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Child Marraige and the law in India

January 24, 2007

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Parents and guardians who marry off their under-age girls (under the legal age of marraige – 18 in India) are going to get into trouble with the law from now on. And not just them, the holy men who perform the marraige rites will also be brought to book. The Rajya Sabha passed this bill just last month and now all child marriages can be declared null and void (article in The Hindu). As children are usually unable to fight their parents and oppose such marraiges, ‘Prevention officers’ from the government will be appointed to check this practice.
This Prevention of Child Marriage Bill 2004 took almost two years to be passed – but it’s better late than never!
Early marraiges are common
This bill was needed badly. The average age of marraige in India is about 20, but the situation in some states is worse. According to Unicef statistics, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have been turning a blind eye to the ‘legal’ age of marraige and girls are married off before they are 18. Rajasthan has the poorest record in this instance as 41% of the state’s girls between the ages of 15-19 are married!
What are the causes?
Well, poverty is considered a major cause of this practice and it is true that the states mentioned which marry off under-age girls are poor. On the hand, affluent states like Punjab have always had a higher average age of marraige for girls – 20 years. But the situation is too complex for money alone to be the cause. This has been made clear because the average age of marraige for girls in Punjab has now started to decline – while the average of marraige for girls in other states is increasing.
Poverty is thus not the only cause. A mixture of tradition and poverty plays a part. In the case of Punjab, the declining age of marraige is thought to be caused by a shortage of girls in the state. Punjab’s sex ratio is declining in favour of boys.
Tradition also matters
Girls in states like Kerala, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland marry at an average age of 20. Women in these states have a higher status than their sisters in other states. This is thought to be due to traditional practices and some of these societies follow a matriarchal system.
The other states fall somewhere inbetween. Girls in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh marry at an average age of 19 – 19.9 years while girls in Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal and Karnataka marry at at average age of 18 – 18.9 years.
At what age do girls from across the world marry?
The average age of marraige for Indian women is 20 years.
A comparision with the world:

USA – 26 years.
Bangladesh – 19 years
Brazil and China – 23 years
Nigeria and Pakistan – 21 years.

The Bill will protect women who choose to leave their marraiges
This new bill has been drafted in such a way as to protect the children from such an ‘illegal’ marraige. They will not be considered illegitmate. Also, it is the ‘married’ woman’s husband’s family which will have to support her until her ‘re-marraige’.
The Bill is just the beginning
While this Bill is a great step, it has to go hand in hand with social reform. Girls are married off early because they are considered a ‘burden’ on parents. They ‘leave’ the parents and go to another’s home and therefore any money spent on their education is considered a waste. Also, in many states, a dowry has to be paid to buy a groom, and marraige expenses (lavish even amongst the poor) are to be borne by the girl’s parents. Therefore poor families prefer not to have any girls at all. Also, the younger the girl is, the higher her value in the marraige market and the lower the dowry that has to be paid. Also the earlier she goes, the less money spent on her. A barbaric way of thinking…but this is the situation in many parts of rural India. So parents want to get rid of their girl child as soon as possible. If they can’t do it in the womb, they do it by marrying her off when she is just a child.
There is another important point. Parents in conservative societies are terrified that their daughter will have an affair…if she does that her reputation is ruined. Or something worse might happen…she might run away and marry a man from the ‘wrong’ caste. Elders in the family often marry off girls to protect their ‘virtue’ and in some feudal parts of India there have been reported cases of the girl being killed if she marries a boy from a lower caste.
Education of girls (which will lead to them becoming economically independent) will help relieve the financial burden of parents. Social reform will make parents stop treating girls as their property. Societal reform usually happens very slowly but laws help push it forward.
Early marraige not just impacts the intellectual development of women, it also adversely affects the health. Early pregnancies are common and so are it’s attendant complications. It is not unknown for girls as young as 10 to be married off…
This Bill will be a tough one to implement, but then every single law is difficult to implement in India. From the dowry laws to simple traffic laws!

The way to end this piece is with the words of our great Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who said: “The status of the nation’s women reflects the state of the nation.”

Related Reading: Age of consent world-wide
India is facing a shortage of girls
Are American women less politically empowered than Indian women?
Portrayal of women in the Indian media and cinema
The reasons why Indians prefer sons
What is the reason for women fasting for their husband’s long life?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2007 9:12 am

    As a woman who has been raised in a very privileged society, and where for the past 15o years gradually incremental changes have ocurred in the attitude toward and the status of women, it is good for me to be reminded of the good fortune provided me by accident of birth. You are doing a very good thing with this, and all of your blogs. You are stating facts about India, and life there, with the attendant complexities. People all over the world have different beliefs and customs, and their societies, as they are, now, in current times reflect varying rates of change. I find it interesting to know, even a little bit, about how people manage their lives, elsewhere. This helps me keep ideas about life for me in clearer perspective. Thank you!

  2. January 24, 2007 9:45 am

    Thank you suburbanlife. I am very glad that someone like you is coming to my blog. Not to condemn and judge, but to see how other people live and trying to understand.
    I feel that by talking about these issues, the people in power will then be shamed into doing something drastic. If we are taking such great steps ahead on the economic front, why can’t we take equally great steps where it comes to the status of women? It can only help India rise.

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