India has the Highest Number of Child Marriages: UNFPA

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On the eve of women’s day as India awakens to activism and women’s rights, Meeni, 16 is getting ready for her marriage in the evening. Noori, her mother and a single parent justifies the reason in a disillusioned manner. ‘What can I do? The groom’s side was putting pressure on us to get them married soon. How long could I wait? I would have liked my daughter to have lived longer with me but the marriage was arranged long before and I could not hold them any longer.’

Thousands of children like Meeni are married off before the marriageable age which is set at 18 for women and 21 for men in the Indian law making India the country with the highest number of child marriages in the world. 47 percent of the Indian children are married before the marriageable age.

According to the figures released by UNFPA yesterday, majority of the child marriages are done in the regions of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. South Asian countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not far behind in the race. 30 percent of the marriages in Pakistan fall under the category of child marriages while 57 percent of the girls in Afghanistan are married before the age of 16 and most of them are forced into the marriage.

However, the highest prevalence of the practice in South Asia is recorded in Bangladesh at 66 percent. But given the size of the population, India still tops the list in terms of absolute numbers.

‘The NFHS-3 data points to the grevity of the problem in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan where 60 percent of the women are married before the age of 18. Bihar has the highest number of child marriages in India at 69 percent. No standalone intervention is effective in the case of tackling the issue of child marriages. The issue requires a holistic solution because there are many economic, social and cultural underpinnings to it’, said a senior official, UNFPA, India.

In India, the reasons for child marriage can be traced back to outdated cultural practices that hinder the right of the girl child to live with freedom and dignity. She is denied fair education and her health is given little priority in the vicious circle of control and patriarchy.

Despite the marriageable law in place, age-old cultural and the outdated mindset of the population drive them to turn a blind eye towards the problem. The poor progress on the economic and educational parameters is also responsible for the large number of child marriages in India.  The family members of the child bride are mostly illiterate.

In India, where the literacy rate is still 74 percent, there is a long way to go in terms of addressing issues that require thorough understanding of social issues. It is not a coincidence that Bihar also happens to be the Indian state with the lowest literacy rate in the country.

If the issue of child marriage is not properly addressed, UN Millennium Development Goals calling for a two-thirds reduction in the under-five mortality rate and a three-fourths reduction in the maternal mortality ratio by 2015 will not be met. “Child marriage is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  It exposes a girl to profound health risks from early pregnancy and difficult childbirth and it exposes her baby to complications of premature birth,” says Anthony Lake Executive Director of UNICEF.

According to the UN, complications during the time of pregnancy are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries like India. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 percent are already married.

India has a high rate of infant mortality that can put the least-developed countries to shame with 44 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011. The prevailing problem of child marriage is also responsible for the poor health and childbirth records of the country.

Child marriages in India are a part of the larger social construct that fails to look at the problem from a critical perspective. Stringent law enforcement over the existing marriage laws and proper education is the way forward towards solving the issue.

Author: Pari Trivedi

Photo courtesy: Meena Kadri