Editorial: Lost childhood

Published in The Hindu on October 22, 2012

The alarmingly high prevalence of child marriages in India became known globally when International Day of the Girl Child was celebrated for the first time on October 11. According to UNICEF, girl child marriages in India stood at 43 per cent in 2007-2008; it was 54 per cent in 1992-1993. A recent report of the United National Population Fund (UNPFA) also underlines the magnitude of the problem. Forty-seven per cent of women between the ages 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18 during the period 2000-2011, it stated. In 2006 alone, 11 States had 40 to 61 per cent of women in the 20-24 age group who were married by age 18. No wonder that India accounts for over 40 per cent of the world’s child marriages. Three consecutive household surveys (1992-1993, 1999 and 2005-2006) show the rate of child marriage among girls below 15 years had fallen from 26 per cent in 1992-1993 to 18 per cent in 2005-2006, an overall drop of 30 per cent. The corresponding rate of reduction during the same time period in girls below 18 years was only 12.5 per cent. While this drop, for girls below 15 years, provides some reason to cheer, it is “still not sufficient to guarantee children their full rights,” UNFPA notes.

The slow pace of decline is frustrating as the spectre of child marriage manifests itself in multiple ways — the abrupt termination of education and life-threatening health problems. A body of evidence indicates that teenage girls are less aware of contraceptives, very often do not have access to them and lack the bargaining power to use them. Thus they end up with unwanted pregnancies at a very early stage. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the prime cause of death in teenage mothers and their babies in low- and middle-income countries. Lack of education, rural settings and poor economic status are some of the key determinants of teenage wedlock. The UNFPA report indicates that girls from rural areas in India were twice more likely to be married than urban girls. Those with nil education were thrice more likely to become victims compared to those with secondary or higher education. While minor girls from the poorest families had a 75 per cent possibility of being married, 16 per cent from the richest households ended up the same way. Aside from poverty and lack of education, social norms and perceptions are important factors too. Hence the approach to deal with the two strata should have many commonalities and yet be different. Providing education, creating awareness and offering incentives linked to delayed marriages are more important for the lower strata. Changing social perceptions should be the priority in the case of rich parents.