|Child marriage dates back to India's ancient period [EPA]
"I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women whose hard lot is to suffer the unnameable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others - study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine, I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner..."
- Extract from a letter written by a woman named Rukhmabai to The Times of India on June 26, 1885, reproduced in Child Marriage in India: Socio-legal and Human Rights Dimensions, by Jaya Sagade (Oxford University Press, 2005).
This is not just the case of one Rukhmabai. There are hundreds of thousands of Rukhmabais who fall victim to early marriage. In fact, UNICEF's State of the World's Children 2012 report says that more than 40 per cent of the world's child marriages happen in India.
More than 60 million women across the world now aged between 20 and 24 years were married before they turned 18. Even though the extent of early marriage varies from countries and regions, the highest rate is found in West Africa, followed by South Asia.
"About half the girls in early marriage live in Southeast Asia," the WHO said in the Geneva meet last month.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of The Elders, who was in Bihar, India, in February 2012, said that child marriage is "a practice that robs millions of girls of their childhood, their rights and their dignity. I find it astounding that this issue does not receive far greater attention. Together, we and our partners commit to working together to end it."
The numbers are different in urban versus rural areas. According to the Union health ministry's Family Welfare Statistics 2011, "for every woman aged below 18 getting married in urban centres, three women are getting married in rural areas".
There is gender discrimination inherent in child marriage, as the practice is more prevalent among girls than among boys.
"In many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are not valued as much as boys - they are seen as a burden," Laura Dickinson, communications officer for Girls Not Brides, told Al Jazeera.
It is not a simple thing, she said, but a great challenge to change parents' attitudes is to emphasise that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.
"Gender inequality also means that women and girls are seen as second class citizens and denied the power to make their own decisions about their future," said Janna Oberdof, Director of Communications and Outreach of advocacy group Women Deliver.
More and more girls under the age of 18 are married to men often twice their age. Narmada, who worked as an agricultural labourer, was just 12 when her family arranged her engagement to a 45-year-old man who was already married. She wanted to study and didn't want to marry, but her family threatened to break off all contact with her if she didn't go ahead with the nuptials. Despite this pressure, Narmada left home for a bridge course camp run by the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF). She passed Class 10 with the highest marks in her village.
"Now 18 years old, Narmada is studying for a diploma to become a medical laboratory technician. She lives in a private hostel but is back in touch with her family, who continue to raise the issue of marriage. She tells them that she wants to marry, but will do so later and in her own time," the MVF told Al Jazeera.
Even when girls are sent to schools, they have to bear the dual responsibility of household chores as well as their studies. They also typically drop out from school between grades five and eight, reportedly due to parents' reasoning that the more educated their daughters are, the more difficult it would be for them to secure a husband later in life.
Poverty also plays a key role in child marriages. In communities where economic transactions are integral to the marriage process, a dowry is often welcome income for poor families.
"Where poverty exists, giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses, ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate," Oberdof explained.
Roots in history
Child marriage can be found in traditional epic stories and is a practice that dates back to India's ancient period. Children as young as six or eight were married in the medieval period. People believed that understanding and affection would increase if two people know each other from childhood, and so they were married off at younger age - although the girl would live with her parents until she reached the age of puberty.
The same trend continued and resulted in a practice named Atta Satta which is popular in Tonk and Bikaner in Rajasthan. It is a practice of exchanging a daughter in return for a daughter-in-law in marriage to their son. The reason for the emergence of this practice seems to be a decline in the number of girls. If a family cannot find a bride for their son, they exchange their daughter in return for a girl from another family.
"In Atta Satta, the girl may be married off at a younger age, but the gauna - the ceremony of sending the girl to her marital house - is performed only after she is physically mature or attains puberty," said a priest from Rajasthan, who did not want to be named.
This means the girl is married off at a very early age, "sometimes even at the age of four to five years".
"While boys are sometimes subjected to early marriage, girls are disproportionately affected and form the vast majority of the victims of child marriage," Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
"Akha Teej is considered an auspicious day, when one does not have to consult any astrologer. This is the best time for marriages ... Even our epics mention about child marriages. There is no harm in performing it, as the children do not live together and stay together only after attaining adulthood."
- Priest in Rajasthan
Akshaya Tritiya or Akha Teej, which falls on April 24, is considered a day of good fortune to establish new businesses, new partnerships - and new marriages. It has become common on this day for a large number of child marriages - even mass marriages - to be solemnised.
"Akha Teej is considered an auspicious day, when one does not have to consult any astrologer. This is the best time for marriages," the priest said. "Even our epics mention about child marriages. There is no harm in performing it, as the children do not live together and stay together only after attaining adulthood."
There is always a belief that some principles are non-negotiable and one should work hard to enforce them. For many communities, child marriage is a non-negotiable principle.
"But we cannot justify it in the name of culture and tradition," Venkat Reddy, the national convenor of MVF, told Al Jazeera.
One of the biggest problems associated with child marriage is it leads to early childbirth. The State of the World's Children Report 2012 released by UNICEF recently said almost 22 per cent women in India, now aged between 20 and 24, gave birth to a child before they turned 18.
