We define child marriage as a matrimonial union with either of the two parties under the age of 18 years, which is a violation of human rights. Around 876 million children (both male and female) in the world are married before they attain the age of 18 years. This factual data is the lowest of all.
Nations such as India, where child marriages are still a tradition especially in rural areas, have a historical relation with the economical and cultural needs, primarily in the rural areas, where the tradition still continues. However the origins of child marriages are still unknown, many experts attribute it to the Muslim invasion centuries ago. According to Professor Thomas Keen, an expert on gender studies at Harvard University, these invaders raped and kidnapped Hindu girls, as a result Hindu families had to offer their girls, as brides in the form of protection.
During the British rule, child marriages were extremely common and neither the British Empire nor the royal kings considered it an illegality. In 1929, shocked by the horrors against women, the British India legislature passed Child Marriage Restraint Act, which prohibited the marriages of males under the age of 18 and females under the age of fifteen. For the society, women’s duty was confined to reproductive organ, a duty she was to perform as soon as possible after puberty. Since the independence from the British Raj, India has revised and passed various laws that prohibited child marriage, and have advised the Muslim population against the child marriage depending upon the national law, even if Sharia Law says so.
Most of the times, families are eager to get their daughters married as early as possible because they see marriage as a girl’s financial and social safety. Since girls are not considered as bread earners or financial assets in their families, their early marriage decreases the economic burden in their families. As a matter of fact, dowry payment is quite lower when the bride and the groom are younger, which is also a valuable information to look upon, even when Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 has criminalised giving or receiving dowry.
In an effort to stop child marriage, the government of Haryana introduced the Apni Beti, Apna Dhan initiative in 1994. The program offered a conditional financial grant to the enrolled parents a along with a long term savings bond that can be redeemed by their unmarried daughter once she attains an age of eighteen. The objective of the policy was to reduce the challenges faced by girls, challenges such as discrimination and other disadvantages for which parents valued their daughters in financial capital. Over three lakh families had enrolled in this program and by 2012, the estimated enrolees increased. However, the results didn’t showed concrete improvements in the status of women on ground.
Young girls married before the legal age face disadvantages throughout their life. They have no formal education and are isolated socially, cut off from their village, family and friends. There are many health related dangers associated with child marriage. Girls getting married early are very likely to give birth at an early age, a point where their bodies are not ready for pregnancy. Pregnancy related deaths are the major cause among married girls between the ages of 15 and 19. 60% infants are likely to die in their first year, if their mothers are less than 14, and those children that survive are likely to suffer from low birth weight. Child brides are vulnerable to many sexual borne diseases like STDs. Girls in child marriages are prone to domestic violence and sexual abuse either from their spouses or their in-laws.
The Government of India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006, prohibiting child marriage, providing relief to the victims (as per some sections of the IPC’s), and punishing those who are found performing the same ceremonies of the minor. As per the law, a female child is minor under the age of 18 and the males at the 21. This law is applicable to all the citizens, irrespective of the religions. Despite strong law enforcement and the now the law, child marriages continues to exist in rural India and ceremonies takes place quite actively in states such Kerala. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has noted many discrepancies in the law. One major discrepancy in the law that defines sexual relations with a minor as statutory rape but allowing it in child marriages if either party does not make formal case.
Surprisingly married girls between the ages of 15 and 18 cannot register a case of rape against their husbands. According to the UNICEF’s report on “Child Marriage”, if there are no steps taken by concerned authorities to stop child marriage, around 280 million girls today are in the risk of being forced into child marriage by their families or by their societies (numerous cases recorded in the past indicates societies pressure), and they are prone to become brides before their 18th birthday. UNICEF also estimates that by 2050, the situation will escalate with increased population.
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Anant Mishra is former youth representative United Nations. He has served in number of committees including United Nations Conference for Trade and Development and United Nations General Assembly primarily focusing on international trade, middle east crisis, education, finance, economics. He can be reached on [email protected]
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