Every minute 27 girls under the age of 18 are married throughout the world. Three of those girls are under the age of 15. Prevalence rates vary greatly worldwide. Niger has the highest rate of 75% whilst Algeria is at 2% and India, 47%. Despite the fact that India has seen both a female Prime Minister and President in Office, there is still a huge cultural gender bias which places a higher value on men in society.

In the rural village where I worked earlier this year, around 90% of the women are housewives. The position of ‘housewife’ for women in society combined with the system of ‘patrilocality’ means that girls in many households are seen to offer little economic prosperity to their parents. This discourages parents to invest in their daughter’s education, and encourages them to find her a groom. The dowry system is another burden associated with the female child which can be eased if she is married young (the younger the girl, the smaller the price of the dowry).

The Centre for Social Research for Girls and Women in India suggests that lack of education in areas where caste is still prominent has a particularly negative impact on child marriage. Caste is a deeply rooted form of social hierarchy in Indian culture which is diluting but in some areas inter-caste marriage is still forbidden. Due to the limitation of suitable marriage matches, children are sometimes sworn to each other from a young age. In other cases men will marry a girl child because of the shortage of mature women available. Safety is also a contributing factor as many parents view marriage as a form of security which will protect their daughter from sexual harassment, poverty, rape and even temptation to participate in inappropriate relationships.

childbrides_the_report_cover2Despite the reasoning behind these decisions, marriage can have a devastating effect on a child. Abandonment of formal education and premature pregnancy are common characteristics of child marriage. According to the 2012 ‘Marrying too young’ report by the United Nations Population Fund, complications relating to pregnancy and child birth are the leading causes of death for 15-19 year olds. The emotional stability of the child is also compromised as she faces separation from family, education and childhood activities.

Though international human rights instruments such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women exist, the enforcement of stipulations such as the full consent of those entering marriage are impossible to monitor on a global scale. Their value can be extremely limited. Excluding academics and some of those working for charities, nobody in the area of India I was working in had heard of their ‘rights’ as outlined by the UN. I believe Indian national legislation is therefore of greater value due to its power of enforcement.

Though the results have not yet been published, the 1994 Conditional Cash Transfer programme introduced by the Indian government is potentially one of the most effective ways of encouraging girls to enjoy their childhood. This enabled families to receive a cash sum on their daughters 18th birthday providing she had not yet been married. Other prevention methods include the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 which introduced formal punishments for adults involved in the service. This was effectively upgraded to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006 which strengthened punishment, empowered local authorities to act and provided children with rights such as annulment of marriage up to the age of 20.

So, how can child marriage be curbed…?

  1. Though the government has introduced welfare schemes they have often been limited and not well publicised. More accessible empowerment programmes in the form of scholarships, financial support, support groups, careers advisors and vocational training courses need to be introduced and promoted (especially in rural communities) to prove that girls and women are valuable in more ways than just being a wife and mother.
  2. In India child marriage is widely accepted. Exposure to role models is therefore paramount in curbing its support. Many of the friends I made in Orissa idolised their favourite ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ who were film and sports stars. In order to create a sense of normality in terms of female employment and equality; Indian media must present a greater range of female role models from varying career paths to raise the aspirations of girls.
  3.  Traditional communities show a monumental level of respect for community elders and leaders, giving them great power to influence. It is therefore imperative for state authorities and NGO’s to collaborate. If they understand and advocate the ills of child marriage, a ripple effect in the community will occur.
  4.  What is often overlooked in commentary of child marriage is the need for programmes to support those who are already married. Further research into ways in which they can be supported is essential.

Removing the problem of premature marriage is a lot easier said than done, especially in the context of a large country with a heavy rural population. The process will be slow. As in many cases, it requires a sturdy commitment from the Indian government to tackle the root of the problem: poverty and gender inequality.  And of course, altering mental attitudes and traditions will be the most difficult barrier to conquer.


Featured Image Credit: TooYoungToWed

Written by Sian Ellis

Sian Ellis

Sian Ellis is a graduate of International Relations with experience in the not-for-profit sector, hoping to have a very long career in international development and human rights. Before going to India on the ICS Programme in January she worked with a charity called Global Hand.