For the last few centuries, an immoral practice has plagued South Asia. As women’s rights advance, the practice of child marriages remains commonplace in the subcontinent. According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006), in India, child marriage refers to the union between a female under the age of 18 and a male under the age of 21. The practice of child marriages in South Asia is largely due to the Islamic conquests of the subcontinent, which introduced practices – directly and indirectly – lowering the status of women. Girls, who should have the right to pursue their education, careers and enjoy their childhood, are denied their freedoms because of this practice. They cannot complete their education nor build their careers. They are subjected to physical and emotional trauma and develop health issues due to early childbirth. Boys are unnecessarily faced with the prospect of an early fatherhood, a lack of education and career opportunities, and the burden to provide for their families. Both, boys and girls, in the marriage lack the physical and emotional maturity for a relationship. In the horrifying cases of a girl being wedded to an older man, the consequences are extremely detrimental as well.
According to the latest UNICEF data, the probability of a girl marrying in childhood, in South Asia, has declined by more than 33%, compared to nearly 50% a decade ago, due to the social activism in India. Despite this general decline, South Asia has the largest number of child brides in the world (44% – 285 million). This is due to South Asia’s large population and the commonality of child marriages in the older generations.
Legislation on Child Marriages
In India, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) was introduced to firmly enforce the prohibition on child marriage by tightening the laws from the previous ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act’ (1929). For individuals forced into child marriages, they were given the option to void the marriage for two years post-adulthood to completely nullify the marriage. Upon nullification, the gifts and wealth exchanged by either party must be returned, and a residence for the girl, separate from the groom’s house, must be provided until the girl reaches adulthood. A fine or two years of imprisonment were imposed on any male above the age of 18 who enters into a marriage with an underaged girl. This also extends to those who force or conduct these marriages. Despite these strict laws, child marriages continue.
Some conservative Indian Muslim organisations, such as the Indian Muslim League and the Indian Union Muslim League, have challenged the crackdown on child marriages since the 1929 law because as per Islamic jurisdictions, age is irrelevant in marriage. Hence, the ban on child marriages directly opposes their right to religious freedom. However, the high courts of India have overruled these arguments and have imposed anti-child marriage laws to all Indian citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Despite this, some conservative Muslim communities continue to conduct child marriages against the law. In 2012, Islamic child marriages accounted for 82% of all child marriages in Kerala.
Effects Of Child Marriage
- Violence – Sexual abuse and domestic violence in the form of beatings and verbal abuse by the husband and the family can result in physical and mental health issues on the girl.
- Childbirth Complications – A girl’s body is not capable for childbirth at an early age; this results in serious reproductive issues with a large probability of death occurring from childbirth. According to UNICEF, girls between the ages of 15-19 are twice as likely to die from childbirth than those above the age of 20. This worrisome figure is five times higher for girls under the age of 15. Children born to underage girls have a 60% increased likelihood of mortality. If they survive, the likelihood of suffering from impaired physical and mental development is high. Repetitive childbirth, unwanted pregnancies, stillbirths, miscarriages, and abortions are problems which young girls should not have to deal with.
What Are The Current Socio-Economic Factors For Child-Marriages?
The remnants that started as ‘protection’ from religious persecution have continued in a new form with regards to the practice of child marriage. In recent times, the threats of sexually transmitted diseases, rape and sexual abuse from any male petrify the minds of parents in rural, underdeveloped villages. Upon reaching puberty, suitors for girls are sought to prevent her ‘defilement’. This ‘self-righteous’ deed reflects the sheer patriarchy of South Asia. Despite the concerns of the parents for their girls being victimized by men, the education to control their desires should be imparted on the men – – not women.
There is also a class divide element in child marriages. This class divide displays that lower class households are more likely to engage in child marriages while families in the middle-upper classes prioritize female education. Unfortunately, South Asia’s patrilocal structure implies a sexist notion that the female child is a ‘burden’ for lower-class families. It’s traditionally believed that male children are likely to remain in the household and financially contribute to the family. Hence, impoverished families prefer girls to be married off at a younger age for the economic stability of the household. If the groom is of a middle-upper class family, the girl’s parents anticipate her being exposed to better economic opportunities in terms of a potential education and a better quality of life. However, this is not always the case. The child-bride is often subjected to abuse, discrimination and denied her freedom of expression. The ‘escape from poverty’ argument can never justify this injustice.
