This article is written by Ayushi Mahajan.
In India, Marriage is considered as one of the most important social institutions through which society perpetuates as it is a means of establishing family relations. This social institution is expressed in many forms of rituals and ceremonies. In India, around 45 percent of the girls are wedded below 18 years of age. Niger is placed on top in the world for child marriages under 18 years of age (74.5%), followed by Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and Central African Republic. Majority girls who are married before 18 years of age are from poor families. Most of the girls use to face problems like domestic violence, pregnancy problems and death cases. Girls who are younger than 15 years are more prone to die in childbirth than a woman who is in her 20s. The age group under 18 year has a high fertility. Child brides often show signs and symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
Child marriage is considered as one of the burning and hot issues of Indian society. It refers to a social phenomenon practised in some societies in India, where a young girl (below the age of fifteen) is married to an adult man. One another form of practice of child marriage is that in which the parents of the would be bride and groom arrange a future marriage. In this kind of marriage both, the girl and the boy do not meet each other until they reach the marriageable age. Child marriage constitutes a gross violation of human rights, leaving physical, psychological and emotional scars for life. Usually sexual activities starts soon after marriage, and pregnancy and childbirth at an early age can lead to maternal as well as infant mortality. Moreover, girls and women who marry at a younger age are more likely to experience domestic violence within their matrimonial home.
There are many factors which are considered to be the reasons for the prevalence of child marriages. Some of them are Gender inequality, social norms, perceived low status of girls, poverty, lack of education, safety concerns about girl children and control over sexuality. Several states of India have introduced incentives to delay marriages. For example, the state of Haryana introduced the program named as “Apni Beti, Apna Dhan” in the year 1994, which states “My Daughter, My Wealth”. It is a conditional cash transfer program which is dedicated to delay young marriages by providing a government paid bond in her name and the amount of Rs.25, 000 in her account only on the condition that she is not married on her 18th birthday. As per Indian laws, the marriageable age is 21 years for males and 18 years for females.
Origin of Child Marriage in India
It is believed that the origin of child marriages is from the time of Muslim Invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. Invaders used to rape unmarried Hindu girls or kidnap them forever which lead the Hindu community to marry off their daughters at an early age or even from their birth to protect them.
During the ruling time of Delhi Sultanate, political atmosphere was turbulent and ruled by Muslim Sultans in an absolute monarchy government. During this period the Sultans produced the practices of child marriage and considered the status of women very lower.
According to Dharmasutras, they state that a girl should be married after she has attained the age of puberty. According to Manusmriti, a father is considered to have done wrong to her daughter if he fails to marry her before she attains the age of puberty and if the girl is not married within 3 years of reaching puberty, she herself can search for a husband. According to Medhatithi’s Bhashya, it states that the right age of a girl to marry is eight; this same thing can also be deduced from Manusmriti. According to the Tolkappiyam, it states that a boy should marry before he reaches the age of sixteen years and a girl should marry before she reaches the age of twelve years.
Usually the parents of children especially the girl are often poor who enter into the child marriage and they use marriage as a tool to make her future better as a girl is usually considered as someone else’s property since birth. This happens in areas with little or no economic opportunities.
At many places it is a perception that the demand of dowry is directly related to the age of a girl. Dowry is a practice in India where the bride’s family transfers wealth to the groom and his family; it is a demand and condition of marriage. It is found among all religious faiths in India.
In some parts of India, the existence of personal laws is also a main reason for child marriages.
Facts and figures about Child Marriages in India
In India, It is estimated that there are over 24 million child brides. According to the National Family Health Survey, 40% of the World’s 60 million child marriages take place in India. According to the International Center for Research on Women, India has the 14 highest rates of child marriages in the world.
Indian marriage system varies by region, caste and tribe. Child marriage rates are lower in South-East India and higher in the North-West region of the country. Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the states with the highest rates of child marriage. As per District-Level Household and Facility Survey (DLHS), which was recently conducted for Health Ministry, Bihar was reported as worst state for child marriages where nearly 70% of women are married in their early twenties having been married by the age of 18 years; the best state is considered as Himachal Pradesh with marriage rate of 9%. Over the past 15 years, Child marriage has declined by just 11% – less than one percent per year. The Annual Healthy Survey carried out in 2011, shows a more rapid decline in nine surveyed states.
Who are more prone?
The girls who have low levels of education, limited or absent peer networks, restricted mobility and less access to mass media such as T.V., radio and newspapers as compared to boys are more prone to child marriages.
The problems include soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy and infant mortality, and low life expectancy, especially among rural women. High fertility rate is attributed to an early marriage i.e., the earlier a time a woman marries, the more likely she is to give birth to a larger number of children, consequently placing a high demand on her health.
On the other hand, as soon as the marriage happens, young brides are forced to prove their fertility after marriage and to give birth to children, especially sons. A young girl with minimal or no education, raised to be submissive and subservient, married to an older man, has little ability to negotiate sexual activity.
