Child marriages: untying the knot
In at least six states—including Rajasthan, UP and Bihar—more than half of all girls are married while legally still children
India has the 14th highest rate of child marriage in the world, according to the International Center for Research on Women. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
When her mother told her the bright, sparkly dresses and sandals lying on the table were hers, she did not know why she was suddenly given all these things, till she finally overheard her parents talk about her marriage. She kept crying thinking that she’d be sent off to a new house, away from her family. But what she didn’t know was that she had to live with a man twice her height, sturdy, moustached (she stresses the word), and 20 years older.
Eight years later, the 19-year-old is a mother of two boys—eight and six. She still looks younger than her age. Her full moon face, the childish smile, and the chicken pox scars on her face defy her repeated attempts to look mature. She is one of over 24 million child brides in India, where about 40% of the world’s 60 million child marriages take place, according to the National Family Health Survey.
India has the 14th highest rate of child marriage in the world, according to the International Center for Research on Women. Ethiopia stands at 18th. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women outlaw marriage under the age of 18. Despite these international legal conventions, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls in the world will be married before their 18th birthday, and almost 50% of these child brides will be in South Asia.
In at least six states in India—including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar—more than half of all girls are married while legally still children. According to the latest district-level household and facility survey (DLHS), conducted for the health ministry, the worst state for child marriage is Bihar, where nearly 70% of women in their early twenties reported having been married by the age of 18; the best is Himachal Pradesh at 9%.
Gender inequality, poverty, lack of education, safety concerns about girl children, and control over sexuality are the prevalent reasons for the increase. Coming from a village dramatically increases a girl’s chances of early marriage. According to DLHS data, around 48% of married women in the 20-24 year age group got married before 18 in rural areas, compared with 29% in urban areas.
Stopping child marriages while they are happening is not as easy as it sounds, mostly because the marriage is arranged by parents and their reasoning for the decision is deeply etched in several generations.
“It’s not simple at all. When we try stopping the marriage, people hurl cuss words at you and most likely beat you up no matter which gender you belong to,” says Nazima Khan, a social activist working with Nav Srishti, an NGO for child rights and women empowerment, supported by non-profit Child Rights and You.
The 19-year-old was the eldest and the most dutiful of all the siblings in her family living in west Delhi. Every time her baby brother cried, or when his clothes needed to be washed, or when her mother couldn’t cook, she was called. She went to school once in a while, was mostly late and usually received beatings from the teacher. “I never got any time to play or even to go to school,” she says, adding how much she still wants to study.
On the day of her marriage, she was made to sit next to her husband. “I thought we were all guests at a function and my husband was also one of the guests. My sister-in-law asked me to let my husband do whatever he wanted to without resisting,” she says.
Her in-laws had promised that the (the ceremony that marks physically transferring the bride from her maternal home to her husband’s house) would take place only after she attained puberty. But after the marriage was solemnized, the in-laws backtracked and forcibly took the bride. Within a year and a half she was pregnant. She kept complaining of intermittent stomach ache and would run to her mother-in-law every time she noticed her belly bloating. She writhed on the floor like a half-crushed insect. “I didn’t know what was happening to me till I gave birth to my first son. After that I knew I had to bear this pain and not shout…just like everyone else,” she says.
According to the 2001 census, 300,000 girls under the age of 15 had already given birth to one or two children.
Last year, India refused to co-sponsor the first ever UN Human Rights Council resolution against the practice. The resolution was co-sponsored by 107 other countries. In a country where every second bride is a child, around 400 people were arrested for child marriage in 2012 mostly because of the ineffective law.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), or the Sarda Act, was first introduced in India in 1929. The minimum legal age for marriage was 15 years for girls and 18 for boys. In 1978, after several amendments, the minimum legal age of marriage was raised to 18 for females and 21 for males. The law was replaced by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006. And unlike the CMRA, where punishment was negligible for marrying a minor, the PCMA provides for rigorous imprisonment of up to two years or with a fine up to Rs.1 lakh or both.
Also, the ambit of people who could be prosecuted for the crime has been widened. Anyone who is aware of any child marriage about to happen or that has already happened has to report it. The person can be made liable under the present law and also the Indian penal code for abetting the offence, promoting, permitting, participating in a child marriage or failing to prevent it. All those involved in the commissioning of the marriage can be prosecuted under the law if it is found out before the marriage is solemnized. Under the law, the marriage performed is voidable or can be repudiated. However, this can happen only if the girls challenge their marriage within a certain period of time following the marriage or before consummation of marriage or birth of a child. The permissible age of marriage under certain personal laws in India is lower than the general law.
Advocate Aparna Bhatt says even though there are positives to the PCMA, the enforceability isn’t much on the ground. “This law doesn’t override the personal law. And hence it could not reach the goal it had expected to reach,” says Bhatt.
The 19-year-old got divorced three years back. Her family is planning to marry her off again even though she doesn’t want to marry. “Even they will beat me. I want to study. I don’t want to marry again,” she says.
When asked if she knows the legal age of marriage in India, the teenager’s mother says, “I don’t even know how to count the days of a week. Do you expect me to know how old my daughter is or what the law of the land is?”