"Child brides become mothers much before their bodies are physically mature," UNICEF said.
Child marriages result in early pregnancy which, in turn, lead to maternal and infant mortality. Among Paharia tribes in Jharkhand, girls begin their "married" life at the age of around 14-15, and boys at the age of around 16-17.
"Among these tribes, maternal and infant mortality rate is three times more than the state average. A girl gets pregnant by 15. And 60 per cent of mothers die, during or after delivery, by the time they reach 20 - and 43 per cent during their first pregnancy," said Soumik Banerjee of Ekjut, a voluntary organisation which has a strong field presence in the underserved villages of Jharkhand, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
And this is not all: "40 per cent of the mothers lose at least one child during delivery, usually the first child," Banerjee added.
A drastic toll on girls' health
"More than half (53 per cent) of the women who married before the age of 18 years reported having had mental [health issues], such as depression, compared with 49 per cent of the women who married later," said Dr Yann Le Strat in her study published in the journal Pediatrics.
|Ending the practice of child weddings will likely require a mass cultural re-education campaign [GALLO/GETTY]
The health repercussions do not end with the married girls - the children of child brides are "60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday than the children of mothers who are over 19", said Oberdof.
"Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Girls under 18 are also at much higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries, such as fistula," she added.
"Girls married at early ages are also at a higher risk of domestic violence. Moreover, it restricts girls' opportunities to go to school and realise their own potential beyond their roles as wives and mothers."
But all this will not stop parents from conducting child marriages. There is a fear factor which often pushes them for it, researchers say. Once a girl attains puberty, concerns surface about protecting her chastity. So do fears of elopement and stigma from losing family honour. In response, parents often decide to restrict her physical mobility, including preventing girls from going to school.
"If someone sexually violates my daughter while she is going for an errand then what will happen? In villages, news spreads like rapid fire that the girl has been raped. The parents lose their honour. That is why we don't keep grown-up girls in the house without at least marrying them," a father from Tonk, Rajasthan, was quoted as saying in the ICRW report.
Prohibition of Child Marriage Act
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) prescribes two years imprisonment or a penalty of Rs100,000 ($1,900), or both, for those guilty of marrying girls younger than 18 years of age.
"It seems that the judiciary has ignored the repercussions of child marriages ... Equally responsible is the legal community that has not brought the severe consequences of child marriage on a girl child's reproductive health and development to the notice of the judiciary. The combined result is the denial of justice to the young brides," wrote Jaya Sagade in Child Marriage in India.
The law still remains unimplemented in many tribal districts in the country. While mass child marriages - such as those seen in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh - do not happen in all states, many girls end up getting married in their early teens.
Ending child marriage is a challenge; even parents who are aware of its negative impacts find it difficult to resist the heavy weight of tradition. "Moreover, economic and social pressures compel them to get their daughters married off at a tender age," Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
Child marriage prohibition officers are given a great deal of authority. They have powers of a police officer and can enlist local police assistance. They are expected to rush to the spot upon being tipped off and to book cases.
But the fact is not many states have officers dedicated to prevent child marriages.
"In Andhra Pradesh, the government has notified all Village Revenue Officers ... that they must also act as child marriage prohibition officers ... This additional work is not a priority for them."
- Venkat Reddy, MVF
"In Andhra Pradesh, the government has notified all Village Revenue Officers - who are primarily responsible for maintaining revenue records of a village - that they must also act as child marriage prohibition officers. The officers are good in number, but they are usually burdened with their primary work. This additional work is not a priority for them," Reddy said.
Moreover, there are not many NGOs that exclusively deal with child marriages.
"For example, those working to improve education have persuaded teachers to speak out against child marriage and to keep an eye out for young girls vulnerable to early marriage. Others working in healthcare have helped to identify and support child brides who have come to them following complications in pregnancy," Dickinson said.
But what of the need to mobilise parents and children against child marriage? Or to implement a village-level monitoring system to track child marriages, building capacity of teachers, anganwadi workers and village committee members on the issue?
"These efforts must be accompanied by what we call 'mood creation' in the wider community, where we work with key groups to change attitudes towards child marriage," Reddy told Al Jazeera.
National and state level cash incentive schemes to discourage child marriage are limited in their outreach and often do not correspond with immediate needs and decision making of an individual family. Many of the schemes are meant for below poverty line (BPL) or other backward class (OBC) families, but the problem persists across caste and class groups.
Developing an evidence-based documentation on norms and values around child marriage could significantly reduce the phenomenon in the country. But still there can be no guarantee that India will ever be 100 per cent free of child marriage. Some families still go to temples unofficially to conduct the marriage of their children.
"But we think it's becoming harder. It's a very tough task for a family to leave a village to have a girl married in secrecy," Reddy said.
Child marriage could be identified by international agencies as a human rights violation, and a barrier to achieving development goals. Improving girls' access to quality schooling would help shift norms around child marriage, report experts.
"Creating 'safe spaces' where girls can gather and meet outside the home also empowers them and opens them up to new opportunities," said Oberdorf.
"We must also work to engage and educate community leaders, traditional leaders and religious leaders, who often are the decision-makers when it comes to child marriage."