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Child marriage and the cycle of poverty

| DR RENU SINGH
Published : May 24, 2016, 2:45 am IST
Updated : May 24, 2016, 2:45 am IST

Despite efforts to curb child marriage across nation states, it persists in low- and middle-income countries, including in South Asia, where close to half (46%) of girls and women report getting marri

Despite efforts to curb child marriage across nation states, it persists in low- and middle-income countries, including in South Asia, where close to half (46%) of girls and women report getting married before the age of 18 years. The last four decades however, have seen a slow decline, with the incidences of child marriage decreasing from 41.2% to 32.7% globally. India has seen a decline in child marriages below the age of 14 years in the last two decades.

However, despite the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (defined as the marriage of males below the age of 21 years, and females below 18 years), the Census 2011 reported that nearly 17 million children and young people between the ages of 10 and 19 — 6% of the age group — were married, with girls constituting the majority (76%). This is an increase of 0.9 million from the 2001 Census figure and masks even higher rates in some parts of the country: huge disparities exist in the prevalence of child marriage between urban and rural India across states. Given that child marriage is illegal, these numbers may well be an underestimate.

Young Lives, a longitudinal study following 3,000 children since 2002, is in a unique position to capture authentic data related to child marriage and teenage pregnancy, since it is the only cohort study in India which follows a life-course approach.

In 2013-14, Young Lives found the persistence of early marriage in our sample of Older Cohort children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, with 37 per cent of the girls married (including those widowed and divorced) by age of 19 years and 28 per cent married before 18 years. In contrast, less than one per cent of the boys were married before 18 years. Almost 60 per cent of the married girls had one or more children by the age of 19, highlighting that early pregnancy is a corollary of early marriage.

A recent paper by the author entitled Factors Shaping Trajectories to Child and Early Marriage: Evidence from Young Lives in India highlighted that enrolment at age 15, not engaging in paid work at the age of 12, high academic aspirations of mothers and daughters beyond secondary education, and parental education are all associated with delaying marriage. On the other hand poverty, lower caste and rural location emerge as drivers of teen marriages. Patriarchy also remains one of the drivers of child and early marriage. In our sample, dowry was paid by all the families of the married girls, with 40 per cent paying more than `100,000, leaving them burdened by debt.

Instead of puberty marking the beginning of a gradual transition to a healthy and productive adulthood, for many girls, puberty marks accelerating progress towards inequality and into the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

It is important to recognise adolescence as a stage when key investments and effective support systems can set girls on a path towards empowerment. Preventive steps could be:

Addressing persisting gender discrimination

Secondary schooling

Building a campaign against the practice of dowry

Engaging communities and young men and boys

Enforcing existing laws within an enabling environment

As we move towards launching the post-2015 sustainable development goals, it is critical that stakeholders such as the ministry of women and child development, the ministry of health and family welfare, as well as the ministry of human resource development and local and legal institutions such as panchayati raj institutions and child protection committees, work with communities and young adolescents to prevent child marriages, which stifle and end childhood. Only then will India be able to interrupt and end the intergenerational transmission of poverty as explained by one of the married girls.

The author is country director, Young Lives India