Sixteen-year-old Arti Mukhia, a bright class eight student at a municipal school in Alwar, Rajasthan won’t be going back to school even when it reopens after the coronavirus restrictions have eased. During the lockdown, she was married off to a 30-year-old widowed shopkeeper.
“My family thought it was a good time for me to marry as my husband owns a grocery store and didn’t ask for any dowry. We had to spend very little on the wedding also due to the pandemic,” the teenager told this correspondent over phone from Alwar (her name has been changed at her request). “My mother says marriage is more important than education. No matter how many degrees I earn, ultimately I will end up running my household and rearing kids only.”
Arti has been conditioned to believe that education is of little help in improving the lot of the poor like her. So even though she would have rather continued school, if possible, she tied the knot with a man 14 years her senior without as much as a protest – even though marriage at her age is not legal.
India’s COVID-19 tally is the world’s third highest. Now a toxic cocktail of the raging pandemic, rampant job losses during the lockdown, and the closure of schools for months has had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor.
It is also exacerbating social ills like early marriages. Childline, a toll-free emergency helpline for children funded by the government, has reported stopping 5,200 child marriages between March and May. Campaigners say thousands more nuptials are probably going undetected due to disruption in oversight mechanisms like those run by child rights organizations and the police. Vigilance is the key to prevention, but the virus has ripped away this safety net.
A U.N. report released in late April predicted that COVID-19 could lead to an additional 13 million child marriages over the next decade all over the world. It looks like India is already hewing to the trend. The world’s second most populous country with 1.4 billion people already hosts the world’s largest number of child brides – 23 million, according to a 2019 report by UNICEF. That is one-third of the global total. Over 27 percent of girls in India were married before their 18th birthday and 7 percent were married before the age of 15. Each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India and nearly 16 percent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.
“People on the ground are saying this is looking bad. It’s likely we are going to see large numbers of child marriages,” Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of Girls Not Brides, an international non-governmental organization tackling child marriages, told Reuters. “This is something I’ve heard from India, from Africa, from Latin America. Some are saying this could undo decades of work we’ve done to reduce child marriage.”
Impact of Early Marriage
The ramifications of the continuing practice of child marriage are well-documented. It strips girls of educational opportunities and subjugates them to lives of oppression, domestic violence, and childbirth, UNICEF says. According to the World Health Organization, the primary causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 are pregnancy or childbirth-induced complications.
Activist Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director at the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi based think tank, opines that early marriage extracts huge economic, social, and personal costs from young, vulnerable girls. According to a survey conducted by CSR in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in 2015, the main driver for early marriage is economic hardship.
“We found parents pushing their girls into such nuptials mainly to absolve themselves of the responsibility of rearing the girl child. They feel this saves them both money and bother as the girl then becomes the responsibility of the boy’s family,” Kumari said. “Many families consider girls to be paraya dhan – someone else’s wealth. This is also why a greater premium is placed on educating the son who will live with the parents and is viewed as an insurance for old age.”
According to studies done by CSR, girls who are married off early are far more vulnerable to physical abuse, even rape. “We have supported that 21 is a good age for marriage. The women are better educated at this age, which enhances their employability, agency and empowers them to stand on their feet. Economic independence acts as their pathway to progress,” said Kumari.
The Indian government’s recent announcement that it will review an upward revision in minimum marriage age of women from 18 to 21, added Kumari, is thus a step in the right direction.
Robust Laws but a Continuing Problem
India has robust laws to prevent child marriages. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 imposes a fine of $1,535 and two years in prison for parents marrying off their underage children. The country is also committed to eliminating child, early, and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
A National Action Plan to prevent underage marriages, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2013, focuses on “law enforcement, changing mind-sets and social norms, empowering adolescents, quality education and sharing knowledge.” A report by the Law Commission in 2017 also recommended making marriage registration compulsory to prevent forced and early marriages.
“In fact, the laws relating to child marriage have been continuously evolving in India since the passage of Prohibition of Child Marriage Offenses, which allows arrest without warrant and is non-bailable. Yet they have failed to check its spread as they are vague and open to interpretation,” explained Suman Taneja, a civil rights lawyer at High Court.
The existence of a plethora of personal religious laws only makes things worse. For instance, points out Taneja, the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 do not apply to Muslims as marriages between Muslims are governed by Muslim Personal Law under the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937. “The Indian judiciary has consistently rejected this interpretation of the application of marriage laws. Given the magnitude of the problem, we need to urgently revisit our legislative approach to child marriage,” she added.
Education Is Key
However, activists feel that the punitive approach is not enough to address the issue. “How many parents will you put in jail?” questioned Ashutosh Mishra, senior program manager at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF), a pan-India non-profit headed by Indian Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi.
“During our interventions across six states, we have found that marriage is often a cover up for trafficking. The girls are married off only to be sold later,” Mishra said. “Yet societal beliefs are so entrenched that our volunteers have even been beaten up and threatened if we try to change villagers’ mindsets on such issues.”
He added, “However, over the years, wherever our interventions are happening regularly, such cases have dwindled through counselling and education.”
Educating the girls and parents, promoting gender sensitization and social awareness are key to eradicating minors’ marriages, argued P. Nagasayee Malathy, the executive director of programs at KSCF. “Our approach is to empower and educate all stakeholders — children, village influencers, panchayat leaders, parents, teachers to make change possible at the grassroots. Through Bal Panchayats (children’s councils) officially recognized by Gram Panchayats, we sensitize kids about their rights. This gives them confidence to raise their voices against all forms of exploitations. Thousands of children have been rescued from child marriages, child labor, and trafficking through this approach.”
In fact, added Malathy, there have been cases of children directly approaching district magistrates or tehsil officers in villages to bring erring parents to book. Parents have even landed up in police stations through KSCF’s interventions.
Tackling the menace of child marriages in a big and complex country like India — with its diverse religions, castes, subcastes, and communities as well as an array of overlapping laws — is no child’s play. However, creating an enabling ecosystem by involving all stakeholders, preventing school dropouts, ensuring high retention and job-linked higher education can go a long way in coming to grips with the issue.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and senior journalist.