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Child Marriage in India: Impact, Laws, and Hope for Change

Impact of Early Marriage on Girls

India, due to its substantial size and population, holds the unfortunate distinction of having the highest incidence of child marriages in South Asia. As per the 2011 nationwide Census of India, the average age at which women in India typically marry is 21.2. Within the age group of 15-19, a staggering 69.6% of young Indian women surveyed had never experienced marriage. Notably, the states with the highest rates of under-18 marriages in 2009, as reported by the Registrar General of India, were Jharkhand (14.1%), West Bengal (13.6%), Bihar (9.3%), Uttar Pradesh (8.9%), and Assam (8.8%).

Although there has been a significant reduction in child marriage rates in India since 1991, it’s concerning that as of 2009, 7% of women reaching the age of 18 were still married. While India has made commendable strides in combating child marriage, it remains the country with the largest number of child brides globally. Despite these advancements, the pace of decline is insufficient to achieve the target of eradicating this practice by 2030, as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Definitions of Child Marriage in India

Child marriage is a complex and deeply rooted issue under Indian law. It has undergone several definitions and legal revisions over the years, making it a subject of legal, social, and cultural significance. In this article, we will explore the definitions of child marriage in India, its historical context, and the current situation, as well as key facts and statistics associated with this pervasive issue.

The Historical Evolution of Child Marriage Laws in India

The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929

The journey of defining child marriage in India begins with the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. This act set the minimum age of marriage for females at 14 and for males at 18. However, it was met with opposition from Muslim communities.

The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937

In response to the opposition from Muslim communities, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 was enacted, superseding the 1929 law for Muslims in British India. This new law implied no minimum age limit and allowed parental or guardian consent for Muslim marriages.

Post-Independence Amendments

After India gained independence in 1947, the legal landscape surrounding child marriage saw significant changes. In 1949, the minimum age for girls was increased to 15. Later, in 1978, the minimum age was raised to 18 for females and 21 for males.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006

The most recent definition of child marriage in India came with The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006. This act applies to all Indians except those in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the renunciants of the union territory of Puducherry. For Muslims of India, child marriage’s definition and regulations have been a subject of contention.

Under this act, “child marriage” is defined as a marriage involving at least one party who is under the age of 21 (for males) and 18 (for females).

Key Facts About Child Marriage in India

Risk Factors

A girl’s risk of child marriage is influenced by various factors, including living in rural areas and coming from economically disadvantaged households. Furthermore, child brides are more likely to have little or no education.

Impact on Education

Child brides face significant challenges in continuing their education. Sadly, fewer than 2 in 10 married girls remain in school.

Progress and Challenges

Although the practice of child marriage is less common today compared to previous generations, challenges persist. India has made significant progress, but additional efforts are needed to eliminate child marriage by 2030.

India’s Disturbing Statistics

India is home to a significant portion of the world’s child brides, with one in three of them residing in the country. Over half of these girls and women are concentrated in five states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of child brides.

Child Marriage in India – The Contemporary Scenario

Varying Estimates

Estimates regarding the prevalence of child marriages in India vary widely, with a 2015-2016 UNICEF report suggesting a rate of 27%. The Census of India reports a decrease in child marriage rates over the years.

State-wise Statistics

Jharkhand has the highest child marriage rates in India, while Kerala is the only state where these rates have increased in recent years. Rural areas have three times higher child marriage rates compared to urban regions.

Child marriage prevention laws in India have faced challenges in court, with some Muslim organizations seeking no minimum age, advocating that the age limit should be determined by personal law. This issue continues to be a subject of debate and legal battles.

Also read – Observation: An evening at a village of ‘Rural India’

Initiatives to Combat Child Marriage

Several states in India have introduced incentives to delay marriages. For instance, Haryana introduced the “Apni Beti, Apna Dhan” program, a conditional cash transfer initiative aimed at delaying young marriages.

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of child marriage. Reports suggest that the pandemic could lead to an additional 13 million child marriages worldwide in the next decade, with India being significantly affected.

Childline, a government-funded emergency helpline for children, has reported thousands of child marriages halted between March and May. However, many more might be going undetected due to disruptions in oversight mechanisms.

Child marriage remains a deeply ingrained issue in India, with historical, legal, and societal complexities. While progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to eradicate this harmful practice. The impact of COVID-19 has heightened concerns, and vigilance is needed to prevent a potential surge in child marriages.

Impact of Early Marriage on Girls in India

Early marriage, a deeply rooted social issue in India, not only robs girls of their educational opportunities but also subjects them to lives of oppression, domestic violence, and early motherhood, according to UNICEF. The consequences are dire and far-reaching, impacting their health, economic well-being, and overall quality of life.

