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Early Marriage: A childhood interrupted
" The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 prohibits marriage below 18 for girlsand 21 for boys.But some 80 % of Indians live in villages where family ,caste and community pressures are more effectual "

Anupam Srivastava and Jyoti Rao

Date: the present. Place: somewhere in rural India: As Shanti emerges out of her mud-plastered hut, her child-like form looks quite odd wrapped in a sari - an adult garment. She moves about listlessly, trying to hide her protruding belly with the drape of her oversized sari. 

Married at 13, Shanti got pregnant immediately afterwards and subsequently lost her underweight, prematurely delivered baby. She is pregnant again. “This time, we hope she pulls it off,” says her mother-in-law.
Despite the existence, since 1929, of legislation banning it, child marriage continues to be a social reality in India today

Shanti is one amongst millions of girls worldwide who are married off before they attain the age of 18, the legal age of marriage in many countries, including India. Despite the existence, since 1929, of legislation banning it, child marriage continues to be a social reality in India today.

According to the National Family Health Survery (NFHS) 3, there has been an overall decline in the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the legal age of 18, from 54.2 percent in 1992-93 to 44.5 percent in 2005-06.

That still translates into a disproportionate number of girls in rural and semi-urban areas who are married off in childhood, as compared to boys.

Girls between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy-related reasons as girls between 20 and 24 . Once married, a girl or boy is expected to meet different obligations arising out of such marriage, including responsibilities towards the spouse, the family and society. In a child marriage, the individuals involved are not yet-physically, mentally and emotionally ready to perform the obligations.

In child marriage, not only the rights of the individuals involved get violated but their unpreparedness to protect against any violation makes them more vulnerable to further exploitation. In that sense, child marriage is a clear violation of human rights.

The right to free and full consent to marriage is recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many subsequent Human Rights Instruments which recognize that consent “cannot be free and full” when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.

A host of complex socio-economic factors play a role in the early marriage of girls. Poverty is one of the major factors responsible for early marriage.

A young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older man is a family survival strategy, and may even be seen as being in her best interest.

Although many states have shown improvement in reducing the age of marriage, for the millions of Shantis, who descend steeply from a state of muted adolescence into motherhood, their youth is short-lived. At best, it is youth interrupted.

Akshay Tritiya - an 'auspicious' day

The auspicious occasion of Akha Teej, also known as Akshay Tritiya, is associated with the custom of child marriage. This occasion is known as Child Marriage Day in Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas when little boys and girls are actually carried in their arms by their parents or guardians to the venue of marriage, usually in utter ignorance of changing social conditions and disregard for legal norms. This year, Akshay Tritiya falls on 7-8th May 2008.

The central and state governments routinely step up their vigil against child marriage around this time of year, and numerous awareness drives and pledge events are held to enlist the people in the fight against the practice.

For example, this year in Rajasthan, regarded as one of the "high-risk" states in terms of child marriage, several preemptive actions have been set in motion, such as:

  • Media workshops to prevent child marriages at the state and regional levels (supported by UNICEF)
  • Control Rooms have been set up in the Collectorate Offices to monitor and prevent under-age marriages
  • Intensive awaress campaigns launched with distribution of IEC materials and information sharing
  • State government has issued special orders to elected and public representatives to strictly prevent child marriages

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 provides for the prohibition of the solemnisation of child marriages and for matters connected with child marriages. Section 15 of the Act makes an offence punishable under this Act, cognizable and non-bailable.

The Act has also enhanced the penalty for violation of the provisions as compared to the previous Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929.

UNICEF, at the request of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, had supported four regional workshops in India since November 2005, in the states of Rajasthan, UP, M.P and one at the national level in Delhi.  

Plans are afoot to embark on concrete action, research and awareness programmes in the states with high child marriage incidence. 

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