India: Child marriage sees 25 times greater maternal death rate in girls under 15 Print E-mail

28 per cent of India's females marry when they are still children - maternal mortality is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15 to 19 year olds. Moreover, child marriage does not protect a girl from rape

 Monday February 8 2010


Retrograde practice

'Child marriages happen even in cities.'

 A study by the Kochi-based Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies has found that 28 per cent of women marry when they are still children. The legal age of marriage is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. The law provides for punishment, including fines and jail terms for those who facilitate under-age marriages or are present at events where such marriages are solemnised. Yet a large number of young girls are being married off, sometimes to men many times their age. Child marriage has many negative implications. Not only does it push children prematurely into taking on the responsibilities of adulthood but also it has serious implications for the health of the girl.

Young girls lack bargaining power with partners over sexual relations and contraception. The transition from child bride to child mother happens quickly. Many adolescent girls don’t survive pregnancy and child birth. Studies have found that maternal mortality is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15 to 19 year olds. Those girls who survive child birth are faced with the daunting ordeal of bringing up children when they are children themselves. How can these young mothers be expected to make informed decisions on health or education for their children?

Child marriage is not something that happens in remote parts of India. It happens in our cities, especially among construction labour. It is common among the Gowli community in Dharwad. Often the marriages are solemnised in public. In Rajasthan, dozens of little children ­ some still infants ­ are married off during Akha Teej. Still police do not prevent these weddings. Politicians and bureaucrats often attend these weddings, although under-age marriages are illegal. Clearly, there is little political will to stop the practice of child marriage.

While strict enforcement of the law is important in eradicating child marriage, the government and civil society need to address the root problems too. Poverty and insecurity ­ vulnerability of girls to rape ­ compel many to get their girls married early. Parents think that getting their girls married soon will leave them with one hungry mouth less to feed. Besides, child marriage is looked upon as tradition by some communities. Expecting the law alone to end the practice of child marriage is unreasonable. Awareness needs to be created among the people that marriage does not protect a girl from rape and that some traditions are harmful.