Days before the world celebrates International Women’s Day, there is some great news emerging out of India. According to a recent report published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the proportion of girls undergoing child marriage in India has come down by nearly half over the past decade.
With India accounting for the highest number of child marriages in the world, this precipitous drop is having a significant bearing on global figures, reports Reuters. The UN body has stated that 25 million child marriages were prevented around the world with India at the forefront.
“India constitutes more than 20% of the world’s adolescent population and accounts for the highest number of child marriages in South Asia given its size and population,” said Javier Aguilar, UNICEF’s chief of child protection to the global news agency. “In the current trend, 27% of girls, or nearly 1.5 million girls, get married before they turn 18 in India. This is a sharp decline from 47% a decade ago.”
“When a girl is forced to marry as a child, she faces immediate and lifelong consequences. Her odds of finishing school decrease while her odds of being abused by her husband and suffering complications during pregnancy increase. There are also huge societal consequences and a higher risk of intergenerational cycles of poverty,” said Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s Princi\pal Gender Advisor, in a statement released by the agency.
“Given the life-altering impact child marriage has on a young girl’s life, any reduction is welcome news, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Anju Malhotra is absolutely right. The problem remains rampant, even though the age of consent for women in India is 18. In fact, the apex court had last year declared that sexual activity with an underage wife constituted rape. “The human rights of a girl child are very much alive and kicking whether she is married or not and deserve recognition and acceptance,” said the bench.
Despite the enactment of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, this evil practice is not automatically void under India’s civil laws. Under the current provisions of PCMA, the onus is on the child bride to declare her marriage null and void within two years of attaining majority (20 years of age). If she does not approach the courts and issue her declaration by then, the marriage stands.
“A better awareness of the Supreme Court’s verdict would deter child marriages and declaring them invalid would strengthen India’s laws against them,” said Jayna Kothari, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Law & Policy Research, to the global news agency.
Access to better education for young girls, greater impetus on spreading awareness against the debilitating effects of child marriage by government agencies, and extensive work on the ground by local non-profits have worked wonders. However, there is still a long way to go as child marriages go on in a clandestine manner all over India.