The latest Census report on the decadal headcount in 2011 reveals that child marriage is rampant, with almost one in every three married woman having been wed while she was still under the age of 18 years.
What is worse is a whopping 78.5 lakh girls (2.3% of all women or girls who were ever married or were married in 2011) were married while they were not yet 10 years of age. The Census data also show that 91% of all married women were married by the age of 25 years.
The legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. But an alarming 30.2% of all married women, or 10.3 crore girls, were married before they had turned 18, as per Census 2011 data released on Friday. In a silver lining of sorts, however, the trend seems to be on the decline. As per Census 2001 data, 43.5% of all married women had been married while they were under the age of 18 years.
The trend of underage marriages is prevalent among all religious communities, the Census data show. The data show that the percentage of girls who were married below the age of 18 was roughly the same among both Hindus and Muslims.
As many as 8.6 crore, or 31.3%, of Hindu married women were married before the age of 18 years — down from the 45.1% recorded by Census 2001. The figure for Muslim women married before the legal age stood at 1.3 crore, or 30.6% of married women in the community — down from 43.1% in 2001.
Among Christian married women, 12%, or 9.5 lakh girls were married below the age of 18 (down from 16.4% in 2001), while 6.6 lakh Sikh women, or 10.9% of married Sikh women, were married under the age of 18 years (down from 17% in 2001).
Among Buddhists, the corresponding figures were 6.8 lakh girls at 27.8%, and for Jains, they stood at 2.3 lakh girls, accounting for 16.2% of all married women in the community.
The data also indicate that the higher the level of education among married women, the later she gets married. While 38.1% of illiterate married women were married below the age of 18, 23.3% of literate married women got married below the legal age.
Among literate married women, the percentage of those who married below the legal age comes down with every level of education attained.
Among those who were literate but below the primary education stage, the percentage of underage marriages stood at 34.9%. This dropped to 30.9% among those who had primary education, but were below the middle school stage, and dropped even further to 25.4% among those who had attained middle school education but were below the matriculation or secondary education stage.
Among those who had attained matriculation or secondary level education but were not graduates, the figure fell to 15.3%. Among married women who had completed their graduation or above, 5.2% married before they were 18 years of age.
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s National Strategy Document on Prevention of Child Marriage, “The practice of child marriage is an obstacle to nearly every developmental goal: eradicating poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; protecting children’s lives; and improving women’s health.
“Child Marriage denies a child the basic right to good health, nutrition and education. Evidence shows that early marriage makes girls more vulnerable violence, abuse and exploitation. For both girls and boys, marriage has a strong physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional impact, cutting off educational opportunities and chances of personal growth,” the document says.