Child Brides Abound

Despite laws prohibiting child marriage, India has the highest rate of child marriages in the world. According to UNICEF’s 2009 State of the World’s Children Report, 40 percent of all child marriages globally occur in India. This alarming statistic is troubling—especially when taking into consideration the lack of enforcement of child marriage laws.

Child marriage is a long-standing and persistent practice in India. The most common form is where a young girl is married to an older man. Similarly, families arrange marriages between a boy and girl long before they reach maturity.

Child marriage was originally outlawed in India by the British Indian Government under the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929. This law made it illegal for girls to be married before reaching age 15 and boys before age 18. In 1978 the law was amended to raise the minimum age to 18 and 21 respectively. However, child marriages continued. In response, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) was passed in 2006 in an effort to truly strike down the practice.

The 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act creates greater consequences for child marriage. The law applies to all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion. Building upon previous laws, it renders the solemnization of child marriage a “cognizable and non-bailable offence.” Under the provision child marriages will be made null and void. Guardians who commit children under their custody to marriage are to be prosecuted.

Two critical components of the Act should be pointed out. First, section 11 of the Act compels all citizens by law who are aware of a child marriage to report it. Persons not doing so are liable under the law and the Indian Penal Code. PCMA thus holds all possible parties—teachers, priests, neighbors, family members, police officers---who might know about a child’s involvement in a marriage responsible for it.

Second, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act deputes one full time Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (PCMO) to every state to prevent and police child marriage. These individuals play the central role in enforcing this law; they are tasked with serving as advocates and protectors of children. They have the power to intervene when a child marriage is taking place, document violations of the law, and remove a child from a dangerous situation in order to deliver them to local child protection authorities.

Despite the revised law and these two critical components—creating a network of citizen informants and deputating a full-time child marriage protection officer—child marriage remains a common practice in India. The rates of child marriage are particularly high in rural areas. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have the highest rates of child marriage in the country.

A significant gap remains between what exists on paper and what is happening in reality. Yet change is occurring. Many victims of child marriages are determined to allow the next generation to finish school before marriage. In some cases today, children are legally married but allowed to remain with their families until they reach age eighteen. A rising middle class, invested in educating their children, are helping turn the trend away from this tradition. While the rate of change is far from ideal—this does signify a shift.

In this video, Sunita Kasera reports on child marriages from Rajasthan.

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