The Kerala vital statistics report has found that 22,552 mothers below the age of 19 gave birth in 2017, indicating the prevalence of child marriage in one of the most literate states in the country.
The vital statistics report is brought out by the state economic and statistics department, which records important events and data, including births. The latest vital statistics report based on 2017 data was released last month.
According to the report, mothers within the age group of 15 to 19 accounted for 4.48 per cent of live births in Kerala in 2017. In urban areas, the number of live births by mothers in this age bracket was 16,639, while in rural areas it was 5,913.
An analysis of the statistics of birth order showed that in 2017, 137 mothers in rural areas had their second baby before the age of 19. Besides, 48 mothers and 37 mothers had their third and fourth babies, respectively, before they attained the age of 19.
In urban areas, 298 teenagers below 19 had their second delivery, and 21 had their third child by the time they reached the threshold of twenties. Although delivery of minor girls below the age of 15 go unreported in most cases, the vital statistics report found 11 mothers below the age of 15.
A religion-wise analysis of the mothers within the age group of 15 to 19 showed that of 22,552 live births of teenage mothers, 17,082 belonged to the Muslim community, 4,734 to Hindus and 702 to Christians. A small proportion did not mention their religion.
Girls married off before 18, education takes backseat
Child marriage is prevalent in Kerala. It is social pressure that often forces parents to marry off their daughters before they attain the age of 18. Such marriages often come at the cost of education, as only some of the girls return to college or academic institutions. The practice is particularly prevalent in Malappuram district, where Muslims account for 70 per cent of the population. In 2017, 181 cases of child marriage were reported in the district, against the figure of 125 for 2016.
An analysis of the educational qualifications showed 17,202 were either matriculate or below graduate level. Another 3,420 did not mention their education, while 86 were illiterate and 91 with below primary level education.
Government sources said child marriage still prevails in Kerala, particularly in Malappuram district. “In the reported cases, we prevent the marriage of minors based on tip-offs from grassroot workers of the social welfare department. The actual number of child marriages in the district would be much higher,” said Child Protection Officer (Malappuram) Fazal Pullath.
The cases are mostly under-reported, he said. “If someone alerts us about a child marriage, it is not because they want to protect the interests of the girl. The tip-offs often happen out of local rivalry. Most people do not want to disclose child marriage.”
Anwar Karakkadan, district coordinator of Childline, an outreach service for children in distress, said some cases could stem from love affairs in which the parents rush through the marriage. “As the system has become alert, there is a heightened tendency to cover up child marriage,” he said.
He said that in most Muslim marriages, nikah (Muslim marriage contract) takes place before the bride turns 18. Once the nikah is over, a bride and bridegroom can live together. To bypass the law, the marriage registration and ceremony is held only after the bride turns 18.
Anwar said the problem could be solved to some extent by enlightening youths. “The demand is for girls below the age of 18. Many parents think their daughters will not get a groom is they are 18 or 20 years old. If youths are ready to change their attitude, the issue can be addressed,” he said.