In most countries, marriage before 18 years is strictly prohibited as it violates the natural rights of children. It is a malpractice that denies children the opportunity to attain good health, education and other opportunities in their life. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives and traps them in a cycle of poverty. Child marriage is actually a global problem that cuts across countries, religions and ethnicities.
The causes of child marriages are manifold. A sense of insecurity, rise in poverty, growing food insecurity, traditional and religious practices, joblessness are some well-known reasons. Although the practice of child marriage affects both boys and girls, statistics reveals that in majority of the cases, it is usually girls who are forced into child marriage rather than boys. Some parents think that girls’ education is a waste while boys’ education is an investment. Such thinking accelerates discriminatory attitudes and aggravates negative impacts on the lives of girls.
Conservative outlook of rural people and religious mystification usually contribute to worsening the situation. Misconception still prevails as many living in rural areas think that if their daughter gets older, it will be difficult to marry her. Still it is found that many parents are on the lookout for younger brides for their sons. For some poor families, marring off a young daughter means one less burden. Some religious sects encourage girls as young as 10 years to marry much older men for spiritual guidance, while some families, to avoid shame, force girls to marry their boyfriends.
Child marriages directly hinder the achievement of at least six of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the UN for 2030. Target 5.3 of the SDG aims to end child marriage by 2030. More than 650 million women and above 150 million men in the world have already suffered the consequences of child marriage.
A Unicef report reveals that the number of marriages in childhood is nearly 12 million a year, though there has been decrease of 25 million child marriages in the last decade. Globally the rate of child marriages is slowly declining but it is not happening fast enough. If the current trend on child marriages continues, 150 million more girls will be married in childhood by 2030 with devastating consequences.
In India, there are 223 million brides who have been married in childhood, i.e., before attaining 18 years. In other words, approximately one in every four young women were married or in a union before their 18th birthday.
Child marriage is a serious threat that makes girls more vulnerable to other risks. Girls married off at pre-mature age are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers aged 20-24 years. Most of the girls married at early stage have to face many health-related difficulties such as malnutrition and anaemia before and after their motherhood. They endure more violence in the families than older married women. Domestic violence along with sexual harassment is also more prevalent among them.
India has achieved tremendous success in women’s empowerment in the last few decades. Girls are no more confined within the four walls of the house; rather, they are becoming engineers, doctors, judges, police officers, pilots, journalists, etc. There is hardly any profession where they are not found competing with men and proving their worth. They have established their individual identity and achieved the right to speak on family and social matters. However, the malady of child marriage is still unabated. It is unfortunate that despite girls’ empowerment, the problem of child marriages has not been tackled satisfactorily.
Under Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, the marriageable age for a female is 18 years and for a male 21 years. There is strong demand from women to raise the upper age limit for marriage of girls. The Central as well as State Governments have launched several schemes like Balika Samriddhi Yojana, Mukhyamantri Kanya Utthan Yojana, Mazi Kanya Bhagyashree Yojana, etc, for unmarried girls, which may be instrumental in removing this curse from society.
In order to ensure women empowerment, child marriage must be eliminated. The central government should take up this issue on priority basis and enact an effective law on the pattern of the Bihar Government. A time-bound action plan at national level needs to be developed in all countries with cooperation of civil society, UN agencies and girls themselves to achieve the SDG goals.
The writer is a technocrat and academician. [email protected]