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Child marriage in India

Updated: May 5

Child marriage, involving individuals under 18, continues globally despite legal bans and violates human rights, hindering socio-economic development and endangering health. Primarily affecting girls, it leads to early pregnancies and severe health complications like eclampsia and obstetric fistulas due to inadequate healthcare.

The practice curtails education for child brides, forcing them to drop out of school to manage household duties, thus limiting their future job prospects and perpetuating poverty and gender stereotypes.

child marriage in india


Human Rights and Child Marriage

Violation of Children’s Rights

Child marriage is a severe violation of human rights, fundamentally infringing upon the rights of children.

It prematurely ends a vital stage of exploration and identity formation, forcing children into roles and responsibilities they are neither psychologically nor physically prepared for.

Child marriage denies children the opportunity to live their youth freely, stunting their personal and social development.

It forces them into partnerships for which they are not ready, thereby stripping away their autonomy and the ability to make significant life choices on their own terms.

Impact on Personal Development and Self-Identity

The imposition of a marital role on children truncates a critical period of self-discovery and personal development. When children are married off, they miss out on essential experiences that are formative for their individuality and self-concept.

The practice often results in a lack of educational opportunities, restricting access to knowledge and skills that are crucial for personal empowerment and economic independence.

Furthermore, child marriage often results in early pregnancy, which poses significant health risks to both mother and child, perpetuating cycles of poverty and health disparities

Rights Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which India ratified in 1989, articulates rights that are fundamentally breached by the practice of child marriage.

These rights include the right to education, participation in civic life, and the protection of personal well-being and health. Child marriage effectively nullifies these rights, binding its victims to a life of dependency and limited personal agency.

By failing to protect these rights, societies fail to uphold their commitments under international law, contributing to broader social and economic stagnation.


Consequences of Child Marriage in India

Health Risks

Child marriage significantly increases health risks, particularly through early pregnancies. Girls married young are more likely to experience pregnancy complications, which are the leading cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19 globally.

These young mothers face a higher risk of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections than women in their twenties.

Furthermore, infants born to adolescent mothers have higher rates of premature birth and low birth weight, conditions that contribute to higher neonatal mortality rates.

The physical immaturity of child brides often leads to severe health consequences not just for the mother, but for her child as well, perpetuating a cycle of poor health outcomes.

Educational and Economic Impact

Child marriage often truncates a girl's education, severely limiting her future economic opportunities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Married girls are less likely to finish school, reducing their ability to gain employment and increase their economic status.

This limitation extends beyond the individual to affect the entire community, as lower educational levels contribute to economic stagnancy.

The lack of education also limits a girl's ability to engage in societal roles, contributing to a continuous lack of female leadership and innovation in communities.

Psychological and Social Effects

The psychological and social effects of child marriage are profound and lasting. Young brides often suffer from isolation, depression, and anxiety due to their premature entry into marital responsibilities and motherhood.

This early transition can lead to a loss of childhood and adolescence, stifling personal development and self-discovery.

Socially, these girls miss out on forming vital peer relationships and engaging with their communities, which can exacerbate feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Additionally, child brides are more susceptible to domestic violence and other forms of abuse, which can further impair their mental and emotional health. 

Gender-Specific Impacts

Disproportionate Effects on Girls

Child marriage disproportionately affects girls, placing them at a severe disadvantage across various aspects of life.

The practice severely curtails their educational and economic opportunities, often resulting in a lifetime of dependency and limited societal participation.

Girls who marry young are more likely to experience serious health risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth, including higher rates of maternal mortality and complications such as fistulas and anemia.

Furthermore, these young brides often face significant reproductive health issues and are at a greater risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Socially, child brides typically have reduced autonomy within their marriages and are often subjected to higher rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Their lack of maturity and societal influence renders them powerless in affecting decisions about their lives, including family planning and economic choices, perpetuating gender inequality and societal imbalance.

This entrenchment of gender disparity undermines global efforts towards gender equality as outlined in international agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals.


Understudied Impacts on Boys

While the impacts of child marriage on girls are widely recognized and documented, the effects on boys are less understood and significantly understudied.

Boys who marry young are also forced into adult roles for which they are not prepared, often requiring them to drop out of school to meet the financial demands of a household.

This early responsibility can lead to long-term economic hardship and limit their professional and personal development.

Psychologically, these young husbands face pressures associated with the expectations of masculinity and the provision for a family, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

The lack of research into the impacts of child marriage on boys contributes to a gap in understanding that is necessary for comprehensive interventions.

Statistical Insights and Trends

Recent Census Data and Trends

Recent census data reveal a slow but positive decline in the rates of child marriage, thanks to increased awareness and improved educational opportunities for girls.

However, significant challenges remain as certain regions and communities continue to exhibit higher rates of child marriage.

For instance, data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) indicate that while national averages have improved, states like Bihar, West Bengal, and Rajasthan still report higher incidences.

These trends suggest a geographically uneven progress, which requires targeted interventions to address cultural, economic, and educational disparities that contribute to the persistence of child marriage in certain areas.

