From now on holy men who perform marraige rites for under-age girls (under the legal age of marraige – 18 in India) will be brought to book. The guardians/parents who marry of their wards will also come under the net of this new bill. 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 been done at last!
Early marraiges are common
How necessary this bill was is clear if we look at the average age of marraige in India. 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. Early marraiges are common in these states and girls are usually 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?
Poverty is considered a major cause of this practice and it is true that the states mentioned above do not fall into the category of the affluent states. In fact Punjab, an affluent state, has always had a decent average age of marraige for girls – 20. The cause for worry is that this is changing, and the average age of marraige for girls in Punjab is declining! This trend goes against the normal trend seen in other states, where the average of marraige for girls is increasing.
Poverty is thus not the only cause. Punjab’s sex ratio is declining and this is leading to a shortage of girls in the state.
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.
The other states fall somewhere inbetween. While girls in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh marry at an average age of 19 – 19.9 years, girls in Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal and Karnataka marry at 18 – 18.9 years.
India and the world
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
While this new bill will allow a girl to declare her marraige illegal, her children will come to no harm. They will not be considered illegitmate. Also, it is her husband’s family which will have to support her until her ‘re-marraige.’
The way ahead
This Bill has to go hand in hand with social reform. Girls are married off early because they are considered a ‘burden’ on parents. And the older a girl gets, the lower her value in the marraige market and the higher the dowry that has to be paid. That is why parents are in a tearing hurry to marry off their daughters.
Also, parents in conservative societies are terrified that their daughter will have an affair…if she does her reputation is ruined forever. 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’.
Education of girls (which will lead to them becoming economically independent) will help relieve the financial burden of parents.
Societal reform usually happens very slowly but laws help push it forward. This is one law that was sorely needed as 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.
The status of the nation’s women reflects the state of the nation