Dowry can also be a factor in child-marriages. There seems to be a positive correlation between the age of the girl and the amount of dowry demanded by the groom’s family. Out of the fear of a higher dowry, many lower-middle class families marry off their daughters early.
The Origins Of Child Marriage In South Asia
According to sociologists, child marriages within many communities of South Asia originate from the constant onslaught of Islamic invasions, such as the Ghaznavids and the Turkic-Mongols (Mughals) over a period of 1,000 years. There are accounts of invaders raping unmarried Hindu girls, who had not yet attained puberty, or capturing girls as sex-slaves for their gratification. Among the Rajput royals, to protect their dignity, married women committed ‘jauhar‘ or ‘self-immolation’ when faced with the horrors of these barbaric invaders, such as the tale of Queen Padmini of Chittor when faced with the iconoclast Alauddin Khalji. However, the issue remained with young Hindu girls. Anticipating terror in young girls and a decline in the Hindu population and culture, Hindu communities of the past were compelled to marry their daughters, sometimes at birth, to protect their lives.
During the rule of the Delhi Sultanate, the myriad of dynasties that occupied its throne in an ‘absolute monarchy’ influenced South Asia with their ideologies and methods of religious persecution. The rulers introduced practices, such as child-marriage, influenced by their pre-existing cultural and religious beliefs. This severely degraded the status of women in South Asia. Muslims also married off their children at a very young age. This is largely because in Islamic law, marriageable age is not stated. This influenced the adoption and proliferation of the practice of child-marriages in South Asia.
In the Mahabharata, the marital and sexual freedom of women is discussed. The concept of ‘Gandharva Weddings‘ (marriage based on mutual consent of two individuals) is stated as the best form of marriage between the Kshatriyas (warrior class). It also states that in the Vedic Hindu period, young women and men chose partners freely without the consent of their parents. With the emergence of political systems and classes based on social stratification, the notion of liberty began to be restricted. Different forms of marriages emerged and to prevent women falling prey to ‘irresponsible men’, they were married off at the end of puberty. This is further elaborated in the Dharmashastras (codes of law). The Manusmriti states that parents are immoral to marry their daughters before their marriageable age (kāmamāmaraṇāt tiṣṭhed gṛhe kanyārtumatyapi (9.89)), and:
trīṇi varṣāṇyudīkṣeta kumāryartumatī satī |ūrdhvaṃ tu kālādetasmād vindeta sadṛśaṃ patim
Having reached the end of puberty, the maiden should wait for three years, after which she is free to obtain a husband of her choice-(9.90)
According to the Manusmriti, if one assumes the end of puberty at the age of 16, the marriage of a girl that should occur by self-choice would be when she is at least 19. By this age, women generally completed their education. Men would complete their education by the age of 25, and thus the marriage would be between two adults who had surpassed puberty and entered adulthood. Hence, the Hindu Dharmashastras do not support the concept of child marriage by ancient nor modern standards.
Regarding modern times, many child marriage prevention incentives exist in India, which has led to the decline of child marriages across the region over the past decade. In 1994, Haryana introduced the ‘Apni Beti Apna Dhan’ (‘my daughter, my wealth’) programme. This aimed to reduce child marriages through a process where a government-paid bond in the name of the daughter would be provided to her parents if the daughter was not married by her 18th birthday. The recent campaign of 2015, launched by the Government of India, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao‘ (‘save the daughter, educate the daughter’) aims to generate awareness and improve the welfare services intended for girls in India. The goal of this campaign is to save young girls from the immoral practices of female infanticide, dowry, child marriages, abuse, and to promote the right to education and career opportunities.
- The practice of ‘child marriages’ in South Asia significantly impacts the freedoms and quality of life for young girls. Despite the decline over 15% across the decade, child marriages still occur.
- The history of child marriages is deeply rooted in the foreign invasions of South Asia. They were adopted as both a reaction to barbarism and the influence of misogynistic practices from a culture alien to South Asia
- The indigenous traditions of South Asia do not approve of child marriages. There is no mention of their existence prior to foreign invasions, and they are condemned in the Hindu Dharmashastras.