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Child Marriage in India: A Persistent Challenge

17 Sep 2020

By:- Tanuka Endow and Swati Dutta

Post-COVID during the lockdown period, as the spread of disease and economic uncertainty continues, cases of child marriage are being reported from across the country....

The Childline CentreI reportedly intervened to stop 5,584 child marriages amid lockdownII . Child marriage cases have been reported from all over the country—from the states of Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, for instanceIII . In majority of the cases, girls are married off before attaining adulthood, while in a small percentage of cases boys are also involved

Child marriage is a marriage to which either of the contracting party is a child, that is, marriage before the legal age of 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. Following the spread of the Covid pandemic and introduction of lockdown and social distancing, many people have lost jobs, notably a vast segment of the migrant population, income streams have become uncertain especially for people among the poorer strata. As the pressure on household finances mount and schools continue to remain shut, marrying girls off, even at a young age, is being seen as an option for parents for reducing future household expenditure and meeting parental responsibilities.

The incidence of child marriage has always been high in India, in the years prior to Covid, and it has a presence in most of the states. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 had been operative earlier on in the country; this set the minimum age of marriage for women at 14, and for men at 18. To overcome the shortcomings of Child Marriage Restraint Act, the Government of India enacted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA), which came into effect from 1 November, 2007IV .

Child marriage and the age of consent (for sexual intercourse) have thus long been controversial issues in India. Children have a right to grow into a complete and full individual, regardless of their social and economic situation and child marriage violates all these rights. Such marriages also provide the legal sanction for engaging in sexual activity and procreation, amounting to sanction for child sexual abuse and rape. There are additional adverse consequences with respect to health, nutrition, education, and freedom from violence, abuse and exploitationV . Marriage at an early age increases the length of time for which a girl is exposed to pregnancy. High-risk births, which include those born to mothers who are younger than 18, are a major cause of illnesses, disability and premature death among mothers and children . WHO finds that in developing countries, adolescent pregnancy is high. This tends to increase the complication in the pregnancy and child birth and is one of the major cause of death of 15 to 19 years old girlsVI .

The continued practice of child marriage with its enormous adverse effect on girls has been squarely acknowledged by nations across the world and has been put on the global development agenda as Target 5.3 under the Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality. Target 5.3 commits all states to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage. Child marriage, however, is a complex and persistent phenomenon and is strongly associated with cultural and social norms, poverty, education levels and safety issues of the girl.

Cultural and social norms are usually slow to change over time. We see that the mean age at marriage for women in India exhibits very slow increase over time (Figure 1). Starting from the decade of 1951-61, when women had a mean age at marriage at 16.1 years, by 2001-2011, it had increased to reach 19.3 yearsVIII . It has climbed up to 22.2 years by 2016

Figure 1: Mean Age at Marriage in India (years)

Source: For data 1951-1961 till 1961-1971, Towards Equality Part I. For data 2012-16, Women and Men in India 2018, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation

Although the mean age at marriage has risen steadily, albeit at a slow pace, there are many girls getting married before 18 even now in India, a phenomenon that the lockdown situation has brought to the fore. The 2015-16 data from the National Family and Health Survey- 4 indicate that among women aged 20-24 years, there are still 26.8 percent women who get married before the age of 18 years, and this share is higher in rural areas at 31.5 percent compared to urban areas at 17.5 percent (Figure 2). However, the incidence is still substantial in urban areas as of 2015-16. The ubiquity of the phenomenon of child marriage is also clear when we see that it has a more than 20 percent share among all the social groups (Figure 3). As for the religious groups, the share of women aged 20-24 years who got married before 18 years is 27 percent among Hindus and Muslims, while it is lower at 17 percent among Christians. The comparison with NFHS 3 findings shows that there has been a downturn in child marriage as was reflected in the rising trend for mean age at marriage, indicating a measure of success for the government as well as the Civil Society Organizations working relentlessly to fight this harmful practice.

