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N On Early Marriages: INDIA LETS DOWN ITS GIRL CHILD, By Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva (Retd), 28 Oct, 2013 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 28 October 2013

UN On Early Marriages


By Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva (Retd)

The reportage that India recently refused to sign a United Nations resolution against early or forced marriages, is not only unfortunate, but sadly reveals the Government’s lack of commitment to do away with the social ill of child marriages in the country. Worse, when statistics staring it in the face suggest that one third of all child brides in the world are in India!

The Indian law clearly defines child marriages as those involving marrying girls before the legal age of 18 years and 21 years for boys. And, while it makes such marriages illegal, its enforcement agencies have made a mockery of it. Though the country “accounts for 24 million of the 60 million such marriages all over the world,” in 2012 only 400 persons were booked for violating the law of the land. Indeed, a sad reflection.

Apparently, such marriages are often performed without the consent of the girls involved and about 47 per cent of girls are married by 18 years of age, and 18 per cent by 15 years of age. The highest rates are seen in the rural States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. While child marriages affect both boys and girls, statistics show that girls are far more likely to be forced into a child marriage than boys. There is, however, a silver lining that such cases are on the decline over the years. But it amounts to a drop in the ocean.   

According to the UNICEF, multiple set of factors contribute to the persistence of the phenomenon. These include: gender norms and expectations, traditional practices around marriage, safety concerns and family honour, poverty, limited education and livelihood opportunities and weak implementation of the law. In particular, patriarchal values play a significant role in child marriage. Sadly, girls continue to be considered as a ‘property’ moving from the father’s to the groom’s household and their role as housewives is the only future conceived for girls by their family.

Child marriage, also known as ‘Bal Vivaha’, in India is believed to have taken roots during the medieval ages. The political atmosphere was turbulent under the Delhi Sultans, who having a strong commitment to their religion, forced many to convert, causing socio-cultural unrest, in which the Hindu women suffered the most. Those times led to practices such as child marriage and lowered the status of women even further. Absurd as it may sound, the birth of a girl child was considered an ill omen and that young unmarried girls would cause harm to the family. Thus, child marriages became a culture, which hounds our society even in the 21st Century.

India’s refusal to sign the first-ever global resolution against early and forced marriages, has come as a shock to many NGOs working in the field, as they note that among the 107 countries that went along with it, there were also those who have a high rate of child marriages, including Ethiopia, Guatemala, South Sudan and Yemen. Besides, it is no consolation that Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were the other South Asian countries who were unwilling to co-sponsor the resolution, which nevertheless was passed with a thumping majority.

Therefore, India along with the non-sponsoring nations stood isolated in the world forum. The UN resolution recognised child, early and forced marriages as human rights violations, and specifically called for their elimination and inclusion of this aim in the post-2015 agenda of all nations. The Foreign Ministry has unconvincingly stated that India was not opposed to the resolution but chose not to co-sponsor it because the phrase ‘early marriage’ was not defined! This is a lame and technical excuse because the domestic law has already defined the age.

The fact is that it did not want to actively associate with a resolution, which it wasn’t fully prepared to implement. This was clear from the observations India made at the UN venue that the cause of child marriages was poverty and backwardness and it was better to allow these practices to die out naturally. This amounts to an attempt to evade responsibility and unwillingness to effectively enforce the law.

It is this questionable attitude that has tainted India’s position. Human rights organisations and groups that have campaigned against child marriages have rightly condemned India’s lack of will in the matter.  Marriages before the age of physical and psychological maturity are damaging from both health and reproductive points of view. Such marriages also deprive children of their right to education. Many problems such as high rates of maternal and infant mortality and domestic violence and low status of women can be attributed to this practice, as the girl child has no voice.  

Recall that the Union Government brought the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) in 2006, to address and fix the shortcomings of the Child Marriage Restraint Act. The change in title was meant to reflect the prevention and prohibition of child marriage, rather than restraining it. The previous Act also made it difficult and time consuming to act against child marriages and did not focus on authorities as possible figures for preventing the marriages.


This 2006 Act retained the age of adult males and females but made few significant changes to further protect the children. Boys and girls forced into child marriages as minors have the option of voiding their marriage up to two years after reaching adulthood, and in certain circumstances, marriages of minors can be null and void before they reach adulthood. All valuables, money, and gifts are to be returned if the marriage is nullified, and the girl must be provided with a home until she marries or becomes an adult.


However, children born from child marriages are considered legitimate, and the courts are expected to give parental custody with the children's best interests in mind. Any male over 18 years of age who enters into a marriage with a minor or anyone who directs or conducts a child marriage ceremony can be punished with up to two years of imprisonment or a fine.

But, the Government needs to take note of UNICEF’s advice that given the nature of the phenomenon, addressing child marriage “requires a comprehensive strategy targeting different dimensions, including education, empowerment and economic vulnerability.”  Although its data does not disclose information on behaviours and beliefs around child marriage, “promoting attitudes and behaviours which value the girl child and see the importance of education and freedom of choice is also essential.”

Thus, while the Government has let us down badly in the world forum and sent an avoidable wrong signal about its will to curb this practice, it must make amends. India cannot play with the future of its girl child, especially when there are demands within the country to lower the age of marriage. It must demonstrate: “If there is a will, there is a way.” --- INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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