By sheer numbers, child marriage in India dwarfs the rest of the world; India has the highest number of child brides of any country. Although the rate of child marriage is decreasing for children under the age of 15, the rate of marriage for girls aged 15-18 has increased from 26.7% in 1998-99 to 29.2% in 2005-06. Child marriage is clearly not ending despite laws in place, and is perpetuated in India due to a range of factors, most prominently dowry, poverty and lack of educational opportunity for girls, concerns about the safety and honor of girls, and prevalent gender and social norms.
Child marriage violates international human rights laws and standards, including Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which requires the “free and full consent” of spouses to marriage. It also violates Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires women and girls to have the “right freely to choose a spouse” and to “enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.” CEDAW also states that the “betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect.” India is also signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and child marriage violates a range of CRC provisions, including the right of children not to be separated from their parents against their will and the right of children to freely express their views on matters that affect them. Further, under the CRC, the state is obligated to take measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, including marriage.
The social forces at play perpetuating child marriage are difficult to combat, deep-seated and intertwined as they are. But perhaps what is lesser known is that laws in India prohibiting child marriage are flawed, contributing to the problem.
First, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 repealed the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 and attempted to address the previous Act’s shortcomings. This Act defined child marriage as the marriage of boys under age 21 and girls under 18. The Act also made positive changes, including extending the maximum length of punishment to two years of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to one lakh rupees. If the marriage is nullified, the Act requires the return of money, valuables, gifts, and ornaments given by each party to the other, and also allows an order of maintenance for the former wife. The Act also provides for government-appointed Child Marriage Prohibition Officers to work to prevent child marriages; while good in theory, it is unclear whether they are actually in operation and to what extent.