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The scourge of Child Marriage

Posted by Shreyans Jain Wednesday, 19 June 2013 0 comments

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as a blatant violation of human rights of young girls who are married before eighteen years of age and robs them of every opportunity to live a life of dignity by depriving them of their fundamental right to health and education. It is a harsh reality that even in the 21st century, child marriage is widespread across the world and rampant in India in particular. In the developing world, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday and some child brides are as young as eight or nine. According to the 2001 census there are 1.5 million girls in India, under the age of 15 already married. Of these, 20% or approximately 300,000 are mothers to at least one child. In 2010 alone, 13.5 million girls were married globally before they turned 18, many to men twice their age or older. That can mean that one day, she may be at home playing with her siblings and the next, she is married off and sent to live in another village or town with her husband and his family – strangers, essentially!

This harmful practice is most common in poor, rural communities, and its consequences only perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty. There are several factors that have made this despicable practice widely prevalent across the world. Some of them are discussed as under :
    Child marriage is entrenched in tradition and culture and continues even today simply because it has happened for generations. Orthodox notions like a girl’s body are the repository of family honour has led to commodification of the fair sex. This has put young girls at risk and kept them mired in poverty. Straying from such traditions could mean inviting the wrath of rural bodies and even ostracising from the community.

    Poverty plays a pivotal role in causing and perpetuating child marriage. Poor families often have few resources to support healthy alternatives for girls, such as educating them. In such a scenario, marrying a daughter allows parents to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. In communities where a dowry or ‘bride price’ is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families.

    Indian society is a patriarchal society where girls are not valued as much as boys and considered a burden on the family. Consequently, a girl child is deprived of health and education. They are treated with an attitude of negligence and indifference by the society.

    Many people prefer to marry off their daughters young because they feel that this would ensure her safety in a society where females are vulnerable to physical and mental exploitation. In rural areas, lack of police action coupled with high crime rate leads to lawlessness.  

The harmful consequences of child marriage are separation from family and friends, limiting the child's interactions with the community and peers, lack of opportunities for education. Girl children often face situations of bonded labour, enslavement, commercial sexual exploitation and violence as a result of child marriage. Because of lack of protection child brides are often exposed to serious health risks, early pregnancy, and various STDs especially HIV/AIDS. It is also found that infant mortality rates are higher than the national average in the states where child marriage is highly prevalent. 

Child marriage undermines global development efforts focused on creating more educated, healthier and economically stable populations. With little access to education and economic opportunities, child brides and their families are more likely to live in poverty. The need of the hour is to bring this unjust practice to an end. The following measures may be undertaken:
    Improving a girls’ access to quality education will increase her chances of becoming reliant provider her economic opportunities to excel. Empowering girls, by offering them opportunities to gain skills and education, providing support networks and creating a secure environment where girls can gather and meet outside the home, can help girls to assert their right to choose when they marry.

    Religious leaders and community heads can play a major role in speaking out against child marriage and changing community attitudes. It is necessary to raise awareness among communities of the impact of child marriage through street theatre, processions and encouraging community dialogue, which can result in a collective community pledge to end child marriage.

    Introducing economic incentives can in encouraging families to consider alternatives to child marriage. Incentives include microfinance schemes to help girls support themselves and their families, and providing loans, subsidies and conditional cash transfers to parents of girls at risk of becoming child brides. The government need to play an active role in this regard.

    The media needs to play a proactive role to raise awareness among the general public, make the citizens aware of their fundamental rights through its campaigns and to influence governments and community leaders to take necessary action to end the practice. The provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 must be strictly enforced and the offenders must be severely punished.

Strengthening and utilizing the economic potential of girls is a critical approach for economic development. Unless the international community join hands to tackle the menace of child marriage, it will not succeed in fulfilling its commitments to reduce global poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Let us not deprive a child of her childhood and rob her of her innocence. Let us not turn her into a bride at an age when she is supposed to explore her world of dreams and tread paths for herself to realise them. Let us not commit a sin by clipping her wings and enslave her at an age when she is supposed to fathom the separation between the zenith and the horizon.


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