Almost half of the world’s child brides come from India. And almost half of the girls in India are married before they reach age 18.
The tradition of child marriage has deep and tenacious roots in the rural villages of India.
The world has changed dramatically since child marriage became part of the culture. Yet many of the provincial poor cling to the old ways.
Reasons for Child Marriage
People who practice child marriage tend to be rural villagers of lower socioeconomic status.
Child marriage has a long and complicated history. Two of its pillars are economics and fear.
The Worth of Women
Historically, women did not work outside the home. They usually didn’t bring money into the family. Many families considered women a drain on a household’s finances.
Women did the cooking, cleaning, sewing, water-carrying, and child-rearing free of charge. They often helped with fishing and farming. The domestic work of women saved their families a fortune.
Society did not seem to realize this, though.
Instead, girls were generally seen as a burden. When they were “married off”, they became someone else’s financial responsibility.
The sooner a girl was married, the better for her family.
The longer the girl’s family waited, the bigger the dowry they would have to pay to the groom’s family.
Child marriage is often practiced to avoid the potential for shame.
Until the daughter is married, her protection and chastity is considered a marker of the father’s honour and masculinity. Losing control over his daughter can bring a man shame and exclusion from the community, and this motivates men to marry their girls off early.
– Early and Child Marriage in India: A Landscape Analysis, published by Nirantar Trust
Parents might marry their daughters off as adolescents – or younger.
Child marriage eliminates the possibility that a girl would get pregnant outside of wedlock. It also means that she can’t elope, which would also cause her parents shame.
Families use child marriage to avoid many kinds of disgrace. Inexperienced young people don’t always know what they want, or how to behave.
Forcing children into marriage means that adults make their life choices for them. That way, the children never have the chance to dishonour their families.
And they never have the chance to honour their own life choices.
Disadvantages for Girls
Child marriage impacts both boys and girls. But the girls face more severe consequences.
Poorer Physical Health
Child marriage often means dropping out of school. A girl with a husband and children to care for has little time for her own education.
Lacking education, young women are less likely to know how to stay healthy.
Besides ignorance about health and hygiene, lack of physical maturity presents its own dangers.
What is the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 – 19? Complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
Girls are sometimes married many years before they reach physical and sexual maturity. Marriages are consummated as soon as the girl reaches puberty.
Adolescent girls risk many pregnancy and childbirth complications. Their chance of death from pregnancy or childbirth is quintuple that of women in their early 20s.
The mothers aren’t the only ones in danger. Babies born to adolescents are more likely to die within the first month of life.
Poorer Emotional Health
Child marriage disenfranchises girls especially. Their families determine their destinies.
Girls forced into marriage at an early age lose their voice and self-determination. Forced marriage erodes their sense of self-worth.
Child brides are more likely to accept poor treatment. This can include both physical and mental abuse.
Studies indicate that women who marry at young ages are more likely to believe that it is sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and are, therefore, more likely to experience domestic violence themselves. Abuse is sometimes perpetrated by the husband’s family as well as the husband himself, and girls who enter families as a bride often become domestic slaves for the in-laws and live under a constant threat and pressure.
– Aparna Marion, “History of Child Marriage in India,” Terres d’Asie blog, October 2010
An older husband can intimidate his wife. Physically, he is more powerful than she is. Culturally, he commands more respect.
Child brides often suffer from depression. Sometimes, this even leads to suicide. Some of the girls feel so hopeless that they would rather die than continue to live in a forced marriage.
Child brides are wives and mothers before they even get to be adolescents and women. Their lives revolve around serving their husbands and marital families.
They don’t get the opportunity to discover who they are and what they want from life. If they dare to dream, their dreams almost never come true.
Child Grooms Also Suffer
Boys married at a young age also suffer consequences.
They must often drop out of school to find a job to support their young families.
These boys lose the opportunity to pursue a career that requires more training. Dreams of becoming an engineer, a professor, or a programmer die. The reality of feeding their families survives.
Some see child marriage as a way to ensure economic stability. In modern times, this is no longer true. These days, education is the key to higher-paying jobs.
A young groom forced out of school takes lower-paying jobs. He simply does not have the training for better-paying work. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Trying to Change Tradition
The Indian government has been trying for many years to curb child marriage. These attempts have not been able to stop the practice. People often resent the government’s attempts to intervene.