Reasons responsible for Child Marriages
The discrimination against women begins from womb and ends with tomb. The discrimination reflects in their education, family, socio political spheres, employment and work place. The child marriage system is also a reflection of these discriminations against women. There are many factors which are responsible for child marriages:
Poverty of Family
Even today in rural areas many females and female children are denied their equality to common resources when a family is poor. Female members, mainly female children are victimized by poverty of the family. A poor family usually jeopardizes female children. Every chance is opted so that the burden of a female child is avoided. So poverty is one of the reasons why families naturally resort to child marriages to avoid all sorts of burden of a female child.
Social security is one of the major social factors why child marriages happen. Many people have this perception that a married woman is much safer from societal offences than an unmarried woman. Unmarried women are viewed with malafide intentions that lead to crimes against them. So to be secure from these offences, assaults, teasing against unmarried girls, their parents are in a hurry to marry their daughters soon after she attains puberty or even before that.
Avoiding share in Ancestral Property
Generally in rural areas parents use to think that all their ancestral property belongs to their sons and if they marry their daughters at an early age then they will be out of the share. If marriage of the girl child is done at an early age then they would not demand her share. Therefore the right of females to share ancestral property is also one of the reasons responsible for child marriages.
Avoiding expenditure on Female Education
Usually families discriminate between boys and girls. In investment on education, male children of the house are considered as the future assets and economic base of the house that will work and earn money whereas female children are considered as a burden as they do not need to work and have to look after the household chores before and after marriage. Due to these reasons female children are given less or no priority.
Effects of Child Marriage
Early Pregnancy-Health complications
Child marriages usually lead to an early pregnancy which results in many health complications. Without having the proper knowledge about the sexual activities and bodily changes which occur during puberty she cannot cope with changes in her during pregnancy. Today even elderly women too are not in the position to guide her properly. In the olden days elderly women used to monitor the situation perfectly during pregnancy, during delivery and during post-delivery. But nowadays elderly women neither have knowledge as did women in olden days nor have the positive attitude to approach proper medical people.
Fall in High Fertility Age Group
When a girl is married at an early age, she normally tends to have more children and unwanted pregnancy. Lack of access to modern medical facilities to avoid or postpone pregnancy, women are forced to have pregnancy and carry the child.
Inabilities to Plan or Manage Families
Young girls exercise less influence and control over their children and have less ability to make decisions about their nutrition, health care and household management.
Effect on sexual health of young girls
Young girls use to face considerable physical pain associated with sexual intercourse as a result of the physiological immaturity of their sexual organs. Complications due to pregnancy at a young age frequently include perforation of the bladder or bowel, due to prolonged labor and HIV AIDS etc.
Desire for Male Child
Due to desire for a male child, young girls and women are forced to conceive as many times as she can till she gives birth to a male child.
High difference in age between bride and bridegroom
Generally there is a lot of age difference between the bride and the bride groom. In most of the child marriages it is the bride who is a child and not the bride groom. When the bride is child she naturally does not have any freedom to express her opinions on any of family life and she has to blindly obey the orders of her husband.
Laws against the Child Marriage in India
The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, which is also known as Sarda Act, was a law enacted to restrain the practices of Child Marriage. Its main goal was to eliminate the evils placed on young girls who could not handle the stress of married life and to avoid early deaths. This act defined a male child as 21 years or younger and a female child as 18 years or younger which was 18 years and 14 years earlier respectively, and a minor as a child of either sex as 18 years or younger which was 14 years originally. The punishments prescribed for a male to member between the age gaps of 18 to 21 was imprisonment of 15 days or fine of Rs.1, 000 or both. The punishment prescribed for a parent or guardian of a child taking place in the child marriage was imprisonment of up to three months or a possible fine.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006
Under this act, the marriageable age for a male is prescribed as 21 years and that of a female is 18 years. A decree of nullity can be obtained by a girl who has entered into a child marriage within 2 years of attaining the age of 18 years.
Child Marriage is prohibited in India as per the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
What does this law do?
- Provides for maintenance for the girl in a child marriage;
- Allows anyone who was a child at the time of getting married to legally undo it;
- Treats children born out of child marriages to be legitimate, and makes provisions for their custody and maintenance, and;
- Consider certain kinds of child marriages where there was a force or trafficking as marriages which never happened legally.
What is a crime under this law?
It is a crime:
- To attend or take part in a child marriage (as a parent or guardian);
- To allow, encourage or fail to stop a child marriage (as a parent or guardian);
- To perform or help with a child marriage in any way;
- For an adult male to marry a child wife.
Where can we go to stop or undo child marriage?
- We can directly go to a District Court and make an application- the judge can pass an order directing the people involved to not to take part in the child marriage.
- We can go to a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer for help with annulling a child marriage.
Hindu Marriage Act, 1956
Under Hindu Marriage Act, there are no certain provisions for punishing the parents or people who solemnized the marriage. A girl can get the marriage annulled only if she wants to get married before attaining the age of fifteen years and she challenges the marriage before turning eighteen.
Muslim Personal Law
Muslim law’s provisions are based on the interpretation of Quran by scholars. Under the Muslim Laws, there is no bar to child marriage. The couple after marriage has an “option of puberty” known as Khayar-ul-bulugh in which they can repudiate the marriage after attaining the age of puberty. However they can only do this if they are under eighteen years of age and the marriage has not been consummated. The age of marriage under Muslim law is the age of puberty which is 15 years.
