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Child marriages continue in 21st-century India

Rajasthan has been in the news recently and for all the wrong reasons. First it was tigers disappearing, then it was a guidebook that referred to sati sites as tourist destinations, and then it was child marriages.

The legal age for marriage in India is 18 years for women and 21 for men. Any marriage of a person younger than this is banned in India under the Child Marriage Prevention Act of 1929.

But child marriages still take place in India , particularly around the Hindu holy day of Akshya Tritiya. Normally Hindus decide the date for marriages based on horoscopes interpreted by pundits. Some dates however are considered so auspicious that no pundit needs to be consulted. One such day is Akshya Tritiya (also knows as Akha Teej), the third day of Baishakh, the month of the Hindu calendar generally falling in May. During this time lots of marriages take place. Unfortunately, many of them are child marriages.

Usually we consider marriage as a very serious decision to be taken by people who are ready to spend the rest of their lives with someone of their choosing. Children are not ready to take such decisions, and it can be assumed that when child marriages take place the children who are getting married do not have a choice in the matter and are being forced, or are too young to understand what marriage means.

Yet it is a religious tradition in many places in India and therefore difficult to change. People feel that traditions are valuable and should not be changed, especially religious traditions, since changing these would amount to asking people not to practise their religion, a fundamental principle of democracy.

Probably the main reason such child marriages were first started and then kept going was because in feudal times they served to strengthen family alliances for business or military purposes. It was like a business deal for two rich or powerful families to marry their children so they would have to work together or defend each other; betrayal would mean their own children got hurt. Such matrimonial alliances worked only if the bride and groom were not too fussy about who they were going to marry. This fussiness could be reduced by making sure they were too young to even understand choice or what was happening to them. By the time they reached an age where they might object or decide to find their own marriage partners, it was already too late.

The benefit of child marriages to poorer people is that child marriages are cheaper than adult marriages, since a child marriage need not be as prestigious as an adult marriage. If siblings of different ages can be married off at the same time, it further reduced expenses. So this was often done: two or three sisters married in a single wedding ceremony.

Another reason often given is that child marriages protect the girl from other men who, once she is married, may see her as being unavailable and belonging to someone else.

And that is really the crux of the problem -- child marriages are a reflection that, like sati, women and girls are seen as property that 'belongs' to someone: her family, her husband, her in-laws. A woman/girl is either a burden or can be 'traded' and used in any way the others see fit. If her marriage is left too late, it may mean that no one wants her and then she will be seen as being not valuable and no one will want to marry her. She is a burden to her own family because she is an extra mouth to feed and they have to find money to spend on her dowry. Her only role in life is to do housework and to bear children. In some communities where child marriage takes place, instead of dowry there is a system of 'bride price' where, when the girl gets married, the husband's family has to pay a sum of money in exchange for the bride. Instead of making things better, this system also means that families are eager to get their daughters married off so they can bring in money.

In any case, child marriages are worse for girls than for boys, since the girls are usually younger than the boys. Marriage also puts an end to any education girls may have been receiving. And if they get pregnant while still young, their health gets much worse since their bodies are often not ready to bear children. According to the United Nations, maternal mortality i(which indicates the number of women dying in childbirth or from pregnanct-related causes) is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15-19-year-olds.

Interestingly enough, around the same time as Akshya Tritiya this year, the United Nations had just concluded a special session on children where they adopted 21 child welfare goals for the next decade. One of these was to end "harmful traditional or customary practices such as early and forced marriage".

To stop such child marriages, governments and civil society organisations are trying to get laws against child marriage made stronger, since it does not seem to be working in its present state. Right now the police cannot make arrests without applying for a magistrate's order, which may take days. The punishment, a maximum of three months in prison, and a fine is not enough to stop people. Proposed changes include more punishment, a compulsory registration of all marriages rather than just religious rites, the appointment of anti-child marriage officers in every state, and making it a law that anyone who attends a child marriage has to report it.

 
 
   
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