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What Law Says About Child Marriage in India

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Since time immemorial, child marriage has been amongst the greatest social evils present in India. Marriage is a sacred institution and basic social structure defining a society. It is between two individuals who are ready to accept each other. Child marriage is an abuse of such union and is illegal in India. Child marriage is detrimental for the growth and development of our society.

The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men.

The recent statistics released by the Government of India on married Indian women show 31.3% Hindu women and 30.6% Muslim women marry before the age of 18. 17.6% of all Hindu women married before turning 10 the corresponding figure for Muslim women were 5%. Only 6% of men were married before 18.

The 2001 census found 43% of women were married before 18 years of age. In 2011 the figure stood at 18%. The proportion of women married before 18 years between 2001 and 2011 was 20%.

Child marriage is more prevalent in rural areas (48 per cent) than in urban areas (29 per cent) . There are also variations across different groups, particularly excluded communities, castes and tribes – although some ethnic groups, such as tribal groups, have lower rates of child marriage compared with the majority population.

Girls married as children are more likely to:

  • Drop out of school, have a low-paid job and limited decision-making power at home. A girl with 10 years of education has a six times lower chance of being pushed into marriage before she is 18.
  • Face violence, abuse and exposure to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases because they have fewer skills and less negotiating power. Nearly 13 per cent of married girls between 15-19 years of age experience sexual violence by their husbands compared with 10 per cent of women experiencing such violence between the age group of 30-39.

Major Reasons for Child Marriage

In many communities girls are seen as a liability with limited economic role and marriage transfers the responsibility to her new husband. Poverty and marriage expenses such as dowry may lead a family to marry off their daughter at a young age to reduce these costs. Even though dowry has been illegal for five decades (Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961), it is still prevalent in India and such expenses leads the poverty stricken families in marrying off their young daughters in hope to reduce such costs as the dowry amount increases with the age and the education level of the girl.

Lack of education for girls, especially in rural areas, increases girls’ vulnerability to child marriage. Limited education opportunities for girls especially in rural areas where low quality of education, inadequate infrastructure, lack of transport and therefore concerns about girls’ safety while travelling to school notably lead to keeping girls out of school and therefore seems to perpetuate child marriage.

Traditions and norms have a stronghold in people’s mind as change is never taken kindly by the human beings as they are creature of habits, thus despite the widespread awareness of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA) and the illegality of child marriage it is rarely reported. To top this off the officials and reluctant to go against the community as they themselves are part of the community.

Strategies and Action Against Child Marriage

India has been inadequate to impose the law that was first enacted by the British in 1929. The Child Marriage Restraint Act decided the age of marriage for girls at 14 and boys at 18 years. It was last raised to 18 years for girls in 2006. A National Action Plan to prevent child marriages was drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2013, however, it has not yet been finalized.

The Government has used cash incentives (such as the Dhan Laxmi scheme and the Apni beti apna dhun programme), adolescents’ empowerment programs (Kishori Shakti Yojana) and awareness-raising to induce behavior change. India is one of 12 countries selected to be part of UNFPA and UNICEF’s Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage.

The legislations and enforcing agencies are not the only one responsible for reducing and eventually eliminating child marriages from the society. It is the mindset of the society that has to be targeted to make the world free of such social evils. Citizens need to actively participate in spreading awareness and follow the existing restrictions imposed by the government. Girl child has to be given equal opportunities as boy child and right education to protect themselves from practices like these and advance in the society. The road to gender equality will reach its finish point only when practices like child marriages, female feticides and violence against women are eradicated.

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