NEW DELHI: There is little difference between Hindu and Muslim families when it comes to marrying off their daughters at an early age.
One in three married women from either community tied the knot well before their 18th birthday, making them vulnerable to not just higher maternal mortality rates but also domestic violence.
Official statistics on married Indian women released on Friday show 31.3% Hindu women and 30.6% Muslim women were 17 or younger at the time of their wedding. Many of them hadn’t even turned 10.
The legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. Any marriage below the stipulated age is considered child marriage under the law.
Sikh, Christian, Buddhist and Jain women fared far better, the census report on the decadal headcount in 2011 said. Only 6% of men were married before 18.
“It is shocking that decades after having laws prohibiting child marriage, the practice is still so rampant,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-headquartered Centre for Social Research.
Data released by the home ministry’ s census commissioner revealed 6% of all Hindu women were married before they turned 10. The corresponding figure for Muslim women was 5%.
But the silver lining is that the practice is on the decline.
The 2001 census found 43% of women were married before 18 years of age. In 2011, the figure stood at 30%.
And the proportion of women wed before 18 years of age between 2001 and 2011 was 20%. In absolute terms, this still means there were 15 million child marriages in the last decade.
Kumari said the decline would have been sharper if the law on child marriage was strictly enforced.
In 2014, for instance, police registered only 280 cases across the country under the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. Of the 103 cases decided by courts the same year, convictions were secured in only 15 — or 14.6% — cases.
India has long outlawed child marriage but was unable to enforce the law that was first enacted by the British in 1929. The Child Marriage Restraint Act fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14, and boys at 18 years. It was last raised to 18 years for girls in 2006.
The Unicef calls child marriage a “death sentence” for young girls as they are more likely to bear children before they are physically ready. Studies show girls who give birth before turning 15 and the infants of child mothers are at greater risk.
Moreover, underage marriages typically interrupt education and most child brides are unable to negotiate with their spouses and in-laws, making them more liable to domestic violence.