Child marriage violates children’s rights and places them at high risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Child marriage affects both girls and boys, but it affects girls disproportionately.
It is defined as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married.
Child marriage ends childhood. It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and community.
A girl who is married as a child is more likely to be out of school and not earn money and contribute to the community. She is more likely to experience domestic violence and become infected with HIV/AIDS. She is more likely to have children when she is still a child. There are more chances of her dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world - accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 per cent adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.
While the prevalence of girls getting married before age 18 has declined from 47 per cent to 27 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 it is still too high.
The significant progress in the reduction of child marriages in India has contributed to a large extent to the global decrease in the prevalence of the practice. The decline may be the result of multiple factors such as increased literacy of mothers, better access to education for girls, strong legislation and migration from rural areas to urban centres. Increased rates of girls’ education, proactive government investments in adolescent girls, and strong public messaging around the illegality of child marriage and the harm it causes are also among the reasons for the shift.
Child marriage, a deeply rooted social norm, provides glaring evidence of widespread gender inequality and discrimination. It is the result of the interplay of economic and social forces. In communities where the practice is prevalent, marrying a girl as a child is part of a cluster of social norms and attitudes that reflect the low value accorded to the human rights of girls.
Child marriage negatively affects the Indian economy and can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Girls and boys married as children more likely lack the skills, knowledge and job prospects needed to lift their families out of poverty and contribute to their country’s social and economic growth. Early marriage leads girls to have children earlier and more children over their lifetime, increasing economic burden on the household. The lack of adequate investments in many countries to end child marriage is likely due in part to the fact that the economic case for ending the practice has not yet been made forcefully.
As a result of norms assigning lower value to girls, as compared to boys, girls are perceived to have no alternative role other than to get married. And are expected to help with domestic chores and undertake household responsibilities in preparation for their marriage.
Evidence shows that critical game changers for adolescent girls’ empowerment include postponing marriage beyond the legal age, improving their health and nutritional status, supporting girls to transition to secondary school, and helping them develop marketable skills so that they can realize their economic potential and transition into healthy, productive and empowered adults.
UNICEF’s approach to ending child marriage in India recognizes the complex nature of the problem, and the socio-cultural and structural factors underpinning the practice. UNICEF India accomplished its ‘scale-up strategy’ to prevent child marriage and increase adolescent empowerment by working with government, partners and relevant stakeholders from the national level down to the district level. The most significant development has been the gradual shift from interventions that are small in scope and mainly sector-based to large scale district models on adolescent empowerment and reduction of child marriage which rely on existing large government programmes.
UNICEF and UNFPA have joined forces through a Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, where for the first time existing strategies in areas such as health, education, child protection, nutrition and water and sanitation have been brought together to address child marriage in a holistic manner. The approach is to address child marriage through the entire lifecycle of a child especially by addressing persisting negative social norms which are key drivers for the high prevalence of child marriage in India. The programme works in partnership with governments, civil society organizations and young people themselves and adopt methods that have proven to work at scale.
At the global level, child marriage is included in Goal 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” under Target 5.3 “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”.