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Tech, social media ‘scare’ drive child marriages in rural AP & TS

In an era of information explosion where one cannot really control what kids watch or witness, social media, online media platforms and other content has penetrated deep into India, including its rural epicentres. Interestingly, this exposure to technology has inspired many youngsters to evolve into social media stars or popular Youtubers who are making a career out of these online platforms. Take Taskeen Fathima Basha for instance. This (urban) Youtuber underlines the significance of sex education in her popular video “Things Indian Schools Didn’t Teach Us” through her channel, Urban Fight. 
 
But, life remains different for her rural counterparts. The influence of electronic as well as social media on urban and rural kids is seen in complete contrast. In rural pockets of the country, exposure of kids to social media and chatting is a turn-off for community elders and caste leaders as it could influence them to “fall in love or elope with a boy”. This stems from their strong belief that keeping a girl at home after puberty “isn’t considered safe.”
 
In a study titled “Facing Constraints and Seizing opportunities - Child Marriages in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana” by Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), one of the community leaders, shares: “Most of the girls are using mobiles and chatting with peers. Such behaviour often leads to elopement by falling in love or the girl being sexually active outside the house), putting the family in an embarrassing situation.”  
 
As a result, child marriage is seen as a solution to guard the girl’s virginity, which is tied to the family’s honour and dignity. According to surveys by the UN, girls from rural areas are twice as likely to marry as children as those from urban areas.  
 
The CESS study reveals that child marriages are rampant in disadvantaged communities of Andhra Pradesh, among Scheduled Castes of Krishna and Prakasam districts, fishing communities and Yadava/Gollas as well as Kuraba community from coastal district of Visakhapatnam and the economically downtrodden communities of Kurnool and Anantapur districts.  
A similar trend was observed in Telangana among the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes of Adilabad, Gadwal, Khammam, Sangareddy, Yadadri, Warangal, Vikarabad, Mahabubnagar and Hyderabad districts of the state the prevalence of child marriages is predominantly high. 
 
Social norms & poverty are primary causes 
Child marriages take place across different religions and ethnicities. Social norms and beliefs such as consanguineous weddings to protect ancestral property, pressure from grandparents or death of a family member are some of the most common factors. Another religious practice in some districts of the Telugu states is the ‘devadasi’ or ‘jogini’ system, where young girls are devoted to village deities. This ultimately results in early matrimony of girls. 

Poverty is another major driving factor. For instance, take the drought-hit districts of Anantapur (in AP) and Mahbubnagar (in Telangana). Poor people from this AP district migrate to nearby areas in Karnataka and those from Telangana to Maharashtra and Gujarat, in search of wealthy families that can offer reverse dowry or money for the girl (locally known as Kanyasulakam). 

Another key concern around girls’ safety is the lack of access to good quality secondary education, lack of transportation to reach school along with lack of clean toilets with running water. Poor academic performance of the girl further drives parents to force the girl to drop out of school, eventually pushing her into the vicious cycle of child marriages. 

Health risks 

Generally, the transition from wife to mother, in case of child marriages, usually occurs soon after the wedding. What this means for the girl is a long and life-threatening ordeal of pregnancies, possibility of domestic violence and mental abuse, resulting in social isolation and restricting her education and career opportunities. 

Child marriages also affect boys’ health. However, the risk is greater for girls. Health complications include: Higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), cervical cancer, death during childbirth and obstetric fistulas. Also, most of the off-springs are at increased risk for premature birth and death as neonates, infants, or children.” The CESS study also found two commonly reported complications -- Premature babies and death of pregnant girls during delivery.

Numbers paint a grim story 

In Andhra Pradesh, 33% of women aged between 20 and 24 years were married off before their 18th birthday (26.8 percent in urban and 35.7 percent in rural), highlights the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4). Similarly, 11.8% of men (between 25 and 29 years) were married off before they turned 21 (legal age for men to marry in India). 

In Telangana, around 25.7% of women aged between 20 and 24 years were married off as child brides (15.7 percent in urban and 35 percent in rural). Of these, 10.6% of women between 15 and 19 years of age had their first child or were pregnant at the time of NFHS-4 Survey.

Across developing countries, one in three girls is married off before turning 18 and one in nine before turning 15. Most of the girls (between 20 and 24 years of age) who have reported being pushed into marriage before 18 years of age, are from South Asia as well as West and Central Africa. In these parts of the world, two out of five girls are child brides. 

Going by absolute numbers, India surpasses other countries -- a staggering 40% of all child marriages take place in the country. However, the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data pertaining to India reveals that the pregnancy rate among girls under 18 has fallen by 21% between 1998 and 2006. But, given that the population of India grows every year, it is predicted that the number of child brides who will have given birth before the age of 18, will spike by 1 million between 2010 and 2030. 
Going by this trend, analysts predict that nearly 142 million girls across the globe could fall into the trap of child marriages in this decade alone. 

Legal contradictions perpetuate child marriages

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) of 2006 states that a “child” or minor under this law is defined as someone below 18 years of age, in case of girls and 21 years in case of boys. Under the Act, a male adult above 18 years of age, who marries a child, shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment extending to two years or with a fine of up to Rs. 1 lakh or both. 
While the PCMA governs child marriages in India, the legal system however takes into account a gamut of personal laws. Moreover, the PCMA penalises parents, guardians, religious and community leaders promoting child marriages.  But, under the Hindu Marriage Act and other personal laws, the punishment applies only to the couple themselves, leaving out the others involved.  

Meanwhile, the Muslim Personal Law presumes puberty at 15 years, which is considered the minimum age for marriage, directly contradicting the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. Another inconsistency in curbing child marriages comes in the form of the Prevention of Child Sexual Offences (POCSO) 2012. It defines “any sexual act with a child below 18 years of age as an offence” whereas the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act that prohibits child marriages but makes them valid once solemnised. In which case, it is likely that minor children have no choice but to enter a sexual union once married, and sex with a child willing or unwilling becomes legal!

Such stark contradictions have hobbled the fight against child marriages in India. Hence, progress can happen when authorities are willing to override personal and religious laws and mandate PCMA to be the legislation superseding every other law under this framework. 

Interventions to change the scenario

The Study by CESS lists out key policy & advocacy measures:
  • Advocacy at Community level: Given that Grandparents, parents, community and religious leaders are primary players in pushing for child marriages, educating them on the dangerous consequences of child marriages along with legal implications will be a first step. 
  • Girl-friendly infrastructure in schools: Considerable investments in girl-friendly, high-quality, free and compulsory education upto the age of 18 will motivate girls to stay in school for longer. 
  • Skill development: Improved access to economic opportunities for young women and skill development to motivate girls to continue their education. 
  • Conditional cash transfers: As stated in the Copenhagen Consensus Report, these incentives support poor families to keep their girls longer in schools. 
  • Gender-sensitivity: Reaching out to men and boys to encourage equitable gender attitudes and be change agents in curbing child marriages.
  • Birth & Marriage Registration: This gives the child an official identity and helps the government track his or her age. 
  • Data collection & evaluation systems: Initiate research, improve systematic data collection, compilation, analysis and evaluation to create a data bank on child marriages and inform policymakers.
  • Effective implementation of law: Law enforcement agencies to create state-level intervention strategies to curb child marriages. 
 

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