Pandemic, poverty spur child marriages
What’s in the news?
- The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have proved to be new drivers of child marriages in India.
- Across India, 5,214 child marriages were reported in the first four months of the lockdown between March and June.
- The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also warned that coronavirus restrictions may delay interventions against child marriage and cause a long-lasting economic downturn that will push more families into poverty, which is a key driver of child marriage.
Child marriages in India
- Since 1978, the legal age for marriage in India has been 18 years for women and 21 years for men. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 imposes two years in prison for parents marrying off their underage children.
- While legal enactment is a necessary condition, it has proven far from sufficient to decrease the number of child marriages.
- According to a UNICEF report in 2017, around 27% of the girls under the age of 18—over 15 lakh—became child brides in India, which is the highest in the world.
Major drivers of Child marriages
- According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Social Research (CSR), the main driver for early marriage is economic hardship.
- Parents push their girls into early marriage mainly to absolve themselves of the responsibility of rearing the girl child. They feel this saves them both money and bother as the girl then becomes the responsibility of the boy’s family.
- In India, there exists a demand for child brides. Between female foeticide, skewing the sex ratio at birth and son-preferring couples investing fewer resources in the care of daughters than sons, more males survive to traditional marriage age than females in India. To find brides in the face of this sex ratio imbalance is a struggle.
- There are reports in states like Haryana “import” and “buy” brides from poorer states.
- The ramifications of the continuing practice of child marriage are well-documented. It strips girls of educational opportunities and subjugates them to lives of oppression, domestic violence, and childbirth.
- According to the World Health Organization, the primary causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 are pregnancy or childbirth-induced complications.
- Early marriage, early pregnancies, and early motherhood have a direct bearing on maternal and infant health. Adolescent mothers who remain undernourished grow up to be undernourished women, who in turn give birth to undernourished children.
- According to studies done by CSR, girls who are married off early are far more vulnerable to physical abuse, even rape.
- According to the UNFPA’s State of World Population Report 2020, but two countries – China (50%) and India (40%) – together account for about 90% of the estimated 1.2 million missing female births annually worldwide due to gender-biased (prenatal) sex selection. Out of the 142 million women missing globally, 46 million are missing in India.
- Solutions to ending early and forced marriages have to do with ending anti-female biases and discrimination against girls and women.
- The report reiterates that child marriage happens because girls are usually less valued than boys, and because poverty, insecurity and limited access to quality education and work opportunities mean that child marriage is often seen as the best option for girls or as a way for parents to mitigate the household’s difficult economic circumstances.
- Within India, child marriage is closely tied to low levels of income and education, poverty and rural residence. This is why southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have lower proportions of early marriages as compared to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
- Evidence suggests that allowing girls to complete their education delays marriage and provides them with the opportunity of being financially independent. Education acts as the agency to uphold their sexual and reproductive rights in their choice to plan, number and space the births of their children.
- Investments in behavioural social change communication should be stepped up manifold to change marriage norms that exclude girls and boys from marriage-related decision-making. Equally important would be to improve the quality and enhance access to family planning services.
- State governments can consider providing small loans and incentives like bicycles, laptops or access to technical skills for young women to promote secondary education and skill development. It would unleash a virtuous cycle that would go a long way in rapidly shifting attitudes.
- Much greater attention should be paid to creating opportunities for paid work among women and girls; work that ensures safety while commuting, as well at the place of work.
- Educating the girls and parents, promoting gender sensitization and social awareness are key to eradicating minors’ marriages.
- India is committed to eliminating child, early, and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
- A National Action Plan to prevent underage marriages, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2013, focuses on “law enforcement, changing mind-sets and social norms, empowering adolescents, quality education and sharing knowledge.”
- A report by the Law Commission in 2017 recommended making marriage registration compulsory to prevent forced and early marriages.
- The Union government is also considering raising the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, to reduce the prevalence of child brides in India.
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