The legal age for marriage in India is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. The flouting of this law is obviously punishable. But that does not stop child marriage from being rampant across the country even in this day and age. It is often a manifestation of gender inequality , reflecting social norms that perpetuate discrimination against girls. There is an entire range of socio-economic and cultural perspectives around child marriage that prevails across castes and class and fortifies its existence in society.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been ratified by most countries around the globe guarantee particular rights to children and most of these are abused by the practice of child marriage like right to education, right to rest and leisure, right to protection from mental or physical abuse including rape and sexual exploitation. These rights are important for the mental, emotional and physical development of the child and denial of this can have far-reaching negative consequences.
Although child marriage affects both boys and girls, in most cases, it is the girl children that are affected the most. According to the 2011 census, there are close to 15 million girls who are married before the legal age every year. Being seen as ‘liabilities’ since birth, traditionally the attitude of the society has been to get her married as early as possible. The justification used by parents and the community is that of having to pay lower dowry when the bride and the groom are young. What they seem to forget is that giving or receiving dowry is a crime under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Safety of the girl child from sexual violence and the inability of parents to guarantee such safety is yet another justification for child marriage. There is a belief that child marriage is a protection for girls against unwanted male attention and promiscuity. Early marriage is a way to ensure chastity and virginity of the bride. Parents see marriage as a way to secure the girl’s future socially and economically.
Lack of education and awareness about the consequences of child marriage , poor implementation of the law and lack of will and action on the part of the administration are important reasons for the continuation of child marriage. For girls early marriage is the beginning of frequent and unprotected sexual activity which has serious health consequences.
Underage marriages often lead to early motherhood and high risk health problems. This not only affects the mother, but even the infant born is malnourished and prone to being ill. In almost all cases, education comes to a complete halt. Child brides often have to give up on education as they are expected to take up household responsibilities. This denies the girls the opportunity to be independent and to empower herself. While it is believed that educating a woman can help educate future generations, the opposite also is true. An uneducated woman will not be able to educate her own children in case of financial difficulties or other adverse conditions. Illiteracy also ensures that the child is dependant on her family for sustenance and this puts her in a powerless situation leading to easy exploitation and abuse.
MDI’s efforts to minimize the incidences of child marriage include:
Child marriage denies children their basic rights to good health, nutrition, education, and freedom from violence, abuse and exploitation. All children have a right to care and protection; to develop and grow to his/her full potential, regardless of their social and economic situation. Child marriage is a blatant violation of all these rights.
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