce cases in the recent years is because the girls have started thinking. In the olden days, the girls were brainwashed to be loyal & dutiful to their in-laws and the husband.

from:  Ramalakshmi
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 12:23 IST

I wish some movie director will ignite the audience by these words, "count upto three.By then another young girl would have been forced into marriage somewhere in the world". i can see all years from 1929 to 2005 yet the article does not highlight on any recent statistics. seriously iwmf members are an interesting lot.

from:  Nilakshi
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 09:07 IST

First I would like to Congratulate Kalpana for raising and trying to create awareness on burning social issues regularly through the medium of 'The Hindu'. You talked about the one half of the problem, the true reason for the other half of it is 'THE POVERTY'! We may find things like,society,education,customs etc.etc., which may sound valid,but ultimately the biggest reason is the poverty. You may educate a society, infact it would be only foolish if we think these child marriages happen because they are ignorant of the law!They know, but they are helpless, and the law too is helpless,thats the reason it turns a blind eye to such happenings,because the exact reason lies elsewhere! Most of the Countries and most of the people who get involved in such acts suffer economically. This a social problem for which we know the exact reason! BUT IS IT THAT EASY TO SLOVE?

from:  Jaya Prakash
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 08:01 IST

the question about age difference regarding marriage criteria is very well raised and never been in question much .its high time to start focusing from roots before any laws or actions are undertaken.

from:  jahanvi
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 04:53 IST

Hi Kalpana! Was just wondering about that point you made on child marriage being affected by the eligible age being different for boys & girls. Can't figure out the relationship- if you could please explain!

from:  Ipsita
Posted on: Feb 18, 2012 at 21:20 IST
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