A large proportion of reproductive and sexual health concerns of adolescent girls and women are rooted in early marriage and early pregnancy.
Despite legislation and universal condemnation, the regressive practice still thrives, particularly in India’s northern states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it is the norm in semi-urban and rural areas, more so during ‘auspicious’ days such as Akshaya Tritiya or Akha Teej an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar when traditionally marriages are solemnized and weddings celebrated.
Over 6.4 million young girls in India are married off before the age of 18 years (Census 2001). Despite many government and non-government efforts, the practice continues to thrive in Rajasthan. It is a common sight to find young children, being married during the ceremony of Akha Teej. In Rajasthan, the percentage of women in the age group of 20-24 years married by 18 years is as high as 57% (National Family Health Survey-2005-06).
In addressing this ancient evil, the Rajasthan government has been innovating for promoting messages to create awareness on the ill effects of marrying girls at an early age i.e. before they attain 18 years. The Education Department, with a view to generating awareness amongst school children on the rights of the child and the legal age of marriage has inserted colored illustrations with messages on the back cover of text books (Class III to Class VIII). These illustrations are catchy, vibrant and appealing to children. 57 messages on a set of 47 books have been printed on about 40 million text books. UNICEF, Rajasthan supported the initiative in developing the illustrations and messages.
Another medium put to good use by the government has been the panels of state run buses of the State Transport Department which ply across the length and breadth of the vast state. The Government of Rajasthan has issued directives making it mandatory to print messages on ‘Right Age at marriage’ on the body of commercial vehicles (buses, auto rickshaws, trucks, etc). 95,502 such messages have been painted on 75,990 commercial vehicles till October 2007.
On the occasion of Children's Day, the Rajasthan Postal Department, Department of Women and Child Development and UNICEF released a ‘Special Cover’ with the message on 'Prevention of Child Marriages'. It was released by the Minister for Women & Child Development, Rajasthan, during the inauguration of the Fourth Jaipur district Philatelic Exhibition, held in November 2007.
30,000 of these covers have been supported by UNICEF. The Minister for Women & Child Development, Government of Rajasthan will also write letters to members of parliament, members of the legislative assembly, all tiers of the Panchayats (local elected leaders), on their role in preventing child marriages. The Principal Secretary, Women and Child Development, Rajasthan has written to all bureaucrats and police to support activities to prevent child marriages.
In addition, UNICEF has also supported the creation of a ‘cancellation stamp’ containing messages on preventing child marriage for stamping all mails in and out of Jaipur. This cancellation stamp will be used from 25th December 2007 to 1st January 2008, when there is maximum rush of mails during the festive season.