The steering committee of a global programme to end child marriage is on a visit to India to witness state interventions which have helped reduce the prevalence of child marriage.
The visit by the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage team is in view of an estimated increase in number of child brides due to the pandemic. The UNFPA-UNICEF estimates that 10 million children could become child brides as a result of the pandemic globally.
In India, child marriage reduced from 47.4% in 2005-06 to 26.8% in 2015-16, registering a decline of 21% points during the decade.
In the last five years, it declined by 3.5% points to reach 23.3% in 2020-21, according to the latest National Family Health Survey-5 data.
What is the situation in the world?
According to data from UNICEF, the total number of girls married in childhood stands at 12 million per year, and progress must be significantly accelerated in order to end the practice by 2030 — the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Without further acceleration, more than 150 million additional girls will marry before they turn 18 by 2030.
While it is encouraging that in the past decade great progress has been made in South Asia, where a girl’s risk of marrying before she is 18 has dropped by more than a third, from nearly 50% to below 30%, it is not enough, and progress has been uneven.
Rights activists and health experts say the consequences of child marriage are dire, not only because it violates children’s rights, but also because it results in more infant and maternal deaths.
Children born to adolescent mothers have a greater possibility of seeing stunted growth as they have low weight at birth. According to NFHS-5, prevalence of child stunting is 35.5% in 2019-21.
Where does India stand?
There is a growing trend for decline in the overall prevalence of child marriage, but 23.3% is still a disturbingly high percentage in a country with a population of 141.2 crore.
Eight States have a higher prevalence of child marriage than the national average — West Bengal, Bihar and Tripura top the list with more than 40% of women aged 20-24 years married below 18, according to NFHS data.
Rights workers and welfare officials say a lot more needs to be done on factors closely linked to child marriage, including eradication of poverty, better education and public infrastructure facilities for children, raising social awareness on health, nutrition, regressive social norms and inequalities.
They stress on an all-pronged approach to end the practice; strong laws, strict enforcement, preparing an ideal situation on the ground to ensure that the girl child — girls with either or below primary level education have experienced higher levels of child marriage as data show — gets an education and preferably vocational training as well so that she can be financially independent.
How are the States placed?
Data shows that child marriage is a key determinant of high fertility, poor maternal and child health, and lower social status of women.
Among the bigger States, West Bengal and Bihar have the highest prevalence of girl child marriage.
States with a large population of tribal poor have a higher prevalence of child marriage. In Jharkhand, 32.2% of women in the age bracket 20-24 got married before 18, according to NFHS-5; infant mortality stood at 37.9%, and 65.8% of women in the 15-19 age bracket are anaemic.
Assam too has a high prevalence of child marriage (31.8% in 2019-20 from 30.8% in 2015-16). Some States have shown a reduction in child marriages, like Madhya Pradesh (23.1% in 2020-21 from 32.4% in 2015-16), Rajasthan (25.4% from 35.4%) and Haryana.
Several States are pegged just below the national average:
In Odisha, 20.5% of women were married off before 18 in 2020-21 from 21.3% in 2015-16. States with high literacy levels and better health and social indices have fared much better on this score.
In Kerala, women who got married before the age of 18 stood at 6.3% in 2019-20, from 7.6% in 2015-16. Tamil Nadu too has shown improved figures with 12.8% of women in the age group 20-24 years getting married before 18 compared to 16.3% in 2015-16.
What are the laws and policy interventions?
There are several laws including the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, which aim at protecting children from violation of human and other rights.
A parliamentary standing committee is weighing the pros and cons of raising the age of marriage for women to 21, which has been cleared by the Union Cabinet.
With various personal laws governing marriages in India, the government wants to amend the law, a reform that activists and agencies have said will not be enough to stop the practice of child marriage.
Besides centralised schemes like the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, which need better implementation on the ground, States have launched many initiatives to improve the factors linked to child marriage, from education to health care and awareness programmes.
For instance, West Bengal’s Kanyashree scheme offers financial aid to girls wanting to pursue higher studies, though women’s activists have pointed out that another scheme Rupashree, which provides a one-time payment of ₹25,000 to poor families at the time of a daughter’s marriage, may be counter-productive. Bihar and other States have been implementing a cycle scheme to ensure girls reach safely to school; and U.P. has a scheme to encourage girls to go back to school.
What needs to be done?
According to Sandeep Chachra, executive director, ActionAid Association India, which has been working with UNICEF and UNFPA in over 60 high prevalence districts and the governments of Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Rajasthan, the solution lies in empowering girls, creating proper public infrastructure and addressing societal norms.
“It’s a long process, but we are getting down to the gram panchayat level, ensuring that Child Protection Committees and Child Marriage Prohibition officers are doing the job and activating community support groups.
Such efforts can lead to Child Marriage Free Villages like in Odisha which now has over 12,000 such villages.”
A series of such interventions — and recommendations of the Shivraj Patil Committee report in 2011 — have helped bring down the percentage of child marriages in Karnataka (from 42% in 2005-06 to 21.3% in 2019-20).
Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, who serves in the IAS, says several thousand child marriage prohibition officers have been notified in Karnataka and 90,000 local gram panchayat members have been oriented to spread awareness on child marriage, not only that it is illegal to get a child married off before 18, but also the dangers to the child’s health and her offspring. There has been a rise in child marriages during the pandemic, but many have been prevented as well.