That a large number of urban areas feature in the list of districts with the highest incidence of child marriages in India may seem counter-intuitive but that is what an analysis of Census data shows. New pockets of child marriage have emerged and these are in cities.

Young Lives India, the India chapter of an international research project studying childhood poverty, and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the country’s apex child rights body, used data from Census 2011 to draw up a list of 70 districts, spread across 13 states, that have the highest incidence of child marriage in India. On the list are the urban areas of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad and Rangareddy in undivided Andhra Pradesh, and Davangere in Karnataka.

The 70 districts are home to 14% of the country’s population but account for 21% of the child marriages.

The state with most districts on the list is Maharashtra with 16. These include Mumbai, Mumbai Suburban, Thane and Pune. In all, the number of child marriages in the state has gone up over the decade since Census 2001. In Bhandara, for instance, the number of girls married before they turned 18 rose fivefold. The number of boys married before turning 21 grew 20 times.

In India, marriage of girls under 18 and boys under 21 is considered child marriage and is outlawed. But, as the Supreme Court judge AK Sikri explained, conflicts between the law banning it and other laws governing various aspects of life – marriage, guardianship, the penal code itself – have made the ban, first imposed in 1929, difficult to enforce.

Small gains

The picture is not all gloomy, though. The state with the second highest number of districts on the list is Rajasthan with 13. However, in all but one district – Banswara, and that too for girls only – the number of cases decreased over the decade between the two censuses.

In fact, over these 10 years, there was a decline nationally in the incidence of both girls and boys getting married before attaining the legal age. For girls, it dropped marginally from 2.5% of the population in 2001 to 2.4% in 2011. But the drop was courtesy rural areas. In urban areas, the figure unexpectedly rose, from 1.78% in 2001 to 2.45% in 2011. In absolute numbers, that is 5.1 million girls married below the legal age.

For boys, the drop in incidence was sharper, from 9.6% in 2001 to 2.5% a decade later. In this case, the drop was in both rural and urban areas.

Besides, as Renu Singh, country director of Young Lives, said, there was no case of children under 10 being married in 2011, unlike in 2001. So, the researchers looked at two age bands – 10-14 years and 15 to under 18 years for girls; 10-14 years and 15 to under 21 years for boys. They found 2.2% children in the 10-14 age group were married – 2.9% girls and 1.6% boys.

The other states with districts on the list are Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Karnataka with two each; Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal with three; Uttar Pradesh with four; Gujarat and Bihar, six; Madhya Pradesh, nine. Haryana had just one.

In Gujarat’s Anand district, Karnataka’s Davangere and Bengal’s Dakshin Dinajpur, the incidence of child marriage has increased despite a drop in population.

Worrying trend

The decline in numbers, however small, is encouraging. But it is worrying, as Singh said, that “new pockets in urban districts are emerging with high incidences”.

Although reluctant to hazard a guess, Singh suspected migration had a role to play in this. “It could be one reason for the increase in urban areas, especially those around metropolitan cities,” she said. “The other reason could be concerns about the safety of children. Parents living in slums worry about their daughters’ safety.”

Shantha Sinha, former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, agreed. She said a 2016 study on the lives of girls aged 15 to 19 in Telangana by the MV Foundation found that “the mobility of girls is highly restricted in urban areas” and the pretext of safety is frequently used to impose control. “The neighbourhood is still very strange to a family that has just migrated from the village,” she said. “The sense of community is missing. Families feel insecure and end up exercising even greater control over girls.”

In the urban setting, concerns families carry over from the village are magnified and marriage is often seen as a solution. “They constantly fear their children will elope,” said Sinha. Parents in both rural and urban areas also fear their children will choose partners from other castes. “Then, adults and children are unable to handle adolescence, frequently mistaking natural attraction for a serious relationship and dealing with it harshly,” Sinha added.

This being the situation, rights groups and the government now have to fight child marriage in these new settings, said Rakesh Srivastava, secretary, ministry of women and child development. “If we cannot control this, the gains that we have made will be lost,” he added.