Child Marriage in India: How Far Have We Come?

Many countries, including India, suffer from high rates of child marriage. According to a 2012 UNICEF report, India is home to one third of child brides worldwide.  One in two women in India is married before the age of 18.  During my time as a PHRGE Fellow at the Human Rights Law Network, (HRLN), I was given the opportunity to travel around India and conduct field research on child marriage and its pervasiveness throughout communities.   Generally, we found situations in line with such statistics, and that rates of child marriage vary greatly depending on social traditions of a given area.  Unfortunately, in many of these states with deeply-entrenched social traditions, there is a lack of uniform enforcement of law against child marriage. As a result, child marriage only decreases at a rate of 1%, while the population of India increases at a rate of 8% each year.

It wasn’t until 2006 that India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.  The Act is designed to curb the prevalence of child marriage throughout the country and articulates that it is indeed illegal for children to get married.   Under the Act, females may not legally marry under the age of 18 and males may not legally marry if under the age of 21.   These ages correspond to “healthy” times for each gender to be married and have children.   The inherent gender inequality is seldom discussed. The Court has the authority to void child marriage where they do occur, or place an injunction on a pending marriage.  Those who promote the marriage are subject to fines and imprisonment. According the Act, each district and each state must have a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer, who is responsible for a range of activities, including voiding child marriages, sensitizing the community to the malignant effects of child marriage, and creating awareness of child marriage laws.

While progress has indeed been made in the last ten years to stop child marriage, the question remains: is it enough?  After researching the topic, and conducting interviews with victims, hospital workers, government officials and social activists, I have concluded that it is absolutely not enough.

In many areas throughout India, there is no enforcement of child marriage laws.  Some districts have indeed decreased child marriage rates, and these statistics are widely celebrated.  However, other states and districts have done little to curb child marriage see no government repercussion and no movement toward change.  For example, we conducted interviews throughout remote villages in the Ganjam District which is on the south-eastern Coast of India in the state of Orissa.  We interviewed female victims, village leaders, health workers, hospital workers and social activists.  In each of the five villages we visited, the average age of marriage for boys was 22-23.  The average age of marriage for girls was 15.  Social pressures force these female victims to drop out of school when they are married.  They are then expected to move in with their new in-laws and do daily household labor for the family.  Further, tradition expects the girls to immediately seek to become pregnant, which ultimately increases health risks related to adolescent pregnancy.

None of the community members knew about the child marriage laws, understood the negative effects of child marriage, or could recall being visited by any government officials on the status of child marriage.   Throughout India, you will find entire districts, or even entire states, that share similar child marriage traditions to these villages.  Despite it being well known that child marriage is pervasive in these areas, many state and local governments are doing little to create awareness about law, enforce the law and ultimately stop child marriages.

Child marriage will remain pervasive in India until laws are uniformly and rigorously enforced.  Until then, there will be wide discrepancies in child marriage rates, which will result in a perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.   Until these marriages are stopped, child victims will be forced to abandon education, career opportunities and face increased health risks.  As my time in India comes to an end, I hope that organizations like HRLN continue to fight to turn well-intended laws into reality.  I can hope that with zealous activism, governments and local communities will start to feel the pressure to change and begin to uncompromisingly enforce the law and in turn, create brighter futures for the children of India.

– Anna Holding

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