Figure 2: Share (%) of women in age group 20-24 years who got married before 18 years by place of residence, 2015-16

Figure 3: Share (%) of women in age group 20-24 years who got married before 18 years by social groups, 2015-16

The prevalence of child marriage amongst 15-19 years old in 2015-16 has been found to be 11.9 percent for girls in India IX . Given the higher incidence of 26.8 percent for the 20-24 year old women, this confirms the declining trend, but evidently, the practice of child marriage has been persistent in India.

Child marriage is rooted in rigid societal norms and customs which reinforce existing inequalities between men and women and among different economic classes, castes, and religious and ethnic groups X. We saw that location matters when we look at the incidence of child marriage (Figure 2). Underlying factors which are important in terms of association with the incidence of child marriage are poverty, and the level of education of women. Many studies have found that economic status of households and level of education of females are negatively associated with the prevalence of child XI , and Figures 4 and 5 present the situation for 2015-16 as per NFHS-4 data. The spate of cases appearing in the wake of Covid and the ensuing lockdown bear witness to this association.

Figure 4: Share (%) of women in age group 20-24 years who got married before 18 years by wealth quintiles, 2015-16

Figure 5: Share (%) of women in age group 20-24 years who got married before 18 years by educational attainment, 2015-16

The NFHS-4 data for 2015–16 indicate that, compared to the all-India average incidence of child marriage at 27 percent for 20-24 year old women, we can identify eight states where the incidence of child marriage is higher. West Bengal and Bihar top the list with 42 percent incidence (Figure 6). On the other hand, it has been found that in states such as Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and others, less than 10 per cent of the 20-24 year old women have married before the age of 18 years (Figure 7).

Figure 6: States with highest shares (%) of women in the age group of 20–24 years married before age of 18 years, 2015–16

Figure 7: States with lowest shares (%) of women in the age group of 20–24 years married before age of 18 years, 2015–16

Notwithstanding the spurt in child marriage in the recent lockdown, many girls are lost in the period of transition to secondary school. 'Keeping girls in school - and reaching those who are out of school, overage or failing to learn – is vital to the realization of their rights and in the fight against child marriage' XII . Thus, while the fight against poverty and turning around the societal/cultural norms continue, education can act as a protective shield for girls.

India has already made substantial progress in its fight against child marriage, as we saw from the NFHS data for Rounds 3 and 4. At an average annual rate of reduction of child marriage at 5.5 percent over the last 10 years, India is at the second highest position among the South Asian countries in reducing child marriage XIII . Yet, during the lockdown and with school closure, girls are deprived of the protective shield of education and schooling. With the economic downturn, there are further pressures on them from the parents for them to get married. It is imperative that the gains made in the past decades in terms of reducing child marriage should not be lost in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown. The government needs to step up the process of revitalizing the school sector in parallel with continuing the vigilance against child marriage so that the holistic development of the girl child is encouraged, and all form of rights of the child are protected.


I CHILDLINE India Foundation (CIF) is the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development acting as the parent organisation for setting up, managing and monitoring the CHILDLINE 1098 service all over India round the year. This is a free, emergency phone service for children in need of aid and assistance.

II Accessed at https://thefederal.com/news/centre-intervened-to-stop-5584-child-marriages-amid-lockdown/

III Accessed at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/topic/child-marriage

IV ‘Handbook on The Prohibition on Child Marriage Act 2006’, by Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India with support from Unicef, India Country Office.

V Ibid

VI Feranil and Borda, 2008 accessed at

VII World Health Organization Adolescent pregnancy https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-pregnancy

VIII Source: Women and Men in India 2017, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

IX Young Lives (2018), ‘India Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy’; estimates based on NFHS- 4 data

X ‘Handbook on The Prohibition on Child Marriage Act 2006’, by Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India with support from Unicef, India Country Office; Young Lives (2018), ‘India Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy’.

XI ICRW and Unicef (2015),’District-level Study on Child Marriage in India’; Young Lives (2018), ‘India Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy’.

XII Unicef (2019), Ending Child Marriage: A profile of progress in India.


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