By: Rati Bishnoi, Women Deliver
Despite being outlawed for more than 100 years, nearly one-half (43 percent) of girls in India are married before the minimum legal marriage age of 18 years.
This is changing. But at a pace that’s too slow.
Child marriage is a gross violation of the rights of girls and boys. It denies the basic rights to health; nutrition; education; a life free of violence, abuse, and exploitation; and deprives children of their childhood. While child marriage affects boys as well, it impacts a greater proportion of girls and does so more severely.
Early marriage usually means that a girl is compelled into childbearing before her body is physically ready. Girls are also at higher risk of domestic abuse, economic dependence, and a lower status in the home and in community. Marrying too young is one of the greatest ways of trapping girls, their families, their communities, and their children into a vicious cycle of gender inequality and discrimination.
Recognizing that child marriage in India is unacceptably high and pervades every cross-section of society, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and UNICEF, funded by the European Commission, launched a study to better understand the social norms that act as barriers to progress against child marriage.
For the study, titled “Delaying Marriage for Girls in India: A Formative Research to Design Interventions for Changing Norms,” ICRW focused on social norms in Bihar and Rajasthan, two states with the highest child marriage and poverty rates in the country. Almost 69 percent of girls in Bihar and 65.2 percent of girls in Rajasthan are married before the age of 18. For the study, researchers conducted 170 interviews, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews to explore perspectives and identify specific barriers, and potentially solutions, to changing the systems that promote child marriage and rob girls and boys of their full potential.
In both states, community members often did not envision girls doing different activities than helping with domestic chores, undertaking household responsibilities, and preparing for marriage. Moreover, once a girl reached puberty, concern over her safety and chastity often outweighed the risk of letting girls travel distances to go to school. In some instances, the cost of marriage itself helped fuel child marriage. Specifically, many families chose to marry their daughters in collective ceremonies rather than marrying daughters one at a time.
Even when parents were willing to accept the economic and safety concerns of sending their daughters to school, a poor public education system posed a significant barrier to accessing a quality education. Often times inadequate facilities and unmotivated, indifferent, or absent teachers diminished trust in the value of education and the government’s efforts to help girls learn. In addition, researchers found that the government often does not promote or enforce the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006.
Despite these challenges, researchers did find that “role model” parents were choosing to deviate from customary child marriage practices and many community based organizations were providing services to support them. Even though these parents often were stigmatized and excluded in their community for their choice, interviews showed that they were often not dissuaded from educating their daughters and helping them pursue their full potential.
Scrutinizing these obstacles to progress in Rajasthan and Bihar helped researchers identify several critical recommendations that can pursue to help parents and communities make decisions that promote education. These include:
- Improving access to high-quality education, which means improving facilities, placing them closer to families, and addressing the factors causing absent or indifferent teachers
- Increasing awareness and enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006
- Working with NGOs and community organizations to identify successful practices and support efforts to scale them up
- Showcasing positive role models, offering opportunities for girls to learn practices for protecting themselves and building self-confidence, and educating men and boys about the risks associated with child marriage.
Flickr photograph via Michael Foley Photography