Maternal Mortality

The World Health Organization highlights that one of the primary causes of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is pregnancy or childbirth-induced complications. Early marriage drastically increases the risk of such complications. These young brides are twice as likely to die in childbirth compared to girls aged 20 to 24. The risk is even higher for girls under 15, who are five times more likely to die during childbirth.

Infant Health

Infants born to mothers under the age of 18 face a 60% higher risk of mortality in their first year. For those who survive, the journey is still fraught with challenges, including low birth weight, malnutrition, and delayed physical and cognitive development. The cycle of health disparities thus extends to the next generation.

Fertility Outcomes

Child marriages in India often result in high fertility rates, poor fertility control, and unfavorable outcomes. A study conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International in 2005 and 2006 revealed alarming statistics.

A staggering 90.8% of young married women reported not using contraceptives before their first child. 23.9% had a child within the first year of marriage, and 17.3% had three or more children during the course of their marriage. Rapid repeat childbirth and unwanted pregnancies were also common. Fertility rates are notably higher in slums compared to urban areas.

Domestic Violence

Young girls forced into child marriages are disproportionately more likely to experience domestic violence. An Indian study by the International Centre for Research on Women found that girls married before the age of 18 are twice as likely to be victims of physical abuse, including being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands. They are also three times more likely to experience sexual violence. The trauma endured by these young brides often manifests as symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress.

Economic Drivers

Economic hardship is a significant driver of early marriages in India. A survey conducted in 2015 by CSR in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh revealed that parents often marry off their daughters to absolve themselves of the responsibility of their upbringing. They view girls as an economic burden, and early marriage allows them to transfer this responsibility to the boy’s family. Many families consider daughters as “paraya dhan” or someone else’s wealth. This perception has also led to a preference for investing in the education of sons, as they are seen as insurance for old age.

The Need for Change

Advocates for the well-being of girls in India argue that raising the minimum marriage age for women from 18 to 21 is a step in the right direction. By delaying marriage until a later age, girls are more likely to be better educated, enhancing their employability and agency. Economic independence becomes a pathway to progress, empowering them to lead fulfilling and independent lives.

In conclusion, early marriage in India has severe consequences, perpetuating a cycle of health disparities, violence, and inequality. Addressing this issue requires comprehensive efforts that involve changes in societal norms, increased access to education, and supportive policies that empower girls to make choices about their own lives.

India’s Struggle with Child Marriage: Robust Laws, Continuing Challenges

India boasts robust laws aimed at preventing child marriages, but the persistence of this issue remains a concerning challenge. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, for instance, imposes stringent penalties of up to $1,535 and two years in prison for parents who marry off their underage children. Additionally, India is committed to eliminating child, early, and forced marriage by 2030, in alignment with Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Legislative Efforts

The Indian government has made several legislative efforts to curb child marriage. The Ministry of Women and Child Development drafted a National Action Plan in 2013, focusing on law enforcement, changing mindsets and social norms, empowering adolescents, quality education, and knowledge sharing.

Furthermore, a 2017 report by the Law Commission recommended mandatory marriage registration to deter forced and early marriages. The legal framework surrounding child marriage has evolved over time, with provisions for arrest without warrant and non-bailable offenses.

The Challenge of Interpretation

Despite these laws, child marriage remains a pervasive issue in India. One of the primary challenges is the vagueness and open interpretability of the laws. The coexistence of various personal religious laws further complicates the matter. For instance, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, does not apply to Muslims, as Muslim marriages are governed by the Muslim Personal Law under the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937. This interpretation of the law has faced rejection in the Indian judiciary.

A Holistic Approach

Activists argue that a punitive approach alone is insufficient to address the issue. Many child marriages serve as a cover for trafficking, with girls married off only to be sold later. To combat this issue effectively, a more comprehensive strategy is required.

The Role of Education

Education plays a pivotal role in addressing child marriage. Empowering and educating all stakeholders, including children, village influencers, panchayat leaders, parents, and teachers, is essential for change at the grassroots level. Initiatives like Bal Panchayats (children’s councils) help sensitize children about their rights and provide them with the confidence to speak out against exploitation. Many children have been rescued from child marriages, child labor, and trafficking through this approach.

Complex Challenges

Tackling child marriages in a diverse and complex country like India, with its various religions, castes, sub-castes, and communities, along with an array of overlapping laws, is a formidable task. However, creating an enabling ecosystem that involves all stakeholders, prevents school dropouts, ensures high retention rates, and provides job-linked higher education can go a long way in addressing this deeply entrenched issue.

