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Underage marriages continue in several parts of India despite the laws against them. Parents who marry girls off early often do so to protect their chastity. This reason gets clearer from a new study, which finds that underage marriages of daughters are more likely in localities where crimes against women are perceived to be higher.

The research, by Sudipa Sarkar of Warwick University, uses data from a nationally representative household panel survey, which interviewed individuals twice—in 2005 and 2012—to understand the perceptions about crime in their locality.

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The study finds that a family’s decision to marry a daughter underage is influenced majorly by local crimes against women, while gender-neutral crimes such as theft, burglary and threats did not show any significant link. However, crimes against women don’t impact the age at which men are likely to marry. The authors note that the stigma against sexually harassed women is very high in the “marriage market". Other studies have shown that men in South Asia give more importance to their spouse’s sexual purity at marriage than their physical appearance.

Sarkar’s study finds that the link between high crime rates and early marriage is strong in families that restrict women’s mobility more or practise the purdah system, in which women have to cover their face while speaking to strangers or other men. The practice is also stronger in northern India.

While poverty, gender bias at the workplace and other socioeconomic factors have been cited as a reason for early marriage, the study adds crime as a unique factor to the research on this phenomenon. Several policies have been created to prevent child marriages, yet India has more than a third of the global underage brides. This study suggests that policymakers also look at local-level safety and crimes against women while formulating policies to prevent underage marriages.

Read more: Local crime and early marriage Evidence from India

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