When girls become brides
Marriage should be an experience filled with love, joy and laughter. A union full of mutual respect and support. But for thousands of girls in India, it is the very opposite and marriage has a hugely detrimental effect on their well-being and development.
Did you know that according to UNICEF a massive 47% of girls in India are married as children under the age of 18?
Child marriage limits a girls’ education and economic opportunities, makes her vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence and puts her health in jeopardy, particularly if she becomes pregnant.
Child marriage in India (and around the world) also has a huge economic impact and organisations. The United Nations and the World Bank have been investing in measuring the true cost of child marriage in terms of health care costs, lost earnings, lower growth potential and propagation of poverty.
Marriage is a huge commitment and a choice to be made by adults who are physically and mentally ready to take that step. But for many girls like Santana, the choice to marry is often not their own.
Santana is a child bride. She comes from West Bengal in India where more than 1 in 2 girls are married before their 18th birthday.
“My parents married me off when I was 14. I am 18 now and have two children. I wanted to be a teacher but instead, was forced to get married.”
But Santana sees herself as fortunate: “My husband is good and kind and so is his family. But many others are not so lucky. That is why it’s important I tell my story and help educate others so that they can achieve what they want.”
Santana is an advocate for The White Ribbon Alliance in her community where she works to stop other girls getting married.
“I say to young girls in my community: don’t be like me, don’t get married. You may not get a good husband like mine. Stay in school. You can change the world. And I also tell them to delay having babies and not to have children they can’t afford to care for.”
Santana works with families and communities to make them see the benefits of delaying marriage. “When I hear about girls in my community who are going to be married, I visit their families and try to get them to change their minds. If that doesn’t work, I call in others – local midwives and elected leaders – to persuade them. We have managed to stop many early marriages that way.”
“I won’t marry my children off. I’m hoping they will become doctors or teachers just like my husband and I wanted to be. It’s very important that we stop child marriage but I need support to make sure we can tell as many people as possible.”
“I have now decided to go back to school and fulfil my dream – and my husband agrees – I will become a teacher.”
What is child marriage?
Child marriage is a violation of the human rights and an impediment to sustainable development. The Indian government has enacted laws that aim to prevent and protect victims of child marriage.
The UN defines child marriage as where one, or both parties, are under 18. The law in India, is, however, slightly out of alignment with that. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA), child marriage is defined as any formal or informal union where the girl is under the age of 18 and the boy is under the age of 21.
Child marriage in India is a punishable offence for those who are instrumental in arranging or conducting such marriages.
When a girl marries under the age of 18, the impact can be devastating.
Marriage usually marks the end of her education, limiting her economic opportunities, and it can isolate her from her family and friends.
Child brides are often under intense pressure to have children quickly, even though they are not physically and emotionally ready to become mothers. In fact, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 globally, including India.
There is a perception that marriage protects girls when, in fact, it makes them more vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional violence.
Not only does child marriage severely endanger girls’ development and well-being it also has a negative impact on society as a whole.
Communities and nations also feel the impact. Those that undervalue the contribution and participation of girls and women limit their own possibilities for growth, stability and transformation.
Child marriages in India – Hard numbers
This map of India shows the extent of child marriages in different states across the country.
The map paints a grim picture indeed.
Child marriage happens all over the world, but India has the highest number of child brides globally – with one in three child brides living in India.
Here are some startling statistics about child marriage as reported by the UN:
Just under half of all girls (47%) in India are married before their 18th birthday. Or put another way, nearly half of all marriages in India are categorised as child marriages.
While there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriages in India, the pace of decline has been slow.
The rates of child marriage vary between states but in some states in such as Bihar and Rajasthan the rates are as high as 69% and 65% respectively.
While fewer Indian girls are marrying before the age of 15, rates of marriage have increased for girls between ages 15 to 18.
Child marriages around the world
But the problem is not just in India: one in every four girls around the world is married before she turns 18, that’s about 15 million girls every year.
Here are some sobering numbers.
If there is no reduction in the incidence of child marriage, 1.25 Billion women will have married as children by 2050.
720 Million women alive today were married before the age of 18.
250 Million women alive today were married before the age of 15.
156 Million men alive today were married before the age of 18.
1 in 4 girls globally is married before the age of 18.
The percentage of 20 to 24 years old married before the age of 18 in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and in the Middle East and North. Africa are 39%, 23%, and 18% respectively.
If we do not accelerate efforts to end this harmful practice 1.2 billion women will have been married as children by 2050. This is a staggering proportion of humanity.
Why does child marriage persist in India?
Child marriage persists for lots of reasons. It’s a very complex issue that is not linked to any one culture, religion or region. It happens all over India and can look quite different from one community to the next. As a result, there is no one, easy solution to ending it. Instead, it requires long-term, sustainable effort from all parts of society to end it.
Here are some of the reasons child marriage in India remains a persistent issue.
1. Gender inequality
Patriarchal values also drive child marriage in India. At its heart, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men. It is rooted in the idea that girls’ minds and bodies are to be controlled by men. When a girl is married the ownership of her is passed from her male relatives to her new husband.
2. The need to control female sexuality
Controlling female sexuality is a social norm. which many people follow and link to family honour. So, if parents marry their daughter off then the girl’s ‘honour’ and that of her family are protected. Girls are also actively discouraged from choosing their own partners or ‘love marriages’.
3. Caste system
Early marriage also helps maintain the hierarchy of the caste system. It is easier to ensure that girls only marry within their caste if they are married off early by their parents. Plus, in some cases, the timing of marriage is dictated by customs specific to the caste.
