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Poverty is not the only reason behind child marriages in India

An education system that helps them continue and build prospects will definitely help in addressing child marriages.

opinion Updated: Mar 13, 2018 17:29 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
School children take part in an awareness campaign to stop child marriages during Akshaya Tritiya, Bikaner, Rajasthan, 2016
School children take part in an awareness campaign to stop child marriages during Akshaya Tritiya, Bikaner, Rajasthan, 2016 (PTI)

From one in four to approximately one in five, child marriages have seen a decline world over in the past 10 years, a Unicef report released on March 6, 2018, said. The proportion of women who were married as children decreased by 15% in the last decade, with south Asia witnessing the largest decline (more than a third, from nearly 50% to 30%) owing largely to progress in India.

The data on India, however, comes with a rider that improvement in national and state averages in the country shouldn’t take attention away from the fact that many districts still have high rates of child marriage, with the problem more pronounced in tribal communities and in particular castes including Scheduled Caste.

In an interview to HT, Alka Singh, head policy and advocacy, and Pradeep K Mishra, project Manager at Save the Children, an NGO, what needs to be done to end the scourge.

KD: The National Crime Records Bureau has stated that there were 326 incidents of child marriage in 2016. This number is low for a country of India’s size. Is under-reporting the reason for this?

STC: India has largest number of child brides in the world. One out of every three women (20-24 years) in rural India is married before she is 18. Globally, the proportion of women aged between 20 and 24 (who were they were married before their 18th birthday) dropped from 32% around 1990 to 26% around 2015.

Evidently, early marriages have social acceptance and this attributes to the low number of reported cases in India. Girls standing up to stop their own marriage also get resolved without any case lodged against parents. As per NCRB, 169, 222 and 280 cases have been registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively, and in 2016, it is 326. This indicates that reporting of child marriage has increased. Another dilemma is lack of age proof. Birth certificates are not made for girl children and hence reporting becomes difficult.

KD: Is there gender disparity in child marriage as well?

STC: Both girls and boys are victims of child marriage but the number of girls is far higher than that of boys. The latest Economic Survey has mentioned ‘preference of sons’ as one of the major factor in the country’s slow economic development. Even today, investments in girls’ education and their future are low by their families and consequently they get married off at an early age. Gender disparity in child marriage is clear when we look at the absolute share of males and females in the population married below 18 years. Out of these 100 million child marriages, 85 million are girls, constituting 83% of the total child marriages.

KD:Despite the legal ban for so many years, child marriage continues to exist. Why?

STC: There are two big reasons: With Right to Education Act coming in force, we have a sharp increase in the number of girls enrolling into schools. Enrollment figures have reached as high as 98%. But, the Act covers children only up to the age of 14. After elementary level, we see a spike in dropout rates. This is especially the case in rural, remote and tribal areas where the State has failed to offer enough choices of education and employability to girls. This builds on the social acceptance of child marriage in lack of choices or prospects.

The safety of girls is another major issue. Weak child protection mechanisms at the local level to its redressal system at state and national levels only indicates a large number of pending cases. This is also a result of the State’s inability to create a safer city and village for our girls we see them dropping out.

KD:Is economics and physical security (other than tradition) the main reason for child marriages?

STC: Poverty is one of the reasons but the bigger reason is our failure to provide education that is relevant to tribal, disadvantaged and poor communities. An education system that helps them continue and build prospects will definitely help in addressing child marriages. Again, the practice of dowry is prohibited since 1961 but it still persists. Dowry perpetuates child marriage as it encourages parents to marry off their girls early to avoid an increase in the dowry amount.

KD: How can we end this problem?

STC: A recent survey undertaken by us in Odisha, Bihar and Rajasthan to understand if employment opportunities will help reducing child marriage and skill requirement for adolescent girls. The girls (10 to 19 years) expressed that employability might make it difficult for her parents to get a match but at the same time that would get them respect. In Rajasthan and Odisha, more than 39% girls believed employability will get them respect while in Bihar 21% believed the same.

On the question, what skills do they think will get those help find a job, more than 90% attributed it to confidence to talk to unknown people, job market-oriented skill set and computer knowledge would get them work. More than 70% expressed that ability to speak English helps in getting a job.

On what kind of jobs would they prefer, government jobs were the top favourite. This was followed by teaching jobs.

The survey showed that the girls have very little awareness about vocational training centres and even government schemes. Less than 10% have received any training. This shows that there is a need to make vocational training opportunities more popular.

KD:Why have some states been successful in reducing child marriage more than others? Does this have to do anything with the economy of the state, or it’s more a question of governance?

STC: In the last three years, Save the Children India has supported villages in Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana to address the issue. What we have found is this: More than funds, it is about choices and protection mechanism that has helped reduce child marriages. Even in financially strong states, there are pockets of disadvantaged communities that need to be reached.