Child Marriage: Efforts necessary to empower girls

Cycling!’ Over 80% of the girls married off young that DH met miss this activity the most. “Whenever I see someone riding a bicycle, I get overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. Even after marriage, I used to cycle around the village every time I went to my mother’s place until I conceived,” Charita said endearingly. She has completed Class 10 and aspires to be a teacher. “I will have to wait for a few years until my child has grown up, but I am hopeful,” she says. In the meantime, she is undergoing skill training to channelise her time and abilities in the right manner. She is one of the 3,000 early married girls in the five districts of the state identified by Initiative for Married Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment (IMAGE).

The collaborative project is funded by Terre des Hommes, Netherlands and is being implemented in Bagalkot, Belagavi, Bidar, Chamarajanagara and Chikkaballapur districts. The project aims to empower these girls by addressing health and psycho-social issues, facilitating education and skill development, and educating about the legal provisions. While identifying these girls was easier than expected as the numbers were overwhelming, it took about a year for IMAGE to help them get a sense of self, open up about their problems, understand their strengths and start working towards self-reliance.

Several organisations have been engaged in the prevention of child marriages in the past few decades. Apart from stopping the marriages on the spot, they have also guided and motivated children to prevent child marriages by discussing the issue in the Child Rights Grama Sabhas and encouraging children to inform officials of such marriages. But child marriage prevention doesn’t seem to have yielded expected results.

Advocates of child rights

Comprehending the limitations of prevention efforts, IMAGE aims to empower married girls to stand up for themselves and to become advocates of child rights. “First and foremost, the government has to admit that child marriage is still prevalent in the state and plan programmes for the effective implementation of the Act. I can’t fathom why the government is under the impression that the practice has stopped. Priority should be to plan supportive programmes to follow the recommendation of the Justice Shivaraj V Patil Committee report based on which the Karnataka Amendment was made,” said Vasudeva Sharma. Justice Shivaraj V Patil Committee report delves deep into the problems of this practice and has made practical and futuristic suggestions, which with a proper action plan can go a long way in curbing the practice. Department of Women and Child Development sources said that “the rules are being framed and will be ready shortly.”

Interestingly, all early married girls know that it is illegal to be married before 18 years and maintain that their age is 18, 20 or 21 years. But they do not know why.

The young girls open up only after they are convinced that their age will not be revealed, that no harm will come their way, and the person visiting them is not from the government. This explains the state’s paradoxical sex ratio as recorded by Census of India 2011. The sex ratio drops after the age of 12 years — from 948 to 940 (12-15) and 904 (16-18), and sees a steep rise (960) in the age group of 19-22 years. 

Some children stop schooling after Class 7, whereas a majority drop out after Class 8. The need to walk a long distance to reach school exposes these kids to various problems. Once the parents get a feeling that their daughter’s safety is at risk, they don’t allow her to go to school. “Marriage remains the sole option for a dropout,” said a high school teacher. Though some of the girls continue schooling after marriage they conceive after a few months and are forced to discontinue.

Holistic approach

The Right to Education Act entitles a child to free and compulsory education from 6 to 14 years. And most of the children drop out soon after that. “Making education compulsory till PUC, and ensuring easy and safe access to schools are the most important steps in curbing child marriage,” believe the activists.

Various studies have shown that access to education and child marriage are inversely related. Investing in a child’s education might be an important step towards ending child marriage. In addition, experts believe that if adolescent girls and boys are empowered with information about the impacts of early marriage on their physical and mental well-being they will be able to influence their parents to make the right decision. “Higher primary school textbooks should have a chapter on this, along with the provisions of PCMA,” Susheela told DH. “The entire society has to be educated about this tangled web. It is linked to many other issues, mainly development and education. The problem can be solved only with a holistic approach and when all the stakeholders act conscientiously,” said Raghavendra Bhat of UNICEF branch in Koppal.

A less-studied aspect of child marriage is its impact on development outcomes and economic costs. Early marriage also decreases a woman’s productivity and limits the ability to reach her potential. A 2017 report by the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank estimates that the budget savings of India from ending early childbirths and child marriage that could be achieved in terms of the cost of reaching universal secondary education by that year will amount to nearly $10 billion in 2030.

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Child Marriage: Efforts necessary to empower girls

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