The Global Pursuit of Eradicating Child Marriage and its Relevance in India – Part 1

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Over 14 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year, and this phenomenon has emerged as one of the most important development issues of the world. India contributes a substantial number to this global total as over one fourth of all marriages in our country are child marriages and it is over 50% in some states. In recent times there has been some good news with a UNICEF report claiming that over 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade, and India had taken the lead. However this was not always so, and despite a law against child marriage since 1929 in India, a large proportion of girls in the country have consistently been married before the legal age.

Some years ago I attended a meeting convened by The Elders in Addis Ababa to discuss this problematic and pernicious practice which is also common across many countries in Africa in addition to South Asia. The Elders is a group of global leaders who after finishing their official tenures as heads of state or any similar elevated leadership position, use their moral suasion to bear upon entrenched global problems. Usually the group took on political problems, but here they were taking on a social problem. This group had been initially convened by Nelson Mandela and included at that point  Gaca Machel, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Bruntland, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Ela Bhatt from India among others. The global campaign Girls not Brides was initiated as a result of the meeting and the issue of early and child marriage is now on every development organisation’s agenda. The Elders were successful in getting their moral weight to bear upon an issue and make it one of global concern.

Early marriage: A problem or a symptom?

I have usually stayed on the fringes of the work on child marriage which has become an important area of concern where work with adolescent girls is concerned. Sometimes I find work on child marriage closely interlinked with concerns around child trafficking. NGOs have adopted social vigilance to stop child marriage, using the police force as well as armies of young girls to stop child marriage and in some cases have also been successful in getting some people behind the bars. Recently I provided some technical advice to an organization which was involved in stopping child marriage through working with adolescent girls, supporting them to continue in school, providing some additional economic support to the families and working with religious leaders to proscribe the practice using their religious authority as well as the law of the land. While this group did not yet have any substantial claims of success, they were encouraged to look at ‘experiments’ out of countries in Africa like in Ethiopia and Tanzania where it has been proved that age at marriage for girls can be increased by investment in girls education, talking to their family members and by providing small economic incentives like goats and chicken to the family. Researchers have proven that this intervention can be costed at about 44 USD per child in Ethiopia and a little higher 117 USD in Tanzania. I wonder whether such an intervention would succeed in India?

If child marriage is an easily addressed social problem, I have wondered why it has not really been eradicated in India even though a law to this effect exists from 1929. And then what is the real problem in child marriage, or is it a symptom of a much deeper problem? Both my grandmothers were married in their twenties and married before this law was framed. But they were a rarity in their times, as they were both from Brahmo families, a social group that pioneered girls education and other social reform in Bengal. But the grandmothers of many of my contemporaries were married in their teens. Subsequently I worked with many older women in rural communities who had been married in their teens as well. Many of them were very bouncy and vivacious and did not seem particularly ‘unhappy’ or ‘oppressed’ or ‘traumatised’ because of this early marriage long ago in their lives. Early marriage had not crippled them for life either physically or socially. Yes, early marriage can be a serious impediment to development – social, educational, physical, but then marriage is not the only impediment and nor does marriage at a higher age become a guarantee for autonomy and development for the girl or young woman.

So what is the problem with early marriage? Please note I am using the words early marriage rather than child marriage and I will soon explain the reason. I did some delving into the history of the social movement against child marriage in India and drew up an interesting history. A hundred and fifty years ago girls as young as ten years were routinely married off. Their fathers thought nothing wrong of it and society rejoiced at those marriages as well. Many well-known men had married very young girls Gandhi was 13 and married Kasturba who was 14. Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a noted seer and guru of Vivekananada, was married to his wife Sarada Devi when she was five years old.  The rumblings against child marriage started when a 10 year old girl Phulmani Devi died of bleeding when her much older husband tried to consummate the marriage in the early 1880s. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar the well-known social reformer and others tried to take up the issue with the British to create a law around an age of consent. However other Indian leaders saw this as cultural interference by the British into Indian culture and in many ways lay down the foundations of identity politics that we see flourishing in India today. It took many years of struggle between 1880 and 1929 when the law against child marriage was finally passed, restricting marriages below the age of 14 for girls and 18 for boys. Even then the law was never implemented strictly even though the age at marriage was subsequently raised over the years to 18 for girls and 21 for boys. One thing that this story illustrates for me is that the ‘problem’ of early marriage has more than one dimension and without understanding these it is not going to be easy to eradicate it.

One of the first problems associated with early marriage was the negative health consequences for the girl who was married. The human body matures sexually much before it matures physically, and thus many girls died when giving birth, as their bodies are not yet mature enough to bear children, even though they are ready to have sex and conceive children. Many more suffered some form or other of childbirth associated morbidity. When I started dabbling in demography in the 1990s the demographic argument was against early marriage and early child bearing. On the one hand there was concern for maternal mortality and morbidity but on the other had there was great concern for early and repeated reproduction contributing to overpopulation. Clearly the concern for individual good was tinged with a larger social concern as well. Somehow a figure of 18 years was considered appropriate for female and keeping in mind the patriarchal construct of the husband being superior to the wife 21 was considered appropriate for the male.

I find these figures arbitrary because the age at marriage seems to vary across the world. In many countries in Europe and many states in the US who are often seen as the standards of modernism the marriage is possible at 16 years. In neighbouring Nepal the legal age at marriage for women and men is 20 even though a large number of girls are married off earlier! So what would be the ‘scientific’ approach to defining this age? There is a global consensus that childhood ceases at 18 and adulthood starts thereafter. The child rights issue is sorted out once the age of 18 is obtained, but is that sufficient reason. But then why raise the male age to 21years, if not for any other reason other than a desire to appear ‘proper’ in patriarchal terms. Why is 21 years not appropriate for women? Is it only related to the fact that the female skeletal development is complete by that time and the pelvic girdle is now fit to hold a baby and deliver it safely? But then shouldn’t the age of marriage be 17, so that the baby is born at 18? Now if this seems too mechanical and deterministic, my purpose is satisfied. In India and elsewhere everyone seems to be rush to set a minimum age bar with little concern whether the social conditions allow the girls they are so concerned about to exercise any form of choice or consent in the matter.

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Abhijit Das is a doctor with training in obstetrics, paediatrics and public health with thirty years’ experience in clinical work, training, research and policy advocacy. He is Director of Centre for Health and Social Justice (www.chsj.org) a health policy research and advocacy organization in India and Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.