Despite law, child marriages still prevalent in India

Close to a half of the girls in the country marry before the age of 18
Despite law, child marriages still prevalent in India

A file photo of the girls from the Musahar community at a Caritas India event in New Delhi early this year. (ucanews.com photo by Ritu Sharma)

Kavita Rani was just 14-years-old when she was married off by her parents. By the time she completed her teens, she was already a mother of two.

"There was nothing I could do. My parents found a suitable boy for me and the next thing I knew I was a wife and daughter-in-law with loads of responsibility on my head," Rani said.

Rani, who comes from Allahabadpur village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, told ucanews.com that her two others sisters were also married at a very early age.

"That is the belief. Boys are considered to be the bread winners while girls are better for household chores and marriage," said Rani, who now works as a domestic maid in New Delhi.

Now in her mid-twenties and illiterate, Rani said that early marriage brought a lot of psychological and physical changes that she was not ready for.

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"Two early pregnancies took a toll and my body and I could not develop like normal adolescent girls," she said. "Also, I started getting irritated very easily as things were changing so fast and I was not able to understand what was happening."

Rani's case is not an isolated one.

There are thousands of young girls in India who are forced into marriage. According to the latest study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a third of the world's child marriages happen in India. An estimated 47 percent of girls in India marry before the age of 18. Furthermore, 27 percent of women aged between 20-49 claim to have tied the knot before turning 15, according to the report.

In India, child marriage is most prevalent in states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

"Child marriage reinforces a cycle of poverty and perpetuates gender discrimination, illiteracy and malnutrition as well as high infant and maternal mortality rates," reads the report.

The government brought into force The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2007 to replace the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. The new act prohibits child marriage and has provisions to protect and provide relief to victims.

Despite the law, child marriage is rampant. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 17 million children aged 10-19 are married. Out of these children, 76 per cent are girls.

"Child marriage is the worst thing that can happen to a girl," said Sister Lucy Kurien, who is spreading awareness against child marriage through her NGO, Maher (mother's home).

"Abject poverty, patriarchal society, illiteracy and the fear among parents that the girl might get sexually exploited when they are out for work leads to early marriage, especially in rural areas," she said.

At the nun's Maher homes in Jharkhand, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, they counsel people, especially those from rural areas, not to marry off their children at a very young age. Most of Maher's children and women are Hindus but they also include Christians and Muslims. 

"We spread awareness through street plays and self-help groups, encourage girls to go for higher education, provide training and enroll them in programs like hotel management and nursing so that they can know their worth," she said.

Sister Kurien, who belongs to the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod congregation, said that they also give awards to mothers for not giving their daughters away in marriage.

Caritas India, the Catholic Church's social service wing, is working in 40 villages and with the traditionally considered low-caste Musahar community in Bihar to educate people about the harmful effects of child marriage.

The Musahars are the most marginalized community in the state and were formerly known as rat catchers. Community members have long abandoned this activity and are now daily workers. Nonetheless, they are still relegated to the very bottom of the Hindu caste system.

"We have been working among the community for the last three years," said Leeza Joseph, a anti-human trafficking and child rights officer in Caritas. "Our main focus is to promote education for women so that they themselves can become aware about child marriage."

She said that after regular counseling, girls have shown an interest in studying and have started to discourage the practice in their communities.

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