Most children have at some point of time played ‘house’, designating roles of husband and wife to dolls, making them cook invisible food in miniature utensils, often adding a baby doll to the family. Now replace these dolls with real children, and it is not a cute game anymore.
It is the ugly face of child marriage. With 24 million child brides — representing 40% of the world’s 60 million child brides — India leads the world in this gross violation of human rights.
In such a scenario, India’s refusal to co-sponsor the first-ever global resolution for elimination and prevention of forced child marriages at the United Nations General Assembly last week has raised serious questions about its political commitment to end this problem that has far-reaching negative effects on young girls — far more girls are forced into a child marriage than boys.
Sadly, not a single South Asian country — specifically India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan or Pakistan — with significantly high rates of child marriage co-sponsored the resolution that is supported by a cross-regional group of over 107 countries.
Though marriage before the age of 18 is illegal in India, it is widely practised under the garb of tradition and ostensibly for the safety of girls.
The fact that parents often willingly marry off their young girls due to economic necessity, to fend off unwanted sexual advances and to prevent them from marrying outside the caste gives this heinous practice wide social acceptance in the country, especially Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.
It is sad that it is little understood that marrying off young girls before they are physically and psychologically mature not only denies them access to education but also makes them vulnerable to domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and enslavement.
Child brides are unlikely to make informed reproductive choices and this means closely timed pregnancies and frequent abortions — putting the health of the adolescent mother and child at risk and often leading to high rates of maternal and infant mortality.
Despite the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 being a secular law in that the religion of the contracting parties does not matter, Muslim organisations in Kerala have opposed the law banning child marriage on the ground that it is against the provisions of the Muslim personal law and khap panchayats are pushing for child marriage as a preventive for rape.
However, laws aren’t enough. Until the political class breaks its silence on the unreasonable demands of certain groups (read votebanks), they will continue with the harmful practices that will perpetuate gender inequality and put the girl child at grave risk.
Though Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, has clarified on a social networking website that India supports the objectives of the resolution but chose not to co-sponsor it, it would seem that India has letdown its girl children at an international forum.
That is a telling sign of the government’s lack of commitment.