Child Marriage in India

India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world: 223 million child brides – a third of the global total. While it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to marry in India, estimates suggest that at least 1.5 million girls under age 18 get married in India each…


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India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world: 223 million child brides – a third of the global total. While it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to marry in India, estimates suggest that at least 1.5 million girls under age 18 get married in India each year. Nearly 16 per cent of all adolescent girls aged 15–19 are currently married. Recent evidence, though sparse, highlights the persistence of family-arranged marriages without meaningful consent.

                       It’s the story of my great grandma, Motabai. My mother used to tell me about her. Informly, she got married when she was sleeping in her babyhug and formally when she attained 12 years. She was prettiest among all the women’s living in ‘Sevabhaya Tanda’. She had bluish eyes and curly hair. Everyone in Tanda worshiped her as she resembled Goddess Durga. And every year, Maharaja Ranjit Sing from Jodhpur used to see her dance at Holi festivals. 

                     Year 1919 was the end of world war I and she died at the age of 17. It was her 5th childbirth delivery. Due to her social influence on the Banjara community, Britishers had to set up a committee to investigate the matter. In 3 months, a report came and her death was a result of early childhood marriage. After 10 year, in 1929 Britishers passed Child Marriage Restraint Act to curtail this practice.

              After 75 years of Independence, on one hand we have been celebrating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ and on the other hand, children in our country are getting married on every single day. They do not even attain 18 years. In some cases, parents of the two children (the girl and boy) arrange a future marriage. It ends their childhood. It negatively affects children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the child directly, but also their family and community. Child marriage places them at high risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. It affects both girls and boys, but it affects girls disproportionately.

                    Child marriage is widespread across India, with nearly half of brides married as girls. And it is still prevalent in rural areas(48%)and in urban areas(29%). According to the National Family Health Survey 40% of the world’s 60 million child marriages take place in India. Also India has the 14th highest rate of child marriage in the world, according to the International Center for Research on Women. 

                  Child marriage, a deeply rooted social norm is the result of the interplay between economic and social forces. Usually a combination of poverty, the lack of education, continued perpetration of patriarchal relations encourages child marriage. Some Studies show that lack of education is a big determinant of the age of marriage. Around 45% of women with no education and 40% with primary education married before the age of 18.

             Poverty is another reason behind early marriages in rural areas. Most families have large family sizes and most parents are unable to take care of their children. Thus, early marriages are seen as opportunities to reduce this burden. Apart from poverty, weak law enforcement, patriarchal norms and concern about family honor are factors contributing to early marriage. There are also variations across different groups, particularly excluded communities, castes and tribes – although some tribal groups, have lower rates of child marriage compared with the majority population.

         As a result of norms assigning lower value to girls, they are expected to undertake household responsibilities in preparation for their marriage. They are often seen as a liability with limited economic roles. Women’s work is confined to the household and is not valued. In addition, there is the problem of dowry which get increses as age of child and hence, it perpetuates child marriage.

             In 2019, I had interviewed some girls from Budhwar Peth along with my colleagues and members from recognised NGOs. It was shocking for me that many poor families sold thier daughters into prostitution for sack of money and run the family.

           During COVID-19 pandemic, many people in India have lost their jobs and life savings. This has forced parents to marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce the financial burden. As per the data published by ChildLine India, Madhya Pradesh recorded 117 child marriage cases and 204 in Telangana in just three months of the lockdown from April to June 2020.

            Child marriage negatively affects the Indian economy and can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Girls and boys married as children more likely lack the skills, knowledge and job prospects needed to lift their families out of poverty and contribute to their country’s social and economic growth. It also leads girls to have children earlier and more children over their lifetime, increasing economic burden on the household. According to estimation, child marriage cost economies at least 1.7% of their GDP. It also increases total fertility of women by 17 percent and it hurts developing countries battling high population growth. 

           A girl who is married as a child is more likely to be out of school and can’t develop her personality. She is more likely to experience domestic violence and have children when she is still a child. Like Motabai, there are more chances of dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

             While there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriage nationally(from 54% in 1992-93 to 33% today). This significant reduction of child marriages in India can be attributed to multiple factors such as increased literacy, better access to education for girls, strong legislation and migration from rural areas to urban centres. Also proactive government investments in adolescent girls, and strong public messaging around the illegality of child marriage and the harm it causes are also among the reasons for the shift.

         Some evidence shows that critical game changers for adolescent girls’ empowerment include postponing marriage beyond the legal age, improving their health and nutritional status, supporting girls to transition to secondary school, and helping them develop marketable skills. It helps them to realize their economic potential and transition into healthy, productive and empowered adults.

           Government of India has already enacted laws like Child Marriage Prohibition Act 2006 and started many initiatives like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana to incentivize the people to give equal treatment to their daughters as their sons. Some national schemes like Dhanalakshmi, Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent girls (SABLA) addresses the problem of child marriage directly and indirectly. Also the Conditional Cash Transfer(CCT) scheme tries to ensure education of girls.

             Basically, child marriage in India is a complex problem involving socio-cultural and structural factors. It needs ‘scale-up strategy’ to prevent child marriage and increase adolescent empowerment by working with government, partners and relevant stakeholders from the national level down to the district level. Among all, higher education, imparting life skills and employment opportunities should be ensured. This will give them financial freedom and family decision making power. 

               Government has a vital role to end child marriages. They needs to enforce Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 strictly in true letter and spirit. It also needs strenthen child marriage telephone hotline as implemented by Odisha Child Marriage Resistance Forum. Government’s partnerships with civil society organizations and communities are key to supporting community mobilization efforts and mindset changes. In addition to this, partnerships with the media(like the Satyamev Jayate show by Amir Khan) are very important for raising awareness.

                Recent analysis by UNICEF points out that India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world. Nearly 223 million child brides – a third of the global total. Around 16% of all adolescent girls aged 15–19 are currently married. Recent evidence highlights the persistence of family-arranged marriages without meaningful consent. 

                      Child marriage is included in SDGs, under Target 5.3 “To eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”. And on global level, UNICEF and UNFPA have joined forces through a Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, where for the first time existing strategies in areas such as health, education, child protection, nutrition and water and sanitation have been brought together to address child marriage in a holistic manner. 

             To achieve the commitment of ending child marriages by 2030, it becomes important to integrate the COVID -19 responses with child marriage elimination efforts. Some scholars argued that incresesing marriage age, recognising marriatal rape, focus on girls education and democratisation of child elimination at grassroot level are important milestones to achieve in times to come. End to child marriages is a long journey. There are many beautiful ‘Bharat Mata’ who want to live their life. The holy God gifted us to make this ‘Bharat Bhumi’ more prosperous. Till then we need to make sure that another ‘Motabai’ should not become the victim of child marriages. 


Note: This particular essay was written for ‘Shinkshanganga IAS Forum’.

🎯 References:

  1. Report/Case Study:
    1. Child Marriage Country Profile India, 2021 by UNICEF 
  2. Online Articles:
    1. UNICEF:
      1. Ending child marriage and adolescent empowerment
      2. Child marriage, At UNICEF, we believe that child marriage is a form of violence against children. Our aim is to avert 500,000 child marriages in the region by 2021.
    2. The Hindu Editorial:
      1. Age and marriage: On raising the age of marriage for women dated December 20, 2021.
      2. The way to end child marriage by Sunny Jose and Mohd Imran Khan dated JUNE 15, 2022 
  3. UPSC Study Material
    1. Dristi IAS: Social Issues>Menace of Girl-Child Marriage in India.
    2. InsightIAS: Issues related to Children>Child Marriage
    3. Vikaspedia Article on Child Marriage

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