A new United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, “Reducing Child Marriage in India A model to scale up results” (download HERE), seeks to develop strategies to accelerate the decline of child marriage in India. Claiming to break new conceptual ground, it applies a broad social policy and governance framework to the reduction of child marriage. The report highlights the need for context-specific strategies that take into consideration the pattern and prevalence rate of child marriage in a given location, as well as the social, cultural, economic and political forces and dynamics that determine the age at which girls get married. Excerpts:
In some parts of India, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, child marriage is strongly associated with caste membership and, in some districts, child marriage rates are highest among richer, high caste girls.
A comparative analysis of data for districts in the high prevalence states of Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Telangana and Gujarat shows that the inverse relationship between wealth quintiles and high prevalence of child marriage does not always hold true. While the relationship holds for the high prevalence districts in Bihar and West Bengal, it is either the opposite (Gujarat) or more erratic in the rest (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana). Except in Bihar, child marriage prevalence is higher for the highest wealth quintiles compared with the lowest quintiles in the same low prevalence districts. This indicates that the richer groups in these districts hold on to the practice of child marriage much more in situations where it is no longer a widespread phenomenon.
The existing literature does not suggest any clear explanation for this variation, and for the fact that child marriage is not necessarily linked solely to poverty. One possible explanation lies in child marriage being strongly linked to social and community norms in these states. Specific ‘high caste’ and landed communities are known to practice the tradition of child marriage in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
This indicates the need for greater inquiry and disaggregated analysis, and also that solutions in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana must not be targeted at only the poorest groups but also at middle and high wealth groups.
In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it is necessary to explore the preconditions that perpetuate very high rates of child marriage in certain district clusters, whereas in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat there is a need to understand why child marriage remains high across the state.
A number of social customs that push younger girls into marriage (sibling marriage, saata, etc.) to save on wedding cost. Atta satta refers to the practice of one set of brother and sister being married to another set of brother and sister. Sibling marriage and a form of atta satta, known as saata, are also common in Gujarat. In the event of irreconcilable differences of one couple, the other couple has to perforce break their marriage as well. The declining sex ratio in the state, where child marriage is prevalent for both boys and girls, has forced communities to marry off their children as soon as they find a suitable alliance.
The recent Joint Review Mission for the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) in Gujarat identifies lower participation of girls at secondary stage as a major concern, linking it to the practice of child marriage: “For every 100 boys enrolled, only 69 girls are enrolled at secondary level in Gujarat. The gaps exist for all social groups but are higher for OBCs [Other Backward Classes] and Muslims; this is a cause of concern as OBCs form a substantial proportion of the state’s population. This ratio is much worse than the existing sex ratio of 918 in the total population in the state.
“The gap further widens if one takes the number of boys and girls appearing for the class 10 board examinations. Although the pass percentages are higher for girls than for boys, the number of girls taking the examination is lower for all social groups, the gap being the widest for OBCs. Several reasons were cited during our interactions: distance, lack of transport, parental lack of interest and child marriage being more important than others. The Monitoring institution report has also highlighted child marriage and lack of women teachers as reasons” (RMSA Joint Review Mission Report 2015).
It is likely that child marriage is both a cause and a consequence of the lack of adequate secondary schooling facilities within reasonable distance in Gujarat. There is very poor spread of government and aided secondary schools across the state; enrolment of girls is much lower than boys in Class 9 and 10.
Communities practicing child marriage are numerically strong and often well organized in the form of caste panchayats and other similar bodies. They form important voting blocks, which influence electoral politics and aim at sustaining the practice. This is especially relevant for states such as Gujarat and Rajasthan. These groups draw their strength from political connections and are often hostile towards officials and frontline functionaries trying to prevent child marriages.
What makes the implementation of the chosen strategies difficult are mass marriages organized by local leaders for popularity allow the practice to thrive. It also weakens the authority of local enforcement agencies.
A number of states support bicycle distribution schemes, known by different names in the various states. The Bihar scheme was applicable to all girls enrolling in Class 9, whereas the Gujarat scheme was limited to girls from below poverty line (BPL) households. In a social milieu where all girls face disadvantage, separating girls from BPL households may not be very wise. Making all girls living more than three kilometres away from a secondary school eligible would lead to a bigger collective of girls who could take the journey together, thereby impacting the cost as well as safety concerns. Bigger numbers of girls using bicycles create a critical mass and therefore could be more effective in changing norms. Also, social norms are almost universally formed by those who are more influential; it would be difficult for only girls from BPL families to use bicycles if girls from other families are not using them.
Also important to note is that bicycling is not viewed as a safe option if schools are located very far from the residence. This could be the case in Gujarat where the spread of government schools is very poor in rural areas. Unlike some other countries in the region, no state in India has experimented with providing bus services to girls and women teachers, and therefore no conclusive comment can be made. In a successful experiment from Baluchistan in Pakistan, buses were used to bring in female teachers to remote rural areas to facilitate girls’ participation, pointing again to both safety and transport cost issues.
- Increasing the number of government secondary schools for both girls and boys in rural areas; increasing free and appropriate transport facilities to enable girls to attend secondary schools located at long distances; general incentives such as cash or bicycles for all girls to attend schools and not to communities so that schooling becomes a social norm.
- Laws against policy makers including politicians and officials either supporting or seen as endorsing child marriage in any form; clear instructions against any kind of political patronage by political parties; media and public campaign against leaders who are seen as endorsing the practice.
- Campaigns for low-cost weddings and against customs such as sibling marriages; incentivizing low-cost/simple and adult weddings through appropriate transfer schemes, e.g., interest-free loan to the couple for self-employment/entrepreneurship.
- Stricter vigil on mass marriages on auspicious days, with emphasis on celebrating and public recognition of any community initiative as incentives to prevent these events.
- Both school and community-based interventions with a focus on gender awareness and empowerment involving girls/ women and boys/men (single and mixed sex activities).