India witnessed a sharp 20 percent drop in child marriages over the past decade [Prakash Hatvalne/AP]
At least 12 million girls are married during childhood, under the age of 18, annually, according to new data from the UN.
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A report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) released on Tuesday revealed that while there is a decrease in the global percentage of child marriages, more than 150 million additional girls will be married before their 18th birthday by 2030.
Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s principal gender adviser, said although “any reduction is welcome news … we’ve got a long way to go.”
“We’re going to have to collectively redouble efforts to prevent millions of girls from having their childhoods stolen through this devastating practice,” she said.
“When a girl is forced to marry as a child, she faces immediate and lifelong consequences. Her odds of finishing school decrease, while her odds of being abused by her husband and suffering complications during pregnancy increase. There are also huge societal consequences, and higher risk of intergenerational cycles of poverty.”
South Asia has witnessed the largest drop in child marriage over the past decade, with the risk declining from nearly 50 percent to 30 percent, according to the report.
‘Girls not valued as highly as boys’
In India, the decline in child marriages is the result of better education for girls and more efficient campaigning of the practice’s negative effects, UNICEF said.
Current trends show that 27 percent of Indian girls get married before they turn 18, down from 47 percent a decade ago.
“The decline shows that it is indeed possible to end child marriage – this is not an intractable problem. Laws are only one part of the answer. Girls need also to be empowered, families and communities need to be mobilised to create a change at a local level. Child marriage persists because girls are not valued as highly as boys,” Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director at Girls Not Brides, an umbrella body of civil society outfits fighting to end the practice, told Al Jazeera.
Child marriage, although a punishable offence, remains widespread in some parts of the country.
It is extremely rare for minor girls to file cases to get their marriages annulled especially if by then they are already pregnant
Jayna Kothari, executive director at the Centre for Law & Policy Research
Data from the 2011 national census shows more than five million Indian girls were married before the legal age of 18, showcasing the limited success of tough penalties against the crime.
“I was married when I was 14. I was the oldest of five siblings, three of them girls. My parents were keen to marry us off as early as possible. I was excited to dress up as a bride, but I do not remember much else from the day. Later, my husband used to beat me up and my mother-in-law was cruel to me. They sent me back home to my parents saying I was not ‘obedient’,” Rinki, 22, who lives in Hisar in the northern Indian state of Haryana, told Al Jazeera.
The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men.
India remains a deeply patriarchal society. Women and men are still murdered across villages of northern India for daring to marry outside their caste.
Cases of illegal abortions of female foetuses and immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands are also rampant.
According to Girls Not Brides, the rate of child marriage varies between states and are as high as 69 and 65 percent in the northern Indian states of Bihar and Rajasthan, respectively.
Child marriage still valid
The impunity stems from the fact that “the law only prohibits child marriages but does not make them illegal”, says Jayna Kothari, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Law & Policy Research, who has petitioned the government to declare child marriages invalid, told Al Jazeera.
“Though under the law, the age of marriage for girls is 18 and for boys, it is 21, marriages of minors are still valid marriages. The law only provides for punishment of those who conduct the marriage. This is the big loophole – child marriages are not invalid yet,” she said, explaining that most minor girls are reluctant to file criminal complaints against their parents.
“It is extremely rare for minor girls to file cases to get their marriages annulled, especially if, by then, they are already pregnant.”
The Indian government is now reportedly considering amending the existing law to declare all child marriages invalid.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 326 incidents of child marriage were reported in India in 2016, although activists say the figure is much higher.
Experts say the consequences of child marriage on the sexual and reproductive health of girls and young women are “devastating”.
“Child brides are generally forced into sexual activity when their bodies are still developing, and most lack the knowledge, confidence, and power to negotiate safe sex. They are vulnerable to the complications of early pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, fistulas and death in childbirth,” Sundaram of Girls Not Brides told Al Jazeera.
Earlier last year, India’s top court struck down a contentious clause in rape laws permitting a man to have sex with his wife if she is aged between 15 to 18 – ruling that it effectively amounted to rape, and is, therefore, a criminal offence.
“If a man has sexual intercourse with a wife who is below 18 years, it is an offence … Exception in rape law is discriminatory, capricious and arbitrary. It violates bodily integrity of the girl child,” the ruling said.
The Indian government had argued in court last year that criminalising sex with an under-age wife “would destroy the marital life of a girl who got married under 18 years of age” and “that there are 23 million child brides in the country and criminalising the consummation of a child-marriage marriage would not be appropriate and practical”.