Indian Christian Marriage Act (ICMA)
ICMA provides that a preliminary notice is to be issued 14 days prior to the commencement of the marriage, if the marriage is to be contracted between the minors. After the expiration of the said period, the parties can go on with the marriage without the consent of their guardians.
Legal Action on Marital Rape
In India, there is a standing legal confusion as to Marital Rape within prohibited Child Marriages in India. In Indian Laws, Marital Rape per se is not considered as crime, but the position for the same with regard to children is still in confusion. While the exception under the Indian Penal Code Section 375 and 376, is applicable to adults only, puts an exception and allows marital rape of a girl child between the ages of 15-18 years by her husband. However this provision of exception has been read down by the Supreme Court of India many times. It comes to a point that sexual intercourse with all wives below 18 years of age shall be considered as rape; one other new and progressive legislation which is Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 disallows any such sexual relationships and puts such crimes with marriages as an aggravated offences.
The Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an International bill attempting to end discrimination against women. This convention states that child marriages should not have a legal effect and all legal actions must be taken to enforce a minimum age, and that all marriages must be put into an official registry. India signed this convention on July 30, 1980 but stated a declaration that because of the nation’s size and increasing population, it is impractical to register all marriages of the country.
Directions in which the Government and NGOs have initiated efforts:
- Framing laws against child marriages.
- Increasing access to girl’s education.
- Changing harmful cultural norms.
- Maximizing foreign assistance.
- Addressing the unique needs of child brides.
- Supporting community programs.
- Providing young women with economic opportunities.
- Evaluating programs to determine what works.
The Government of India took major steps to eradicate the evil of child marriage in the Indian societies. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929. Its objective is to eliminate this evil of child marriage which had the potentialities of dangers to the life and health of a female child, who could not cope the stress and the strains of a married life and to avoid the early deaths of such minor mothers. It defines such terms:
- “Child” means a person who, if a male, is under twenty one years of age, and if a female, is under eighteen years of age.
- “Child Marriage” means a marriage to which either the contracting parties is a child.
- “Contracting party” to a marriage means either of the parties whose marriage is or is about to be thereby solemnized.
- “Minor” means a person of either sex who is under eighteen years of age.
Whoever performs conducts or directs any child marriage shall be punished with simple imprisonment which may extend to three months and shall also be liable to fine, unless he proves that he has reasons to believe that the marriage was not a child marriage.
Consummation of “Gauna” is not considered to be a part of marriage ceremony. The marriage being complete before the consummation, a person may be convicted under this act, though consummation has not taken place.
There are certain suggestions which can be adopted in order to lessen child marriages:
- Develop strong support systems to keep girls in school. Provide scholarships where necessary and encourage teachers to support girls.
- Strengthen and establish community networks and partnerships involving girls clubs, teachers, elders, local government officials, women and youth groups, community and religious leaders, etc. that jointly work towards ending early marriage.
- Strengthen the role of the judicial system particularly the police, judges, and persecutors through training on enforcement of the law against early marriage.
- Efforts should be made to give-up the factors motivating child marriages, all efforts should aim at changing the gender biased attitudes of parents and society by imparting proper education on one hand and eradicating poverty on the other.
Child Marriages are considered as one of the social menace that cannot be curbed easily without the support of the society. There have been demands to make child marriages void ab initio under the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act since a long time, but Indian society is complicated and complex and making child marriages void will only jeopardize the rights of women who are the victims of child marriage. Many a times the parents of the girl child forcibly marries their daughters to some elder man so that that person can give some money to the girl’s family and from that money their financial condition can turn better.
Also from the above discussion, it can be concluded that in early marriages, the girl child’s reproductive and sexual health is affected the most. The child brides suffer from high rates of obstetric complications, pregnancy induced hypertension, higher mortality rates, premature delivery, high incidence of miscarriages and stillbirths. The risks of early marriage are not just limited to the girl child alone, but also to the child that is born out of that marriage as a result of an early pregnancy. The infant mortality rates are also high along with incidences of premature delivery and low birth weight of the newborn child.
There is tremendous pressure on young wives to bear a child. Early sexual activities also expose adolescents to a greater risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) including HIV AIDS. Early marriage and pregnancy is one of the major cases of maternal mortality in India.
Mere legislation will not serve the purpose unless there is support and backing from the society. Uniform Civil Code would also help in preventing child marriages to some extent.
- B. Suresh Lal, Child Marriage In India: Factors and Problems, Department of Economics, Kakatiya University, Warangal, 2013 https://www.researchgate.net.in
- Laws on Child Marriage in India https://blog.ipleders.in/laws-child-marriage-in-india
- Child Marriage https://vikaspedia.in/social-welfare/social-awareness/child-marriage
- Child Marriage Act, 2006
- Child Marriage In India: A Study of Situation, causes and Enforcement of Prohibition Of Child Marriage Act http://planningcommission.gov.in/reports/genrep/Report_Child_Marriage_In_India.pdf
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