Pandemic’s Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated poverty, reversed migration, and caused job losses, pushing families into dire economic straits. As a result, vulnerable girls are at risk of dropping out of school and being forced into early marriages. Common reasons for dropout include domestic work, disinterest in studies, financial constraints, and child marriages.

Addressing Challenges

One of the critical challenges contributing to the high dropout rate is the lack of awareness regarding career options provided in secondary-level schools. Most schools do not offer skilling or vocational counseling. A baseline assessment in Nayagarh and Mayurbhanj found that girls were aware of the possibility of dropping out for marriage, feared early marriage, and felt anxious about leaving school. Despite their desires for further education and careers, many girls believed these aspirations were unattainable due to the costs and distance associated with schooling.

In conclusion, India’s battle against child marriage is multifaceted and involves addressing legal ambiguities, religious laws, and cultural norms. To make substantial progress, it is imperative to focus on education, awareness, and empowerment, thereby breaking the cycle of early marriages that jeopardizes the lives and futures of countless girls in the country.

Laws Against Child Marriage in India

Child marriage, a deeply rooted social issue in India, has been addressed through a series of legislative measures aimed at curbing this practice and safeguarding the rights and well-being of children.

Laws Against Child Marriage in India
Laws Against Child Marriage in India

The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929

Commonly known as the Sarda Act, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was enacted on 1 April 1930, extending its jurisdiction across the entire nation with some exceptions for princely states like Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir. This act defined the minimum age for marriage as 18 for males and 14 for females. In 1949, following India’s independence, the minimum age for females was raised to 15, and in 1978, it was further increased to 18 for females and 21 for males.

The act imposed penalties for those involved in child marriages. For males aged 18 to 21 who married a child, the punishment included imprisonment of up to 15 days, a fine of 1,000 rupees, or both. Males above 21 years of age faced imprisonment for up to three months and a potential fine.

Those who performed or directed child marriage ceremonies could be imprisoned for up to three months and fined, unless they could prove that the marriage was not a child marriage. Parents or guardians involved in child marriages could also face imprisonment for up to three months or a fine. The act was amended in 1940 and 1978 to continue raising the ages of males and females.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006

In response to the need for more comprehensive legislation, the Indian government introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) in 2006, which came into effect on 1 November 2007. This act aimed to address the shortcomings of the Child Marriage Restraint Act and shift the focus from restraining child marriage to preventing and prohibiting it.

While the minimum marriage ages for males and females remained the same, this act introduced significant changes to better protect children. It allowed boys and girls forced into child marriages as minors to void their marriage within two years of reaching adulthood. In specific circumstances, child marriages could be declared null and void before the minors reached adulthood.

If a marriage was nullified, all valuables, money, and gifts were to be returned, and the girl must be provided with a place of residency until she married or became an adult. Children born from child marriages were considered legitimate, and courts were expected to grant parental custody with the children’s best interests in mind. Any male over 18 years who entered into a marriage with a minor or conducted a child marriage ceremony could be punished with up to two years of imprisonment or a fine.

Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021

In December 2021, the Indian government introduced the ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021’ in Parliament. The primary objective of this bill is to equalize the age of marriage for women with that of men by raising it to 21 years. The bill intends to supersede all existing laws, traditions, customs, or practices related to marriage. By increasing the minimum marriage age, the government aims to eliminate the prevalence of child marriage and provide greater protection to children, particularly girls, who are disproportionately affected by this practice.

In conclusion, India’s legal framework for combating child marriage has evolved over the years, with each new law striving to provide better protection and support for children, particularly girls, who are most vulnerable to this practice. The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, represents a significant step toward achieving gender equality and safeguarding the rights of children in India.

Applicability of Child Marriage Laws in India

The applicability of child marriage laws in India has been a subject of debate and legal interpretation, particularly concerning Muslim personal laws. Various high courts in India, including the Delhi High Court, have provided clarity on this matter.

The Delhi High Court ruled that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, supersedes all personal laws and applies to every citizen of India. According to this ruling, an under-age marriage in which either the man or woman is over 16 years old is considered a voidable marriage, meaning it can become valid if no legal action is taken to annul it.

However, if either of the parties is under 18 years of age, the marriage is void. This interpretation aligns with the age of consent in India, which is 18. Any sexual activity with minors under the age of 18 is a statutory crime under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code.

Several other high courts in India, such as the Gujarat High Court, the Karnataka High Court, and the Madras High Court, have also affirmed that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act prevails over any personal law, including Muslim personal law.