Demographic Factors Influencing Child Marriage

Several demographic factors significantly influence the prevalence of child marriage. Socio-economic status, education levels of parents, and geographic location are among the primary determinants.

Girls from poorer households and rural areas are disproportionately more likely to be married as children compared to their urban counterparts.

Educational attainment of parents, particularly mothers, is a critical factor; daughters of less educated mothers are more likely to experience early marriage.

Additionally, cultural traditions and community norms continue to play a substantial role, where in some cultures, child marriage is seen as a rite of passage or a method to ensure economic security by forging strategic alliances through marriage.


Legal Framework Against Child Marriage in India

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006, is a crucial statute in the fight against child marriage. It specifically targets the prevention of child marriages by making them punishable under law.

The Act defines a "child" as a male under 21 years of age and a female under 18. It empowers law enforcement agencies to prevent child marriages and prosecute those who perform, permit, or promote such unions.

Furthermore, the Act allows for child marriages to be voidable at the option of the contracting parties, providing a legal pathway for those forced into such unions to seek annulment.

Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012, although not specifically aimed at child marriage, plays a significant role in protecting children within these marriages from sexual abuse.

It criminalises a wide array of sexual offences against children and provides stringent punishments for perpetrators, thereby extending protection to minors within marital settings as well.

Gaps in Legislation

One of the most significant legal gaps is the exemption of marital rape within certain age ranges in various jurisdictions.

This exemption often legitimizes sexual violence within marriage, leaving young brides particularly vulnerable.

The lack of legal protection against marital rape for married minors contradicts the efforts and aims of laws like PCMA and POCSO, allowing serious abuses to go unpunished under the guise of marital immunity.

Additionally, inconsistencies between different legal frameworks create a patchwork of protection that can fail to comprehensively safeguard child brides.

For example, while the PCMA sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for females and 21 for males, other laws may contradict or not fully support these stipulations, leading to enforcement challenges and confusion.

These inconsistencies extend to the implementation and enforcement levels, where local customs and traditions may still favor child marriage despite national laws against it.

Government and International Response

National Policies and Plans of Action

Governments around the world have recognized the need to address the issue of child marriage through comprehensive national policies and plans of action.

These policies typically aim to increase awareness, provide education, and improve the socioeconomic conditions that lead to child marriage.

For example, in India, the National Policy for Children 2013 emphasizes the rights of children to survival, growth, and education, underpinning legislative frameworks like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

Furthermore, strategic action plans are developed to target high-prevalence areas with specific interventions, such as increasing access to secondary education for girls, promoting gender equality, and enhancing child protection frameworks.

Many countries also include child marriage in their national health and social development agendas, recognizing its impact on wider health and socioeconomic factors.

These plans often involve multiple stakeholders, including governmental bodies, NGOs, and community leaders, to ensure a holistic approach to eradicating child marriage.

Global Obligations and Recommendations

On the international stage, child marriage is addressed under various global obligations and recommendations from bodies such as the United Nations.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which most countries have ratified, calls for the protection of children from early marriage.

Furthermore, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 5.3 specifically aims to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage by 2030.

International recommendations also emphasize the importance of transnational cooperation and support in ending child marriage.

Organizations like UNICEF and UN Women play crucial roles in both advocacy and the implementation of programs designed to reduce child marriage rates globally.

They provide technical support, funding, and research to help countries achieve their set goals.

Moreover, reviews and recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the Human Rights Council provide peer advice and accountability mechanisms to encourage countries to improve their human rights records, including efforts to combat child marriage.

The Way Forward

Recommendations for Strengthening Laws

To effectively combat child marriage, it is crucial to strengthen existing legal frameworks and ensure their stringent enforcement.

This includes closing legal loopholes that allow child marriage to persist, such as marital rape exemptions and inconsistencies in age limits across different laws.

Enhancing legislation involves setting clear and uniform age limits for marriage, enforcing strict penalties for violations, and integrating child marriage prohibitions across all relevant sectors including education, health, and justice.

Further, legal reforms should be accompanied by mechanisms for better protection and support for victims, including legal aid, counselling services, and safe shelters.

Governments should also consider creating special child protection units within law enforcement agencies to handle cases of child marriage sensitively and effectively.

Community Education and Awareness Programs

Education and awareness are key to changing societal norms that underpin child marriage. Community education programs can effectively increase awareness about the legal implications of child marriage and its detrimental effects on health and socio-economic status.

These programs should target not only potential victims but also parents, community leaders, and the general public.

Initiatives could include school-based education strategies that emphasise the importance of staying in school and the legal rights of children.

Additionally, engaging community influencers such as religious and traditional leaders in dialogue and training can leverage their authority to shift norms and behaviours within communities.

Media campaigns using television, radio, and social media can also play a pivotal role in changing attitudes and informing a broader audience about the negative consequences of child marriage and the benefits of ending such practices.

By combining strengthened laws with comprehensive community education and awareness efforts, societies can make significant strides towards eradicating child marriage. These efforts not only protect the rights of children but also promote gender equality and foster more inclusive and prosperous communities.


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