Unique Thinkers United

Too young to wed

23/09/2011 14:23

According to the UNICEF standards, matrimony of one or both male and female below the age of 18 is considered child marriage. However, in the Indian context (where the practice of child marriage is deeply rooted), the term child marriage has a different connotation. In most of the cases there is a huge gap between the age of the bride and the groom, with the groom being well above the legal age of marriage (21) and the bride being below the age of 12. 

The primary reason for this is the importance attached to a girl's chastity and virginity. It is considered safer to marry a girl before the age of puberty to assure that she remains a virgin at the time of consummation. This affinity with the idea of virginity is due to historical texts which emphasise the importance of marrying a girl at a tender age so that she doesn't get the opportunity to wander away with her youth.

Another significant reason for the practice of child marriage was the fact that Muslim rulers used to rape and abduct young girls. Thus, it was considered safer to get them married before any such incident could happen. 

However, what is shocking is the fact that although the pretext for the practice of child marriage doesn't exist today, the practice is still followed. Despite laws against child marriage, it is very much an integral part of many villages of India. If we believe the data provided by innumerable surveys and researches conducted by many NGOs, in India, roughly 47.6 percent of girls are married by the age of eighteen. The practice is particularly rampant in states like UP, Rajasthan, MP, Bihar and West Bengal. The reason for this are the deep rooted social issues that often lead to evil practices, making the eradication of such practices a tedious task. 

The factors that lead to existence of child marriage even in today's India are many - traditional gender norms, the value of virginity and parental concerns surrounding premarital sex, pressure of marriage transactions (or dowry), and poverty, etc. Approximately 6.4 million Indians under the age of 18 are married and 130,000 girls under 18 have become widows. 

Women are the main victims of this evil practice. The Muslim invaders of the past have now been replaced with superstitions like - any girl reaching puberty without getting married will fall prey to sexual depredations, having sex with a virgin girl can cure syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

Another vital reason for child marriage is poverty. The practice is mainly followed by the poor who take it as an opportunity to reduce the numbers of mouths to feed. Younger grooms demand for lesser dowry, hence reducing the burden on the girl's father.  

As the custom goes, a married girl is immediately separated from her family and is taken to her new husband's home, where she is used as free labour, a sex object and a reproductive machine. The girl's health is put at risk or rather not considered at all. As soon as the girl reaches the age of puberty, she is expected to consummate and produce a male offspring so that the lineage of the family is continued. 

These girls are highly prone to malnutrition and STDs. Early pregnancy, extreme living conditions, etc. lead to other problems like increase in infant mortality rate, birth of weaker children, and death of the mother. The want of a male heir makes the life of women worse, because she is expected to procreate till the time she delivers a male child. 

The worse fact is that although there are laws against the practice of child marriage (The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA); The Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 (CMRA) [6], also popularly known as the Sarda Act), there are so many loopholes in it that it has become almost impractical to have such laws.

Thus, it is suggested that if the Indian society and the government want to curb such a practice, it has to aim at coming up with stringent and easily enforceable laws. Currently, the police cannot arrest the offenders without applying for the magistrate's order. Another problem is the fact that registration of marriage is not compulsory in India. Appointment of anti-child marriage offices in every zilla panchayat, mass awareness about the hazards due to the practice of child marriage, spread of education etc are other steps which could be taken in order to remove this evil practice from the country. 

Recently, the Supreme Court has ordered the compulsory registration of marriages. This comes as a beacon of hope. 

If the Indian society as a whole, especially the educated and aware people in the urban sector take up the task of removal of this malpractice, there could be hope for a better future for many of these innocent girls who learn how to bear a child before they learn what it means to be a woman. 

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