by Adv. Anushree Bernard, ADF India Allied Lawyer
Nisha (name changed), a domestic help working in various homes in an affluent South Delhi locality works from 7 AM till 5 in the evening. At the end of a long and physically demanding workday, she returns to caring for her two daughters and an ailing husband. This was not the life Nisha had dreamt of while growing up in a small village in Bihar. She wanted to be a teacher. Much to her dismay, not only were her studies discontinued, but she was also married off at the young age of 12 to a much older man. Soon after marriage, while she was herself only a child, she became a mother.
Sadly, Nisha's story is not unique. Census 2011 data reports that 30% of the women in India were married before the age of 18. Today, there are more than 17 million married children and adolescents in India, of which 75% are girls.
A study by CRY1 stated that Child Marriage has been prevalent at different points in almost all societies around the globe. It is estimated that 5% of all girls in the world are married by the time they are 15 and one in every five girls in the world is married at 18 or younger. Almost 29% of the girls in South Asia aged 20-24 reported marrying before the age of 18, while 8% were married before the age of 15. The highest prevalence rate of Child Marriage reported by 20 to 24-year-olds among SAARC countries was in Bangladesh, followed by Nepal, Afghanistan and India2
Despite such stringent legislative measures, the country has witnessed a sharp rise in the cases of Child Marriage, approximately 50%, in 2020 over the previous year3. During the Pandemic, India reported an all-time increase in the number of child marriages displaying the negative outlook towards girls across the country as a total of 785 cases were registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act4. The number of cases registered were the highest in Karnataka at 184, followed by Assam at 138, West Bengal at 98, Tamil Nadu at 77 and Telangana at 62. In 2019, 523 cases were registered under the Act, while in 2018, 501 cases were lodged5 6.
Child marriage is also closely linked to gender discrimination that girls often experience in India right from conception. It is both a cause and outcome of the societal structure that is primarily based on son-preference.
In India, sex-selective abortion is an established phenomenon that cuts across rural/urban, educational and socio-economic status divides. Due to the rising sex selective abortion cases across the country (that began in the 1970s with the introduction of ultrasound technology), the National Child Sex Ratio stands at 918 girls for every 1000 boys. Since 1990, approximately 15.8 million girls in India have been lost to sex-selective abortion and other forms of prenatal sex selection7.
Recent studies have suggested that, if sex-selective abortions persist, an estimated 6.8 million fewer female births will be recorded across India by 20308. Academics from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia projected the sex ratio at birth in 29 Indian states and union territories, covering almost the entire population, taking into account each state’s desired sex ratio at birth and the population’s fertility rates. The cultural preference for a son was found to be highest in 17 states in the north of the country (including Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state) showing the highest deficit in female births. Researchers predict that the cumulative number of missing girl children in the state would be 2 million between 2017 and 2030.
To counter this gender discrimination, the recent introduction of The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in the Lok Sabha to amend the law and raise the minimum age of marriage of women from 18 to 21 years is welcome.
Child Marriage has serious consequences on the social and economic development of the country, especially educational and vocational opportunities for young girls, apart from raising serious health concerns.
The practice essentially denies girls and female adolescents educational opportunities, separates them from family and friends, compromises their ability to seek health promotion practices and timely care, and enhances their vulnerability to considerable social evils (such as rape, assault, early pregnancy, etc.) Child Marriage significantly compromises young women’s decision-making ability and empowerment. When girls are married early, their educational trajectory is hampered. Consequently, low levels of education lead to limited employment avenues for women.
However, mere amendment to the law will not solve the problem and must be followed with stringent implementation and awareness measures so that girls like Nisha stand a fighting chance to succeed in life.
The first, and the strongest line of defence to curbing the issue of sex-selective abortion is the education and self-reliance of the mother. It is a LIFE-saver! A UNESCO study9 discovered that women with higher levels of education, besides avoiding serious health risks such as maternal death due to early pregnancy, are more likely to delay and space out pregnancies, and to seek health care and support. While pursuing education, they can, in all probability, delay not just getting married, but seek the self-dependence and fortitude to prevent becoming victims to sex-selective abortion, especially due to familial pressure. Educated mothers would have a deeper understanding of the long-term ramifications of sex-selective abortion on the country’s sex ratio and its harmful impact on the socio-economic condition of the country. Also, with higher levels of education, they would be aware that allowing sex-selective abortion (whether with her own pregnancy or with that of someone around her) would be a heinous crime against her own gender, and the laws (like the PCPNDT Act) that have been strictly enacted by the government against the evil.
 Unicef Global Databases, 2020
 Ibid  Ibid
 Probabilistic projection of the sex ratio at birth and missing female births by State and Union Territory in India : https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0236673