Prohibition of Marriage Act
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) went into effect on 1 January 2007. Anyone arranging, solemnizing, or even witnessing a child marriage became criminally liable.
An adult groom would be charged with a criminal act if he married a minor.
The young girl would not be considered liable. After all, she is almost always coerced into the marriage by her family.
Despite criminalizing child marriage, the Act doesn’t address its root causes.
In 2013, the UN made its first resolution against child marriage. India declined to join the 107 other countries who signed it.
In the same year, its government started working on a National Action Plan to stop child marriage.
As of 2016, the National Action Plan still wasn’t in use.
National-level plans are easily stymied. The logistics are staggering.
Sometimes, it’s better to work at a local level.
There have been several local initiatives against child marriage, with varying degrees of success.
Our Daughter, Our Wealth
Many parents feel that there is little use is spending money on a girl’s higher education. Why waste their own family’s money, when another family will benefit?
As soon as a daughter marries, any money she might make will go to her husband’s family. She may make more money if she is better educated. But her family of origin will not reap the rewards of their investment.
Girls are often seen as paraya dhan – “another person’s wealth.”
In the mid 1990s, the local government in Haryana started a scheme to keep girls under 18 unmarried. It was called “Apni Beti, Apna Dhan.” (In other words, “Our Daughter, Our Wealth.”)
Apni Beti, Apna Dhan (ABAD) offered a series of conditional financial incentives. The families of 18-year-old single girls got the biggest pay-out.
In 2014, the first groups of girls in the ABAD programme were turning 18. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) decided to do a study on the results of ABAD.
The results of the study were encouraging:
- In 2005, less than half the girls in Haryana were still in school. By 2014, more than two-thirds of girls were still attending classes.
- Compared to non-participating girls, more ABAD participants stayed in school.
- Overall school attendance went up for girls – even for those not participating in ABAD.
- Older ABAD participants dropped out of school 10% less than girls who didn’t participate.
- Girls 15 years and older in the ABAD programme had a 23% higher chance than their peers of staying in school.
Is ABAD is solely responsible for the girls’ increased school attendance?
The ICRW researchers corrected for other factors. They found that the ABAD made a real difference.
Unfortunately, most girls don’t go off to university, even if they finish secondary school.
Education for boys is perceived as essential to enhance their future economic prospects, while girls’ education is predominantly linked with enhancing their attributes for marriage.
– Priya Nanda, Nitin Datta, and Priya Das, Impact of Conditional Cash Transfers on Girls’ Education (March 2014, International Center for Research on Women)
Economically-disadvantaged parents rarely let their daughters pursue higher education.
Tradition sees girls and women as wives and mothers. It does not see the value of educating females.
The government can improve a family’s economics with incentive programmes like ABAD. But changing long-held beliefs will take much more than money.
A Day in Court
Santa Devi Meghwal married at 11 months old. She learned at a young age that she would have to go live with her husband and his family when she turned 16.
My strongest emotion was the unfairness of it. Why should I go along with something I wasn’t party to, or even aware of? I couldn’t face being treated like a parcel to be picked up by a man I didn’t care for.
– Santa Devi Meghwal, in a phone interview with The Guardian’s Amrit Dhillon
Meghwal found an ally in Kriti Bharti.
Bharti founded the Saarthi Trust in Jodhpur. The Saarthi Trust fosters equality for women and children.
Bharti went to court with Meghwal, winning her an annulment.
Bharti has gotten about thirty child marriages annulled.
LEAF Society: Fighting Child Marriage
LEAF Society actively fights child marriage. We often work in concert with Childline 1098. Between 2012 and 2014 alone, LEAF Society helped to stop over 120 child marriages.
LEAF Society also educates young people about the dangers of child marriage. With our Childline 1098 partners, we presented campaigns against child marriage in Namakkal.
Our work continues. In 2014, we became a member of Girls Not Brides.
LEAF Society and Girls Not Brides work in similar ways toward our common goals. As part of Girls Not Brides, we join over 550 NGOs and civil societies working to end child marriage.
We hope that you will unite with us in this important cause. Add your voice to the discussion by adding to the Comments. Heighten awareness about child marriage by sharing this post.
And if you’d like to work with us more closely to combat child marriage, contact LEAF Society today!
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, copywriting, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.