A legal gray area exists concerning marital rape within prohibited child marriages in India. Marital rape is not considered a crime in India, but the situation becomes perplexing when applied to children. The Indian Penal Code’s exception (Section 375) allows marital rape of a girl child between the ages of 15-18 by her husband.

However, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Independent Thought v. Union of India in October 2017, ruled that sexual intercourse with wives below 18 years of age should be considered rape. Additionally, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, disallows such sexual relationships and treats them as an aggravated offense.

CEDAW and International Agreements

India is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty aimed at ending discrimination against women. Article 16 of CEDAW focuses on Marriage and Family Life, stating that women and men have the right to choose their spouse, have equal responsibilities, and decide on the number and spacing of their children.

The convention emphasizes that child marriages should not be legally recognized, and efforts should be made to enforce a minimum age for marriage while maintaining an official registry of all marriages. India signed the convention in 1980 but expressed practical challenges due to its large population, making it difficult to implement a marriage registration system.

Prevention Programs: Apni Beti, Apna Dhan

To combat child marriage, India has implemented programs like Apni Beti, Apna Dhan (ABAD), which translates to “My daughter, My wealth.” This conditional cash transfer program was initiated in the state of Haryana in 1994.

Under ABAD, mothers receive financial support on the birth of their first, second, or third child, along with a long-term savings bond of ₹2,500 in their daughter’s name. This bond can be redeemed for ₹25,000 after the daughter turns 18, but only if she remains unmarried. ABAD aims to incentivize parents to delay their daughters’ marriages.

While there is evidence of conditional cash transfer programs effectively keeping girls in school and improving immunization rates, their impact on preventing child marriage is still under study. However, the success of Haryana state’s approach suggests that such programs could make a significant difference in the lives of many more girls, not only in India but also globally.

Empowering Girls: A Path Forward

Empowering girls and eliminating child marriage in India requires a multi-pronged approach that involves various stakeholders and addresses complex social, cultural, and economic challenges. Here are some strategies and areas of focus to move forward:

  1. Community Partnership: Collaborate with communities to amplify the voices of women and girls and advocate for improved public policies and programs. Strengthen the capacity of institutions like Gram Panchayats, Frontline Health Workers, and women’s collectives/Self Help Groups (SHGs) to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. This approach ensures access to essential services like health, education, and livelihood opportunities.
  2. Engaging Men and Boys: Promote gender-egalitarian attitudes by working with men and boys. Encourage grassroots women elected members from Panchayats to become change agents in their communities. Advocate for policies that prioritize women and girls’ voices on reproductive health, safety, mobility, and equity in both public and private spheres.
  3. Empowering Historically Excluded Girls: Focus on enhancing the power and agency of girls from historically marginalized groups. This includes working in government/state-run schools and with out-of-school girls. Address discrimination and exclusions prevalent in local contexts and social norms.
  4. Multi-Level Approaches: Implement multi-level approaches that address complex intersectional challenges. This may involve training personnel within the state system to deliver programs that improve understanding of gender, discrimination, education, health, and nutrition.
  5. Community Engagement: Build community salience and provide platforms for girls from historically disadvantaged communities. Control dropouts and protect them from harmful social practices. Strengthen the capacity of village-level institutions, train frontline health workers, and girls’ collectives to respond to and protect girls from harmful practices. Ensure completion of school education to improve girls’ access to education and opportunities.
  6. Championing Girls’ Voices: Select and train girls as champions who can inform, advocate, and mobilize for better access to entitlements offered by public policies and programs. This will help prioritize girls’ voices on reproductive health, mobility, safety, and equity in public and private spheres. Promote women’s leadership at the institutional and systemic levels.
  7. Policy Advocacy: Engage with policymakers to invest more effectively in and improve girls’ education. Use dissemination and diffusion strategies to inform the ecosystem about what works to promote girls’ education.
  8. Academic Enrichment: Implement academic enrichment strategies to prepare girls to join the workforce, contributing to prosperity for their families and villages. Identify dropout girls and support them in re-enrolling in school by linking them with scholarships, stipends, and conditional cash transfer schemes.
  9. Collaboration with Education Departments: Work closely with the Department of Education to address both the social determinants preventing girls from completing their education and the academic barriers that lead to dropouts.

Empowering girls and eradicating child marriage is a holistic effort that involves the whole community, government, and various stakeholders. It requires a commitment to gender equality, education, and the well-being of young girls to build a brighter and more equitable future for all.

Also read: Living on the Margins – India’s Most Marginalized and Excluded Communities

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.

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