In many communities, girls are considered an economic burden and marriage transfer this responsibility to a girl’s new husband. Some parents think that by marrying off their daughter they can reduce the costs of running their household. In communities where dowry payments exist, this financial motivation becomes even more overt because parents may consider a one off payment to the groom’s family as more financially viable than the long term cost of raising their daughter. Often, dowry payments increase the older a girl is so girls will be married younger and younger. The younger a girl is the more damage child marriage will do to her well-being and development.
5. Lack of education
Poor educational opportunities for girls, especially in rural areas, increase girls’ vulnerability to child marriage. When girls aren’t in school, marriage is often considered the next best alternative for them but in reality, marrying girls them traps them in cycles of poverty and insecurity.
In fact, girls’ access to, and retention in, education is one of the most effective solutions to child marriage. Keeping a girl in school makes her less vulnerable to child marriage; it also teaches her the skills to build her own life with or without marriage and makes her aware of the negative impact of child marriage.
But what about the law against child marriage in India?
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) takes a strict view of the on aiding and abetting child marriages in India. The PCMA also identifies punishments for those who do not prevent child marriages and calls for each state to appoint Child Marriage Prohibition Officers. It also includes the right of girls having their underage marriage annulled.
However, the law is poorly implemented and instances of child marriage are underreported across India. There are also some practical challenges that get in the way the way. For example, if a girl is still a minor and wants to have her marriage annulled this either relies on her making a petition to the court herself – quite a task for a minor – or, it relies on her guardian or friend making the petition on her behalf. If the guardian was the one to approve the marriage in the first place that may not happen.
“Would someone even ask me what I would like to do?”
This was all Roshanara could think when her family presented her with her prospective groom at just 15. This choice seemed beyond her reach. Her parents said they needed the money, the match had been approved and besides, what else could she do except cook and clean? But Roshanara did not want to marry. She wanted to study.
For many girls in Roshanara’s position, saying what they want is not that simple: they are never taught the skills to voice what they would like to do or they lack the confidence to believe in themselves.
Luckily, Roshanara had been studying with Room to Read in New Delhi, India, where she had learnt communication skills and developed the confidence to stand up for herself. It took a lot of encouragement but eventually, Roshanara managed to persuade her mother to call off the wedding.
Thanks to Room to Read and Roshanara’s courage, she is now working at a doctors’ clinic and completing a distance-learning Bachelor’s degree. She’s determined to ensure that her three unmarried sisters walk a similar path and complete their education before they consider the possibility of marriage.
When girls become advocates for their own rights, they can change the social norms that hold them back and take a stand for their generation and the ones to come. Roshanara was supported to stand up to her parents and resist child marriage but many girls are not that lucky.
What can you do to help support efforts to end child marriage?
All of us have a role to play in ending this damaging practice, whether it’s in India or elsewhere in the world.
At Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage we’ve identified four key areas where change is needed:
- Girls need to be empowered so they can speak up for themselves and make their own choices about who, when and if to marry.
- Families and communities need to be mobilised and work together to say no to child marriage.
- Services – including education and health – need to be provided so girls can go to school; learn about their health and how to have a safe pregnancy.
- Laws and policies need to be developed and properly implemented so girls are fully protected.
- Support the empowerment of girls.
- Talk about child marriage as widely as possible and raising people’s awareness of it. Many people still don’t know much about the issue or about the negative impact it has on the lives of millions of girls. So by highlighting it through conversations with family and friends and over social media, you can make a real difference.
- There is a lot of information about child marriage on the Girls Not Brides website which you can use to raise awareness.
- In 2014, 193 governments committed to this promise of ending child marriage by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s important that we all hold every government accountable to achieving this.
- Find out what the Indian government is doing to help address child marriage. What is happening in the state you live in? Can you get involved?
- Support local community projects in India which focus on empowering girls, breaking the cycles of poverty and violence, and ending child marriage.
Girls Not Brides currently has around 80 members in India. These incredible organisations are working across the country to protect, empower and educate women and girls and address child marriage. Take a look at the Girls Not Brides website for more examples including Vikalp Sansthan, Breakthrough, URMUL Trust and Girls Health Champions or look at the full list here.
Together, we can help more girls like Chanda turn their lives around and escape the damaging cycle of child marriage.
“In my village, more than half of the girls are married as children and this is true in so many other parts of India too – especially in the villages. When girls get married this early, whatever dreams they had before that time come to an end,” explains Chanda, a teenager from Rajasthan, India.
“I was one of the many girls in danger of this. I was engaged when I was a few months old and at 14 years old, my father made me leave school with the intention of getting me and my younger sister married. I was so scared of getting married and having my life and my sister’s life ruined, but we didn’t lose our confidence to fight.”
Chanda reached out to Vikalp Sansthan, a grassroots organisation that works to empower women and girls.
“With the help of Vikalp Sansthan and members of the community we stood up to our family. We told them that we refused to get married and explained why it would be a bad thing for everyone in the family. It took a long time and a lot of beatings from my father to finally convince them, but I was able to avoid marriage.”
Chanda is now determined to reach as many girls as possible with her story.
“While it [child marriage] is still a struggle, I am determined to make sure that other girls don’t have to go through what I did.”
To find out more about Vikalp Sansthan’s work to empower girls like Chanda click here.
Ultimately, what will make a difference in the life of a girl vulnerable to child marriage is a change in her local context. If she is empowered and has the tools and ability to help her parents understand that child marriage is not the best or only option available to her; and her local community, leaders are convinced that ending child marriage will benefit their community at large. Then we will see a change.
Together, we can end the harmful practice of child marriage in India and empower and enable millions of girls to fulfil their potential.
For more information about child marriage in India, please read these reports.
District-Level study on Child Marriages in India: What do we know about the prevalence, trends, and patterns? ICRW, 2015 Read Now
Mapping of Chil Marriage Initiatives in South Asia, UNICEF, 2016 Read Now