ucanews.com reporter, DelhiUpdated: July 21, 2014 11:43 PM GMT
India is home to one third of the world’s child brides while South Asia as a whole accounts for 42 percent of the child marriage cases worldwide, according to a new UNICEF report released Tuesday.
Some 700 million girls across the globe have been married off before reaching age 18 and more than one third were wed before the age of 15, according to the report, titled Ending Child Marriage: Progress And Prospects.
Traditionally more underage girls are married off than boys and the practice is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage involving girls under age 15, according to the report.
The report also shows that girls from impoverished families and rural areas are 2.5 times more likely to marry in childhood than those living in the wealthiest sector.
"Child marriage should be seen as a social evil embedded in some cultures, and coupled with a lack of education and social approval, it becomes very hard to fight it in the villages of India," says Johny Mathew, a member of the Juvenile Justice Board of India’s Karnataka state.
Child marriage is a manifestation of gender inequality and reflects social norms that perpetuate discrimination against girls, according to Dora Giusti, a UNICEF official researching child marriage in India.
The issue has "a lot do with understanding of culture, gender roles and education," Giusti told ucanews.com, adding that in traditional Indian society girls are seen only as future mothers and wives.
In rural villages, there are viable concerns about the safety of girls. But if a girl is married off early, the logic is that her husband can protect her. This also blocks the possibility of a girl bringing dishonor to her family by selecting her own undesirable partner, she explained.
India passed a law in 2006 banning child marriages but "implementation of it is too weak" because of social pressure, said Giusti. Child marriages are rarely reported to local authorities because of society’s acceptance of the practice and because few people see it as breaking of a law, she added.
However the government says it has taken significant steps to end child marriage.
"One of the notable initiatives taken by India towards protection of children including the girl child has been the establishment of a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2007 for proper enforcement of children’s rights," said a Ministry of Women and Child Development official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition, a national strategy on child marriage prevention focusing on law enforcement, access to quality education and other opportunities for empowerment of adolescents was established in 2012, he added.
Yet other politicians agree that laws and policies alone are not enough.
"The problem is related to poverty," said Samajwadi Party parliamentarian, Dharmendra Yadav.
Poverty leads to a lack of education, and poor uneducated families simply want to avoid huge dowries by giving away their daughters in marriage at an early age, he said.
Assam BJP leader Ranjit Das said the government and social organizations should actively work to discourage the practice by "raising awareness on the adverse consequences of early marriage for girls”.
He suggested that it would also be beneficial to establish "economic activities for girls so that they can stay away from early marriage”.