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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Invest in changing social norms to end child marriages
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Invest in changing social norms to end child marriages

It’s a challenge of moral suasion and Assam’s arrests were not a useful way to pursue this noble goal

Photo: PTIPremium
Photo: PTI

Arrests, suicides, fear. In Assam, a 17-year-old girl ended her life as she could not marry the man she loved; a young widow and mother-of-two killed herself because she feared her father would be arrested. Ostensibly to reduce infant and maternal mortality, the state government has initiated a drive to arrest those associated with child marriage. It is a case of a good cause pursued with a flawed method. Over 2,400 arrests have been made even as the high court has rightly questioned the police for “causing a havoc". It is ironic that the state did not come to the ‘protection’ of the children when they married many years ago..

Child marriage is not only illegal, it deprives girls of education and a life of opportunities. It stops them from pursuing careers and fulfilling other aspirations. It affects their health, well-being and ability to take charge of their lives. With nearly every fourth Indian girl married before age 18, India accounts for the most child brides in the world. As many as 32% women in the age group of 20-24 years in Assam married before 18, according to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21). Also, 12% women in the 15-19 age group in the state were mothers or pregnant. Early pregnancy adversely affects the physical, emotional and mental health of young mothers. It endangers the lives of infants.

While it is imperative to end child marriages, it is equally important to underscore that this harmful practice is deeply rooted in socio-cultural norms and entrenched gender inequalities. It is fuelled by poverty, financial insecurity and a lack of education. Pandemics and disasters see a spurt in child marriages. A 2021 Unicef report on covid as a threat to progress on this front stated that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy and parental deaths due to the pandemic had put the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage, as their poor parents saw marriage as a solution to many problems; 10 million additional child marriages may occur before decade end, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice, according to the report.

In spite of being illegal since 1978, child marriages have had social acceptance in India. There has been only a marginal decline in their number in the last five years (from 27% by NFHS-4 2015-16) to 23% in (NFHS-5 2019-21). Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE, 2017-18) shows that while 65% of girls complete secondary education nationally, only 52% do so in Assam. Data also shows that while 81.3% of girls in Assam (compared with the national average of 79.4%) joined secondary school, only 42% continued to the higher secondary level. All-India, of the 79.4% of girls who enrolled in secondary education, 58% went on to the next level. Assam must ensure that girls (and boys) attain higher education, which will help delay marriage and find work.

Instead of penalizing people without warning, Assam’s government needs to address the social causes that let this practice be perpetuated for centuries. Greater efforts in creating a gender-equal state will be a step in the right direction. In Kerala, for instance, with 97% female literacy rate (NFHS-5), there has been a significant decline in child marriages. Around 6% of women aged 20-24 (2019-21) were married before turning 18 (NFHS-5).

Sudden mass arrests and use of force are not the solution. To discourage a practice, making laws is a necessary but insufficient condition. Sadly, the law on child marriage has been on a back-burner for four decades. The Assam government began enforcing it one fine morning, and retrospectively at that. People have been taken unawares, which has created anxiety and chaos, affecting the socio-political climate in the country.

While Assam decided to take legal action against men who marry girls aged below 14 under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, there is criticism that POCSO conflates exploitative sexual practice and general sexual expression by an adolescent, and criminalizes both. There have been demands for a revision in the age of consent.

Given how important it is to stop child marriage, we need a campaign with a clear message that legal action would be taken against violators. The state must invest in social and behaviour change communication, education and youth skilling, especially girls, so that they study further and delay marriage and childbirth. Patriarchal norms that exclude the young from marital decisions should be addressed similarly. We found that communication efforts can bear results. An entertainment-education series produced by Population Foundation of India, Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, sought to influence social determinants of health and create a mass movement for a healthier, cleaner and more equitable society. An assessment showed sharp gains (2% to 31%) among men who saw it on knowledge of the adverse consequences of early marriage .

Education and mass campaigns work better than a sudden use of force. We must step up investment in aiding adolescents, especially girls, with education, health and skills. Integrating age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for them in the curriculum will help with their reproductive health. Doing anything less than this would be a shortcut that won’t provide a lasting solution. Ironically, many Indians still see early marriage as a solution, not a problem. Our challenge is to work systematically on all fronts, including planned legal action in the future.

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Published: 15 Feb 2023, 11:01 PM IST
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