The common causes that UK charities are campaigning about are the devastating effects of child hunger as well as child cruelty. But there has been an additional campaign development; the rise in awareness of forced underage marriages. Since the BBC’s broadcasting of “The Truth about Child Brides,” there has been an influx in the movement with humanitarian charities such as Plan UK, campaigning to end this widespread issue, affecting almost 10 million girls worldwide under the age of 18. And even in economically advancing India. Despite four women seated at the head of Indian politics, traditional patriarchy still dictates policies affecting women, with 47% of the underage marriages taking place in the country.

From the peripheral, the Indian government has been taking steps towards eliminating gender disparity, with the national capital of Delhi preparing to issue a mandatory marriage registration bill. However, efforts to ensure a democratic nation is continually undermined by India’s traditional structure; making implementation virtually impossible and women-based policy disappear into rhetoric.

The mandatory marriage registration bill is exemplary of the social obstacles that have hindered many of the marriage laws being put into practice over the years. It was initially put forward to the Supreme Court in 2006, which found that many women were abandoned without protection by their husbands. And as the bill has already spent five years irresolutely mulling in the background, the move towards adequate marriage legislation in the capital district does not necessarily indicate immediate change.

In actuality, elements of the proposed law were taken from the Marriage Bill in 1994, which intended for the “compulsory registration of marriages [aiming] to prevent child marriages and polygamy in society.” Yet, regardless of uniform laws prohibiting such customs, a recent survey by the Population Reference Bureau, has contradicted that the rate of child marriage in India is greater than Pakistan’s and Afghanistan. So how can implementation ever be successful with no legislation being followed through?

Along with UNICEF in 2007, the Population Council identified child marriage as nuptials that take place before “exact age 18.” However, this definition conflicts with India’s own Prevention of Child Marriage Bill in 2004, which states that a “child’ [is] a person who, if a male, has not completed twenty-one years of age, and if a female, has not complete eighteen years of age.” Consequently, the ambiguities between Indian and international legislation would render it difficult to identify and tackle concerns in the same manner.

As a result, although the subject of child marriage has not been ignored by Indian or international human rights efforts and policymakers, the eradication of the tradition is greatly hindered by the intertwined social issues that are often reinforced by the practice. By marrying girls’ young and enhancing the disparity between her and her husband’s age, the male-based hierarchy is best preserved. The 47% rate of child marriage in India has perpetuated the low-status of women as it tends to afford them few opportunities to attain higher levels of education and the higher-paying, higher-status jobs that come along with it.

Whilst women are slowly rising to political power in compliance with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the central motive seems to be to boost quotas and other special measures. Top-level jobs still go to men — to an overwhelming degree. Hence, gender equality barely exists within the party ranks either, making it near unattainable for the government to enforce laws that prohibit child marriage.

There seems to be a universal uncomfortable response when dealing with personal laws within distinct communities that have not derived from grassroots movements, particularly for party leaders such as Sonia Gandhi attempting to run a male-driven organisation. Though the statistics are litigious, according to the Forum on Child Marriage in Developing Countries, an estimated 80% of the marriages are among girls under the age of 15, annually participating in “Akha Teej.” The custom consists of giving away children as young as two years-old in mass marriage ceremonies in regions of northern Indian.

The correlation between child marriage and the traditional role of women in Indian society elucidates the problems with implementation and why covert child marriage has not yet been abolished. Even now, women are still viewed as second class citizens, India being confirmed this year as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

For families in poverty, marrying a daughter early can mean lower dowry payments and one less mouth to feed. Additionally, child marriage is greatly informed by ideals of virginity—a cultural notion that has huge influence on the intersections between HIV/AIDS and child marriage. So unless women are perceived to be more than mere tools in an exchange system, it seems unlikely that any policies put forward will have any impact.

Beyond the human rights abuses, the devastation that child marriage creates has impinged on both individuals and communities and the way in which the practice reinforces itself. As reported by the United Nations Population Fund, “Impoverished parents often believe that child marriage will protect their daughters. In fact, however, it results in lost development opportunities, limited life options, and poor health.” The traditional image of Indian women is one of the main factors that need to be altered in order for the undue subordination of women to cease.

To facilitate women’s policies to become part of national agenda, women will need to be seen as making an integral contribution to society. By giving basic rights to education, employing women into adequate jobs and higher positions; grassroots movements have been initiating empowering projects so as to tackle attitudes against women.

From projects such as the ‘Women Aloud Video blogging for Empowerment’ (WAVE) project, inspiring and educating women to challenge women’s portrayal in the Indian media, to direct action demonstrated by Delhi’s first SlutWalk this year, the gender-debate in India is wide open and ready for some much-needed change.

Read about the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 (‘FMA’)


About suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

3 responses »

  1. Purple Ink says:

    Great article, and some interesting facts! I think that the society needs to start viewing the women as assets rather than burden. There is no scope for change until girls are given equal opportunities. India is an extremely hierarchal society, and if the patriarchal hierarchy continues to ignore women, their conditions will only deteriorate. A friend recently pointed out about sensitising the men in India, it’s not just about educating the women, but primarily the men to break through their deep rooted prejudices against women.

    • suswatibasu says:

      Absolutely, education is essential in breaking the chain. However, in order to educate men, there needs to be a shift in attitude towards women. It’s one of those vicious cycles, that one needs to start before the other. Otherwise, when going into educate men and women, there may be a chance that they will refuse to acknowledge that women are valuable (not as an object) in society.

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