Child marriages a social malaise than a religious one

Long-term, deep-rooted solutions needed to tackle child marriages

Published : 13 Feb 2023 08:58 PM

Over the last few days, the north eastern state of Assam in India is seeing an unprecedented crackdown against child marriages.

At the time of writing this piece, more than 2500 people had been apprehended and many more were expected to follow as Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared that the crackdown on child marriages will continue and if needed, will go on till 2026. Temporary jails are being set up to accommodate those detained.

The crackdown started in early February soon after the Chief Minister cited the “alarming” results of the union health ministry’s National Family Health Survey of 2019-20, which shows that Assam has an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7 % — much higher than the national average of 6.8%.

The data shows that West Bengal, Bihar and Tripura top the list of child marriages with more than 40 per cent of women between the ages of 20-24 years married off before they turned 18. Assam, along with four other states, showed more than 30 per cent child marriages in the same period.

Under two laws. Those who have married girls below the age of 14 would be charged under the tough ‘Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act’, or POCSO, and those who have married girls aged between 14-18 under the ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.’ Apart from husbands and fathers, priests are also being arrested for conducting the marriages.

The current crackdown in Assam has resulted in a wave of fear. What makes the crackdown somewhat absurd is that the arrests are taking place retrospectively. Sole breadwinners of families are being thrown in jail, years after they got married.

Realities far more complex

No one disputes that child marriage is abhorrent and must end. But the realities are far more complex and the current crackdown has more to do with politics than with any lofty social aim.

The news portal ‘Scroll’ has analysed police data and found that most arrests have taken place from districts with a high minority population. Many of those being targeted are those often dubbed illegal migrants. But the crackdown has not been confined to Muslim villages alone.

Other communities too are facing the brunt of police action. Because child marriages in India have less to do with religion and more to do with socio economic reasons.

As many activists have pointed out, punitive

 action is not the answer to dealing with the child 

marriages. For one, people have to understand 

why these marriages happen in the first place.

 Poverty, lack of educational 

opportunities for girls, and patriarchy are the primary causes

The 2011 census shows that more than 80 per cent of 12 million children who were married below the age of 10 were Hindus and largely from rural areas.

As many activists have pointed out, punitive action is not the answer to dealing with the child marriages. For one, people have to understand why these marriages happen in the first place. Poverty, lack of educational opportunities for girls, and patriarchy are the primary causes.

Empowering women through better education, better health care and nutrition are the fundamental ways that early marriages can be tackled.

Long term solutions

Instead of arrests, Assam government should focus on long term solutions at empowering women in the state. Official data shows that when it comes to women’s empowerment, Assam is doing very poorly. Nearly a fifth of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have never been to school.

Less than 30 per cent of women in this same age group have completed 10 years of education — the national figure is 41 per cent.

Women in the workforce in Assam are therefore very low in numbers too. Nearly 80 per cent of women were not employed in the last year before the National Family Health Survey.

Experts say instead of focusing on better schooling for girls, last September the Assam government announced it would be shutting down over 1700 government elementary schools and merging them with neighbouring schools instead. This has further hit the education of girls as families are scared to send them to schools that are far away.

Long term, deep rooted solutions are needed to tackle child marriages. Education is at the heart of this. People in Assam today are being punished for the state’s failure to empower its women.

Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning Indian journalist. She has extensively reported on politics 

and diplomacy. 

Source: Gulf News