Not so long ago, a child protection officer with the government of Haryana was out in an area near Rohtak, trying to reason with a group of people about why child marriage was a harmful practice. What they had to say to her has stayed with her and me to this day: “If a daughter has a chance to get married and settle down in life, let her do so. Why do you want to uproot it?

This line conveys the complexity surrounding the scourge of child marriage in India and why communities see it as a solution . Our challenge? To nudge them to understand that this was actually the problem to begin with.

In a timely and welcome attempt to improve the lives and broader health outcomes for women and girls, the Central Government has set up a task force “to examine matters pertaining to the age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering maternal mortality rate, improvement of nutritional levels and other related matters”.

Expected to submit its report in a few weeks, the task force will suggest measures for promoting higher education among women and suitable legislative instruments and, if necessary, amendments in existing laws to support the recommendations. An implicit suggestion is for the task force to examine raising the age at marriage for women from 18 to 21 years – what it is for men today.

Added urgency

The need to end underage marriages assumes greater significance in the immediate context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The possibilities of early and forced marriages have gone up alarmingly. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that young girls have been forced to drop out of school, help their mothers with domestic chores, and in many cases, forced to shun any plans to pursue higher education and employment opportunities.

The formation of the task force is in line with the statement made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during the Budget Speech in February, where she recalled that women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 to 18 years in 1978 by amending the Sharda Act of 1929. Clearly, the motivation then, as we know, was to end child marriages. Now, it is to end forced and early marriages so that girls have the freedom to pursue higher education, have careers, meet their aspirations, and fulfil their dreams.

Solutions to ending early and forced marriages have to do with ending anti-female biases and discrimination against girls and women, which is also the theme of the United Nations Population Fund’s State of World Population Report 2020, released on June 30. It is startling, but two countries – China (50%) and India (40%) – together account for about 90% of the estimated 1.2 million missing female births annually worldwide due to gender-biased (prenatal) sex selection. Out of the 142 million women missing globally, 46 million are missing in India.

A 16-year-old boy waits to be married to a much younger girl during a mass child marriage ceremony in Indore in 2002. Credit: AFP

The report reiterates that child marriage happens because girls are usually less valued than boys, and because poverty, insecurity and limited access to quality education and work opportunities mean that child marriage is often seen as the best option for girls or as a way for parents to mitigate the household’s difficult economic circumstances. Within India, child marriage is closely tied to low levels of income and education, poverty and rural residence. This is why southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have lower proportion of early marriages as compared to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Ending child marriage

Early marriage, early pregnancies, and early motherhood have a direct bearing on maternal and infant health. Adolescent mothers who remain undernourished grow up to be undernourished women, who in turn give birth to undernourished children. As per the fourth National Family Health Survey (2015-’16), more than half the women aged 15-49 were found to be anaemic and 35% children under the age of five were found to be stunted. “Anaemia was a bigger challenge though we often speak of non-communicable diseases which need to be dealt with urgency,” noted NITI Aagyog member Dr Vinod Paul.

There has been good news too, over the past 15 years, when India has begun to see the positive results of its efforts to end child marriages. According to the National Family Health Surveys, the prevalence of child marriage in India fell sharply from 47% in 2005-’06 to 27% in 2015-’16.

Since 1978, the legal age for marriage in India has been 18 years for women and 21 years for men. The Indian Penal Code has set the age of consent at 18 years and puts in the Exception 2 Section 375 by which the husband of a married girl child between 15 and 18 years of age can have non-consensual sexual intercourse with her without being penalised under the Indian Penal Code. However, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, all other sexual activity below the age of 18 stands criminalised.

While legal enactment is a necessary condition, it has proven far from sufficient to decrease the number of child marriages. Unfortunately, in the past, the law has often been used to prevent young people from exercising choice and criminalising them, particularly by disapproving parents. Despite the consent of the girl, the male partner of her choice is punished as a criminal and the girl locked up or forcibly married to someone.

Ending forced marriages

The constitution of the task force is an opportunity to define measures that will end early and forced marriages that severely hamper the health and well-being of girls and women. Evidence suggests that allowing girls to complete their education delays marriage and provides them with the opportunity of being financially independent. Education enables them to fulfil their aspirations and live a life of dignity as well as the agency to uphold their sexual and reproductive rights in their choice to plan, number and space the births of their children.

Boys and girls from the Saraniya community wearing garlands pose for pictures after their engagement ceremony at Vadia village in Gujarat in 2012. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

It would be very encouraging if the recommendations of the task force look beyond just the age of marriage and focus on durable change, not by legislation alone, by bringing in attitudinal changes to end the practice of early marriage. It could deliberate upon the difference between consent and consensual sexual behaviour.

At a minimum, the recommendations should suggest measures to end discriminatory gender roles and negative social norms that deny young girls their freedoms. Investments in behavioural social change communication should be stepped up manifold to change marriage norms that exclude girls and boys from marriage-related decision-making. Equally important would be to improve the quality and enhance access to family planning services.

Looking for durable answers

Finally, should the task force look at providing small loans and incentives like bicycles, laptops or access to technical skills for young women to promote secondary education and skill development, it would unleash a virtuous cycle that would go a long way in rapidly shifting attitudes. Much greater attention should be paid to creating opportunities for paid work among women and girls; work that ensures safety while commuting, as well at the place of work.

Setting a goal of ending early and forced marriages by 2030 will yield enormous health and nutritional benefits, enhance household security, and transform Indian society for the better. If the world needs to change for the better, India must lead from the front, and push for equity, safety and respect for women, their work, choices and bodies.

All else – including an end to child marriage –will follow.

Poonam Muttreja is the executive director of the Population Foundation of India. She has over 35 years of experience in promoting women’s rights, rural livelihoods, public advocacy, communications and behaviour change.