Every sixth woman in India is pushed into child marriage, show data from the latest Census released last month. Laws intended to curb weddings of girls under the age of 18 and boys under 21 have failed, and underage unions are most prevalent, for both girls and boys, in Rajasthan. Many more girls are married young than boys, data show.
Some 102.61 million women, roughly a sixth of India’s female population of 587.58 million, were married before they had turned 18, according to the Census data.
Yet, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2001-11, the span of the decennial survey, only 948 cases were registered countrywide against those promoting or performing child marriages. Only 157 individuals were convicted.
The introduction of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which increased the punishment from the earlier three months or fine to up to two years in jail and up to Rs 2 lakh fine, does not seem to have helped.
According to the Census, 37.62 million women stated that they were married for fewer than four years when they were interviewed. These numbers represent ‘recent marriages’ — 6.5 million of them, or 17.23 per cent, said they were under 18 at the time of their wedding.
As per the Census, among women married for four years or fewer, the highest concentration of underage unions was in Rajasthan (31.38 per cent), followed by West Bengal (29.23 per cent), Jharkhand (27.90 per cent), Bihar (22.99 per cent) and Madhya Pradesh (22.49 per cent).
The total 102.61 million women counted were among the 339.6 million who were ever married. When surveyed, they had been married for between a day and over 40 years.
“A girl has always been perceived as a burden to the family, and her fate has always just been about doing the household chores and getting married and leaving the family home to live with her in-laws, so it is generally not thought worth spending money on her education.
Or, in cases of large families, she just can become an extra mouth to feed,” said Govind Singh Rathore, founder of Sambhali Trust, which works to empower women in Rajasthan.
“Implementation of the law to prevent child marriages seems to be weak,” Dora Giusti at UNICEF India’s New Delhi office said. “Almost everyone knows there is a law against child marriage. However, it still takes place as societal norms and pressure push people into breaking the law.”