Child marriage is a violation of child rights, and has a negative impact on physical growth, health, mental and emotional development, and education opportunities.
Child marriage is a violation of child rights, and has a negative impact on physical growth, health, mental and emotional development, and education opportunities. While regional disparities exist, child marriage has significantly decreased from 47 per cent (2006) to 27 per cent (2016)
It also affects society as a whole since child marriage reinforces a cycle of poverty and perpetuates gender discrimination, illiteracy and malnutrition as well as high infant and maternal mortality rates.
Child marriage impacts on almost all facets of reaching the Millennium Development Goals. It is for this reason that combating the problem is a key feature of the post-2015 MDG agenda and a major priority for UNICEF in India.
Both girls and boys are affected by child marriage, but girls are affected in much larger numbers and with greater intensity. Child marriage can be seen across the country but it is far higher in rural than in urban areas. Girls from poorer families, scheduled castes and tribes, and with lower education levels are more likely to marry at a younger age.
Although child marriage is declining, the rate of decline is slow. Broad, multi-faceted strategies are needed to target different aspects of the problem, including deep-rooted social norms and behaviours, the perceived low value of girls, limited access to education, exposure to violence, restricted freedom of movement and economic vulnerability.
UNICEF has been working tirelessly to prevent child marriage across the states where it works. Partnerships with government and civil society are a crucial part of these efforts, but much more can be done.
Challenges to eradicating child marriage
There are many causes of child marriage in India and multiple barriers to its elimination. Poverty, weak enforcement of laws, patriarchal social norms intended to ensure family honour are significant factors that increase the risk of girl being married off while still a child. Also, girls from poor households are more likely to marry as children, since marriage becomes a solution to reduce the size of the family. The cost of marriage plays a big role in families sliding further into poverty, and these high costs contribute to girls being forced to marry when other ceremonies are taking place in the family or when older siblings are being married.
Here are some other major reasons for child marriage:
• Limited education opportunities, low quality of education, inadequate infrastructure, lack of transport and therefore concerns about girls’ safety while travelling to school significantly contribute to keeping girls out of school and therefore tend to favour child marriage.
• Although there is widespread awareness of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA) and the illegality of child marriage, individually people feel that the traditions and norms are stronger than the law and the institutions and rarely report cases. On top of this, there is limited capacity among officials and lack of willingness to go against community decisions, since officials are themselves part of the community.
• Girls are often seen as a liability with limited economic role. Women’s work is confined to the household and is not valued. In addition, there is the problem of dowry. Despite the fact that dowry has been prohibited for five decades (Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961), it is still common for parents of girls in India to give gifts to the groom and /or his family either in cash or kind.
The dowry amount increases with the age and the education level of the girl . Hence, the “incentive” of the system of dowry perpetuates child marriage.
• Law enforcement to prohibit child marriage is relatively weak. Limited detailed knowledge on how to apply laws and little understanding of the consequences of the laws, as well as limited trust in institutions enforcing them, undermines the implementation of the PCMA.
• The families and girls who might benefit from social protection programmes are not always aware of them and these schemes are often limited to providing cash transfers without the accompanying messages to address the multi-dimensional nature of child marriage. The fallout of this is that cash transfers tend to perpetuate dowry, since parents use the grant for that purpose as soon as the girl turns 18 years old.
• Child marriage is widespread across India, with nearly half of brides married as girls . While there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriage nationally (from 54 per cent in 1992-93 to 27 per cent in 2016) and in nearly all states, the pace of change remains slow , especially for girls in the age group 15-18 years.
• 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.
• In general, rates of child marriage are highest in the central and western parts of India and lower in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
• Other states that have an incidence of child marriage higher than national average are: Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Tripura . However, even in states with overall lower prevalence of child marriage, there are often pockets of high prevalence.
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.
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.
UNICEF In Action
UNICEF is working alongside the Government of India in its efforts to prevent child marriage, including the implementation of the convergent national strategy, which includes:
• Law enforcement: Capacity-building on laws, support mechanisms such as a child marriage telephone hotline.
• Girls’ empowerment: Life skills, protection skills.
• Community mobilization: Working with influential leaders, oaths and pledges, counselling, folk and traditional media.
• Promoting convergence of sectors at all levels, in particular with education and social protection schemes and programmes.
UNICEF is also working with different and new sectors to ensure a comprehensive approach since child marriage is entrenched in structural problems such as poverty and limited education and vocational opportunities. Partnerships with civil society organizations and communities are key to supporting community mobilization efforts and mindset changes and partnerships with the media are very important for raising awareness of child marriage.
The UNICEF Fact Sheet on Child Marriage gives a useful outline to the nature of the problem of child marriage; the legislation aimed at ridding it and the government schemes to provide incentives against child marriage; and UNICEF’s role in supporting these. (Download)
Government strategy and action
The national Ministry of Women and Child Development, as the nodal agency for women and children, has developed a convergent national strategy and is currently drafting a plan of action on child marriage to guide all states in the implementation of strategies to prevent the problem. Key components of the strategy and draft action plan include: law enforcement, quality education and other opportunities, changing mindsets and social norms, empowering adolescents, producing and sharing knowledge and data, and monitoring.
The Government of India is also implementing national programmes aimed at protecting and promoting the development of children, while states are supporting these initiatives through state-level schemes. However, many of the programmes focus on addressing financial vulnerability through cash transfer schemes to keep girls in school.
At the same time, there is a legal framework to prevent child marriage and protect children:
• The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 makes it illegal for girls to marry under 18 years and for boys under 21 years. Child marriage can be made voidable by the child but within two years of becoming an adult.
• Child marriage is a punishable offence with a fine up to INR 100,000, or up to two years of imprisonment, or both. It is a non-cognizable and non-bailable offence.
• Dowry was prohibited in 1961 by the Dowry Prohibition Act, with a fine up to INR 15,000, or the dowry amount, whichever is higher, and imprisonment for between six months and five years.
• Other laws that may provide protection to a child bride include the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.