In this photograph taken in August 2015, 20-year-old Indian student Santa Devi Meghwal, a victim of child marriage, poses with a photograph of the ceremony. Meghwal was only 11 months old when her elders married her to a 9-year-old boy in the desert state of Rajasthan, where rates of child marriage have long been high. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
All of 12 years old, a child with a cherubic face holding a balloon is the mother of a four-month-old baby girl. Both seem to consider the balloon to be a fun toy to play with.
Each year at least 1.2 million children are married in India in violation of a law that sets a minimum marriage age of 18 for females and 21 for males.
In 10 years from 2001, some 5.16 million girls and 6.95 million boys married before reaching the legal marriage age, according to census results.
However, India has recorded a decline in child marriages since then, the United Nations children's agency UNICEF stated in March.
Some 47 percent of all females married were girls below 18 years a decade ago, but that has come down to 27 percent.
"We need to eradicate child marriage at the earliest as it curtails the child's right to protection, participation, education and development," says Stuti Kacker, chairwoman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
She says children are less able to advocate for themselves, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Pregnancies and underage marriages are causes of children dropping out of school, Kacker says.
Renu Singh, from a group called Young Lives India, says childhood marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional impacts on both girls and boys. It results in the denial of childhood and educational opportunities, she says.
Singh notes that some Indian cultures support child marriage as they consider girls to be paraya dhan or somebody else's property.
Marrying young girls is also seen as a way of protecting them from premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage and the need to maintain family honor, Singh says.
Most child marriages happen in 70 districts of 13 Indian states: Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The highest number of child marriages takes place in Rajasthan.
Poverty is the main cause followed by gender inequality and insecurity as well as customs and traditions, Singh says.
According to one study, child marriages in the Hindu community had taken root since the seventh century under the influence of religious texts, making them hard to eradicate.
The problem does not exist among Catholics, according to Sister Talisha Nadukudiyil, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Commission of India Office for Women. "A Catholic marriage is always officiated by a priest who will strictly follow the laws of the land," she says.
The government is seeking to eradicate the practice by 2030, according to the Women and Children Development Ministry.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act needs to be amended as it now only provides for underage marriages to be declared null and void if the child bride takes court action within two years of attaining maturity or the age of 20.
It is not easy for a child bride to approach the courts if there is parental opposition.
The ministry proposes to have a provision for child marriages to be declared invalid from the outset, according to a ministry official who asked for anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media.
Sister Nadukudiyil says education of girls and empowering them to be ambitious are critical to ending child marriage.
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