Child marriages: parents bow to social pressure, finds survey
Survey says almost one-third of parents of girls who are likely to be married before 18 don’t think there are any negative consequences
Breakthrough, a human rights organization, launched a ‘Nation Against Early Marriage’ campaign on Monday in New Delhi.
India’s failure to co-sponsor the first United Nations Human Rights Council resolution recognizing child marriage as a human rights violation and adding its elimination to the UN’s post-2015 global development agenda has put the spotlight on the country’s poor record in curbing child marriage.
While India did sign the resolution and supported its intentions, it stopped short of co-sponsoring along with fellow South Asian countries Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“It’s not that the government doesn’t have an understanding of the issues, but they co-sponsor very few of these (resolutions),” said Sonali Khan, vice-president of Breakthrough, an organization that launched a “Nation Against Early Marriage”, campaign on Monday in New Delhi.
Activists claimed the government’s reluctance was based on the uncomfortable reality of widespread child marriages in India. Forty per cent (24 million) of global child marriages take place in India despite the fact that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, enacted in 2006, makes it illegal for a girl under the age of 18 to marry. The minimum age for males is 21.
The Breakthrough campaign includes a survey of 3,360 households in three districts of Jharkhand and Bihar. It found that while parents understand the negative effects of child marriage (88.43% cite ill-health and 76.56% a disruption to education as possible results), they stick to the practice out of social pressure and tradition.
Almost one-third of parents of girls who are likely to be married before 18 don’t think there are any negative consequences, the survey, conducted over three months in 2012, found.
The campaign focuses on the connection between early marriage and other dangerous social indicators such as health, malnutrition, poor education, domestic violence, depression and freedom of mobility. As well as an advertisement fronted by actor Irrfan Khan, which will air on Doordarshan, and a community action campaign in schools across Jharkhand and Bihar, the organization wants to build one of the first detailed bodies of data and research on child marriage in India.
“Our challenge is to produce a body of evidence on this, and it has been very tough,” Khan of Breakthrough said. “We want to know can (this programme) be scaled, can it be sustained, can it be replicated? We are so tired of working in little pockets, what we are offering to policymakers with this is to show the potential for scale. Unless we link macro to micro, we cannot achieve it.”
According to National Family Health Survey 3, 47.3% of women aged 20-24 in India were married by age 18. In Jharkhand, the number is higher—an estimated 55.7%— and in Bihar, as much as 68.2%. Sunitha Menon of Breakthrough says the baseline survey conducted for their campaign suggests parents are well aware of the law, but are swayed by societal prejudice and tradition.
“The community is putting the onus of honour on these girls,” she said. “They think the best thing is just to marry her off, to pass the burden on to someone else. We need to educate the fathers and brothers about their responsibilities and that they cannot escape the consequences.”
Government schemes such as the Mukhyamantri Laxmi Laadli Yojana, the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojana and Mukhyamantri Kanya Vivah Yojana exist to provide financial incentives, so parents do not marry off underage daughters. They encourage parents to have fewer children and to keep them in school until Class XII, in the form of direct transfer payments to post-office savings accounts, or to give assistance to tribal families who need money to marry their adult daughters. However, such schemes are not having the required effect, said Khan, of Breakthrough.
Rashmi Singh, executive director of the government’s National Mission for Empowerment of Women, said that despite schemes such as these and laws, the state falls short on implementation and there is a need for a mindset change within the bureaucracy. “We realize that it’s not laws alone with which we are going to address this burning issue, which impacts all the critical development indicators related to the girl child. Do we have the institutional mechanisms in place? Do we have a child marriage prohibition officer in place? We need to make people aware of the processes—whom do you complain to? I strongly feel that we will fall short unless we work with civil society,” she said.