This Mothers Day mothers all over the world will get gifts from their sons and daughters. But what about those who didn’t want to become mothers in the first place? Do we care about the many young girls who are into motherhood out of force, coercion, trafficking and economic and social deprivation?
India today has the highest rate of child marriage with globally the highest number of child brides. Over 50 per cent of them are prevalent in the states of Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
The National Strategy Document on Prevention of Child Marriage by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (2013) states that over the last fifteen years, the incidence of child marriage in India has declined just by 11 per cent which means slower than 1 per cent every year.
In Maharashtra too, the figures for underage mothers are quite alarming. The Census report (2011) mentions 21, 2993 girls under 15 years of age who are married, out of which 21 per cent (more than 1 in 5) have begun child bearing. 15 per cent of these children have two children while 6 per cent have one child. In Mumbai too city too 20,988 girls were married before 15 years of age, of which 5035 (24 per cent) have begun child bearing. Again 15 per cent have two children while 9 per cent have one child.
The irony in both the cases is that girls having two children are significantly more prevalent than girls having one child. The most disturbing is also the realization that a total of 77,067 children are in fact born to girls under this age category.
Commonly known as ‘Bal Vivaha’ the terrible practice is believed to have begun during the medieval ages and ironically by the above statistics appears to be well ‘alive and kicking.’ Child marriage gives rise to anemic and weak and underaged mothers who eventually end up giving birth to children who are malnourished and with a high potentially risk of mortality. And the cycle of deprevation then continues because these children of underage mothers have a poor start to life and are unable to reach their potential.
Such marriages happen in the midst of a complex social arrangement involving multiple stakeholders. It takes place in the background of various age-old socio-cultural, religious practices and beliefs. In the name of ‘societal pressure’ we are today sacrificing millions of girl children into a state where they can no longer enjoy their rights as children. In this ‘socially acceptable’ arrangement, children, especially young girls are loaded with responsibilities of an adult, a role they are ill equipped to play mentally, physically and emotionally.
The following diagram further explains the cause of the complex issue of child marriage which interestingly also is indirectly promoted and operated by particular religious, ethnic and cultural norms.
Grappling dilemmas and contradictory laws
India like the United Nations too defines child marriage, as ‘a forced marriage before 18 years of age.’ Our very own Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act 2012 (POSCO) too does not recognize sexual autonomy in children in any form below 18 years of age, which is considered the official legal age for matrimony.
In fact, children can also be held liable for committing sexual offences under the Act. As a result, sexual interactions or intimacies among or with children below the age of 18 years constitute to be an offence.
Interestingly the Indian Penal Code (IPC) contradicts the above Act especially where marital rape is considered. The IPC states that “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” Which leaves one wondering—how serious are our laws?
At an implementation level, under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006 State Governments and Union Territories are required to appoint Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (CMPOs) to frame rules. Although many states have appointed CMPOs and declared their state rules, there are many CMPOs who are still not aware of their duties and responsibilities in preventing child marriages. In closed and rural areas for instance, communities still fear reporting child marriage and the resulting social ostracization that follows. Furthermore issues like dubious birth certificates, non-registration of marriage, absence of marriage certificate, mass marriages and delay in issuing an injunction order by magistrates creates difficulty in terming the child marriage contract void.
We need build a greater awareness on the issue of underage mothers along with a concrete redressal mechanism at the implementation level. The entire patriarchal mindset around girls and women needs to change. Which is why investment in girls’ education and programs on adolescent health and life skill development are the best bet and should be prioritized by one and all—the government, policy makers and the society at large.
CRY release on the eve of Mother’s Day today.
CRY – Child Rights and You (formerly known as Child Relief and You) is an Indian NGO that believes in every child’s right to a childhood – to live, to learn, grow and play. For over 30 years, CRY and its partners have worked with parents and communities to ensure Lasting Change in the lives of more than 20 Lakh underprivileged children.