By Anouck Dubois
Deeply rooted in traditions and aggravated by rampant poverty, child marriage continues to reach sad records in India. With 47 percent of children married before the age of 18, India has the twelfth highest rate of child marriage worldwide. Almost one half of Indian children marry before reaching 18 and almost one fifth before 15.
Child marriage persists as an unrecognized human rights violation—adding another point of incompleteness to the Convention on the Right of the Child. Undeniably, it remains a threat to the child’s life, a hindrance to its development and a denial of his childhood. But child marriage does not only harm the individual; this personal violation affects the country’s development as a whole.
Indeed, how can the Indian government hope to decrease mortality rates when girls are exposed to early pregnancy and sexual relations with older men, who are more likely to carry HIV? How can the government hope to improve gender equality when girls are taken out of schools to engage in mandatory matrimony with men 20 years older than themselves? How India improve unemployment and poverty when child marriage maintains poor socio-economic advancement?
Child Marriage, A Century-old Tradition
True, the government has shown concern for this issue since the 1920s and has taken legislative steps against it. In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act defines a minimum age for marriage, which has been successively raised to 18 years for a female and 21 years for a male in accordance with international law. It has been replaced in 2006 with The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act which is stronger and more complete. It raises the applicable penalty to a fine and up to two years of imprisonment and makes child marriage voidable, or void under certain conditions.
This legal framework is, of course, a much welcomed, significant step in the right direction. Yet, the problem would have been solved long ago if the Indian government established a complete prohibition. Indeed, child marriage still persists in India today because it is a century-old tradition fed by entrenched poverty and the absence of concrete alternative for families and communities.
Raising Social Awareness and Law Enforcement
Child marriage is not a temporary problem. This social phenomenon has deeply rooted itself in the Indian tradition, consequently, a wholesale prohibition at this point would be necessary but insufficient in ending this ugly emergent order. Not to say that the enacted The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is useless. On the contrary, this legal framework, more complete and stronger that the previous Child Marriage Restraint Act, is a necessary basis that India needed in order to efficiently take action against child marriage, and offers great potential for progress.
However, pitiful implementation and enforcement have resulted in meaningless change for victimized girls. Communities and even officials are unaware of the new legislation. For poor states like Rajasthan where we find the highest rates of child marriage, 86 percent of the population continues to be unaware of the illegality of many child marriages. Officials are frequently corrupted and no formalized measures exist to punish those who do not fulfill their duty. On the opposite side of government, people who try to resist and prevent child marriage expose themselves to real danger. From the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a social worker who was trying to stop child marriage in Rajasthan, to the attack of Shakuntala Verma, another social worker from Madhya Pradesh—these examples disturb our conscious and reveal the lack of political will and support from civil society.
Without question the Indian government needs to improve law enforcement and social awareness. Several studies carried out by NGOs found that if families had known that child marriage was prohibited and subjected to two years of prison, a significant percentage would have abstained. Therefore, having informed and active officials appears critical.
A first step would be to sensitize government enforcement agencies through training camps and workshops. They would be provided detailed information about the scale and scope of the law, the actors in play, and how to operate to enforce it. A study carried out in Rajasthan also revealed that sending a letter to the family reminding them of the legal risk they take by moving forward with a child marriage in progress was quite efficient, although rampant illiteracy would still be an obstacle.
Widening the Scope and Scale of Programmatic Policies
As mentioned before, legislation is a necessary but not sufficient step to eradicate child marriage. A strong and well implemented law can contribute to lower child marriage rates, but it needs to be matched with effective policies and social programs, more likely to impact traditional communities and changes social behaviors. Those communities should not merely be aware of the existing law but understand why child marriage is a harmful. Without question, there must be a provision of concrete alternatives.
Let’s be fair. The Indian government has made strides to improve this social detriment. For two decades, it has allocated funds to enact specific programs to end this practice. A vast majority of the programs implemented in the country are the result of NGOs action especially US Aid, the International Center of Research on Women (ICRW) and UNICEF. In particular, the ICRW program “Our Daughters our Wealth”, implemented in 1994 in the northern state of Haryana, seems very successful even though it still has to be evaluated.
This is the first “conditional cash transfer” program implemented with the specific aim of delaying girls’ marriage, and it also works as “an incentive to encourage parents to value their daughter.” The program works as such: “Upon the birth of a daughter . . . mothers are entitled to receive 500 rupees (about $11) within 15 days of the birth to cover post-delivery needs. The government also invests 2,500 rupees (about $55) in a long-term savings bond in the girl’s name, which can be cashed out for a guaranteed total of 25,000 rupees (about $550) after the girl turned 18 – but only if she isn’t married.”
Communities need to be providing an “enabling environment for girls’ empowerment” . They will not change their century-old traditions unless they are provided with powerful, concrete and accessible alternatives. Since child marriage is mainly based on girls submission to their family and husband, developing an environment centering on girls’ empowerment carries preeminent priority. Three aspects prove to be key: developing women’s collectivities, mobilizing communities and influencing key decision makers.
India has a “strong tradition of collective action and community organizing for social change.” Therefore, developing women collectivities in the forms of sanghas (small community). Sanghas are a very common practice in Indian culture would be a great opportunity to empower girls while fitting traditional customs. In these self-governed groups of women, they could seek information, discuss their lives and learn how to get control of their lives without suffering from the pressure of the family or males, thereby challenging gender discrimination.
Giving girls tools for empowerment cannot be fully efficient in a hostile environment, hence the necessity to mobilize not just women but the whole community. The government should be constantly informing the population on existing legislation and the dangers of child marriage on health, poverty and the existence of other positive alternatives. Of course, the optimal way to regularly reach a maximum of persons in a country of this size would utilize mass media, whose limited implementation has proved to considerably impact people’s knowledge and behavior. However, newspapers and the radio do not reach the part of the population living in rural areas without access to electricity and who are often illiterate. Indeed, this is the populace needs the most help. There has to be more innovative means of communication, such as puppet shows or village theatre.
This is why I advocate instead for the use of human medias. They might not be optimal in the number of people they can reach at once, but I believe that human contact is one of the most effectual ways to change people’s behavior. The account of positive role models – for example, girls that have resisted child marriage – has great potential because it shows that positive alternatives are possible. They can convince parents of the importance of education and the value of their daughters.
Another human media could be the government itself. Indeed, officials should not be seen as punitive agents but rather as providers of information and a support for girls’ empowerment. Fostering dialogue between officials and communities would contribute to build a more positive image of the government.
Also, religious leaders, which are extremely influential in their communities, carry the most pull in convincing parents to avoid child marriage. The success of the Early Marriage and Early Pregnancy programs in Rajasthan, for instance, can be primarily attributed to Muslim clerics. With the help of the government, religious leaders could convey information on child marriage, promote discussion and facilitate acceptance of change. It would be a significant step in mobilizing the community and empowering girls while staying culturally accurate.
Image by Raj Kumar