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Assam drive to end child marriage is an effort to tackle a social evil

Written by Aditi Narayani Paswan and Naorem Anuja

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for global action to end human rights violations by 2030. There has been tremendous development in India on that front, as seen, for example, in the decline in child marriage — from 47.4 per cent in 2005 to 23.3 per cent in 2021. The year 2021 also marked a 50 per cent decline in child marriage in South Asia.

Also Read | Assam cracks down on child marriages, over 2,000 arrested across the state

The Covid-19 pandemic was a ready reminder of how any emergency exacerbates systemic gender inequalities. According to estimates by UNICEF, 10 million more girls were at risk of becoming child brides globally because of the pandemic, affecting the prosperity and growth of communities and nations for generations. India has been working to ensure it doesn’t lose the momentum gained in dealing with the scourge of child marriage. Child marriages deny a child his/her basic right to education, health, and the freedom to build full, thriving lives. There is overwhelming evidence that child marriage renders girls more susceptible to abuse, violence, and exploitation. Child marriage is a gendered form of violence — a cause and effect of gender inequality and discrimination — and is a significant challenge facing girls and their families throughout the developing world.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s ongoing work to penalise such brazen acts of gender-based violence is laudable. It is certainly not a political act aimed at garnering votes. Rather, it is going to draw the ire of the clergy from across Assam, including from Hindu religious outfits. These steps, hitherto unseen in India due to the social backlash they receive, will go down in history as brave acts devoid of any consideration of political gain.

CM Sarma has launched a state-wide crackdown against child marriage, booking men marrying girls below 14 years of age under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, and those marrying girls aged 14-18 under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. Since Sarma’s announcement, 4,004 child marriage cases have been registered in the state. According to data given by the Registrar General of India in 2022, Assam has the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation, with 195 fatalities per one lakh live births in the years 2018 to 2020. With 32 newborn deaths for every 1,000 live births, Assam has the third highest infant mortality rate, according to the National Family Health Survey-5. The Assam government has declared that its aim is to confront the high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates in the state, which it has linked to early motherhood. Out of the 4,004 cases, 370 — the highest — have been registered in Dhubri, followed by 255 in Hojai, 224 in Morigaon, 204 in Kokrajhar and 171 in Nalbari. The CM has also announced that the police will retrospectively book people who participated in child marriage in the last seven years.

Though legislation prohibiting child marriage in India has been in place since 1929, the majority of child brides in the world — 223 million of them, or one-third of the total — live in India. Despite it being illegal for girls under the age of 18, and for boys under the age of 21, to marry in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the UNFPA-UNICEF estimates indicate that at least 1.5 million underage girls get married annually here. Child marriage conclusively devastates a girl’s childhood, saddling her with adult responsibilities before she is physically and mentally mature. With little bodily autonomy, child brides are more likely to undergo forced pregnancy, increasing the likelihood of maternal and infant mortality. A girl’s education is less likely to be valued — evidence is clear that girls with less education are more likely to marry young, and child marriage typically ends a girl’s education. The lack of education and isolation from peers further shrink a child bride’s support systems. Without skills or mobility, her ability to overcome poverty for herself and her children is hindered. These social and economic vulnerabilities that child brides live with impinge on their ability to contribute to their community’s and country’s growth and development. They are also more likely to experience intimate partner violence and have worse economic and health outcomes than their single peers, which eventually trickles down to their own offspring, placing further strain on the nation’s ability to offer quality healthcare and education. It is, hence, not surprising that high rates of child marriage are negatively correlated with both national and international measures of maternal health, education, food security, poverty eradication, and gender equality. Ending the practice of child marriage is crucial to address the several human rights violations that stand in the way of gender equality for girls.

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Understanding the key drivers behind child marriage is necessary to combat it. While the origins of the practice differ across nations and cultures, it is perpetuated by poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and limited access to healthcare. Some families choose to marry off their daughters in order to reduce their financial burden. Other reasons cited are shrinking living spaces and increasing concerns about adolescent girls’ safety. Families also act in this manner because they think it will protect their daughters’ futures. The practice is also supported by gender roles and marriage-age norms, stereotypes, and the socioeconomic risks of unmarried pregnancies. Traditional gender norms and lack of meaningful alternatives to marriage make envisioning a different path for girls and their families difficult.

Though legal protections and their strict implementation are important, they form only one part of the solution. To end child marriages, state and non-state actors alike must put girls, across the diverse spectrum of society and marginality, at the centre of the solution. The state can penalise and criminalise the act, but society at large has the power to stigmatise these acts of gendered violence against young girls and kids. Punitive legal action is not enough. We need comprehensive legal and policy frameworks that tackle the root causes of gender inequality — dowry, property and inheritance, child labour and abuse, sexual violence — and work on providing meaningful access to education, healthcare, a fair and equal labour market, and social security to girls. This will have a deeper and more pervasive effect on the practice of child marriage. Society, civil society, and organised religion have a crucial role to play. A holistic approach that brings together all parties who can address the different causes and the terrible effects of child marriage is necessary to end the practice and realise the rights of girls who are already married. Communities, families, girls, and numerous government agencies, including those in charge of funding and those in charge of education, health, child protection, gender equality, youth empowerment, and justice, are all included in this.

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Paswan is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Adivasi Professors and Scholars Association). Anuja is a research scholar at JNU

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