by Her Future Research Fellow Richa Gupta, Stanford University
According to Girls Not Brides, India has the highest number of child brides in the world. The legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men—so child marriage occurs when people below these ages get married, often due to cultural, economic, or religious pressures and expectations. Like all forms of human trafficking, child marriage is a grave violation of basic human rights, and often puts victims in positions of humiliation, degradation, and danger. Most victims of child marriage in India are underage women, who are married to much older men; many of these girls come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.
The causes of child marriage are widespread, and date back to the Dharmasutras (Sanskrit texts that refer to the treatises of Hinduism). These religious texts state that young girls ought to be married before they reach puberty, and that fathers who fail to do so have wronged their daughters. But coming to rationales used in more recent times: as mentioned previously, most girls who enter child marriages come from poor families—so some parents believe that marrying them to wealthier grooms will improve their economic status and opportunities for societal advancement. Some girls themselves may believe that escaping the poverty of their homes could lead to a better life with greater comforts—but often end up in situations even more dire than the ones they left.
However, girls in India are also commonly seen as ‘burdens’ to their families—hence the existence of wicked practices like female feticide (illegal abortion of the female fetus) and infanticide (the deliberate killing of female newborns). The widespread dowry system is a prime reason behind this negative perception of women. Dowry, which is a component of India’s inheritance laws, refers to the goods, cash, and property the bride’s family is required to give the bridegroom and his family, in exchange for the wedlock of their daughter. Dowry can take the form of large amounts of cash, jewelry, other precious metals, and land, and is often a huge issue and source of worry for the bride’s family. According to Global Citizen, younger girls typically have lower dowry prices—which subsequently becomes an incentive for families to marry off their girls as early as possible (in Indian society, older women are considered ‘less valuable’ and a greater onus on their parents). Despite the passing of the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961, this practice continues to take place in rural and less-developed regions in India.
Another financial motive behind child marriage is the fact that marrying a girl early leaves the family with one less person to feed, clothe, and educate (this motive stems from the acute poverty that affects large sections of the Indian population). Indeed, child marriage objectifies and commodifies young girls in myriad ways—especially when marrying a daughter is used to settle political disputes between families, repay debts, or establish social alliances. A young, innocent, and vulnerable girl is being sacrificed due to the inability of her family to resolve their own conflicts—and her life is then forever changed. Furthermore, in the words of a report published by the organization CARE, “the control of sex and sexuality are at the heart of marriage and thus early and child marriage”. When a young girl is married and starts living with her husband and in-laws, she loses much of her autonomy when it comes to sexual and reproductive decisions (for instance, whether she wants to have sex or use contraception). CARE’s report makes a critical observation: the desire of families to assert power and control over the sexuality of their young girls speaks to a much deeper problem in Indian society—the lower value attached to girls (as compared to their male counterparts), and the intrinsic patriarchal norms that reside in its underbelly.
Child marriage puts young girls at a disadvantage in a multitude of ways—it erases their bright and independent futures, robs them of their sexual and reproductive autonomy, and can put them at numerous safety and health risks. It is a particularly pernicious form of human trafficking, and must therefore be addressed as purposefully as possible. The passing of laws is certainly an effective approach—but another is targeting the social norms that let child marriage fester in society in the first place. The prevalence of child marriage in India is decreasing, certainly, but much more has to be done—which is what we at Her Future Coalition are working on passionately and tirelessly.