ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Restraining Child Marriage

Eight decades since a law against child marriage was first enacted, the practice is still somewhat rife.

India has had a law against child marriage since 1929, amended in 1949 and 1978, and now, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006; yet, its prevalence is high, and it is not merely a result of the continuation of traditional cultural practices. The Mid-Term Appraisal of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2002-07) pointed to the emergence of “new complex causes”. But what does the most recent data have to say about the phenomenon? A new study on the “prevalence of child marriage and its effect on fertility and fertility outcomes of young women in India” (The Lancet, 10 March 2009) by Anita Raj et al, based on data from the National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3), has found that 44.5% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before 18 years of age, 22.6% were married before they attained 16 years of age, and 2.6% were married before 13 years of age. Further, child marriage was significantly associated with high fertility, no contraceptive use before first childbirth, a repeat childbirth in less than 24 months, multiple unwanted pregnancies, pregnancy termination, and female sterilisation. The results suggest that “neither recent progress in economic and women’s development, nor existing policy or programmatic efforts to prevent child marriage and promote maternal and child health, have been sufficient to r educe the prevalence of child marriage in India to that of most other developing nations.”

The fact that 48.4% of the women who were married as children reported childbirth before 18 years of age is a pointer to how the practice blights the lives of many Indian women who are anyway inherently disadvantaged and discriminated against. In addition, one can imagine the plight of many young brides as (more or less) child labourers in the home and in the fields, with very little decision-making power and extremely vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. Also, as the study comments, the social context of child marriage reduces a woman’s control of her reproduction in adulthood too.

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