Child marriage: India

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The extent of the problem

1891- 1921

SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR, Child marriage: Why we should not point fingers/ The Times of India/ 12 Jun. 22

No, child marriage is not a Muslim specialty. It was common for centuries across regions and faiths, a compact between two families and not two individuals. Parents would marry their children at age five or six. After the ceremony, the children lived apart with their parents till the girl attained puberty, after which she went to the boy’s house as wife. All prayed that she should be blessed with a son within a year (girls were not considered a blessing). This was not just ancient tradition. It was the norm in India in the early 20th century.

My own maternal aunt was married as a child. When she attained puberty, she got the shocking news that her boy-husband had died of disease. Hinduism forbade widow remarriage, though Islam encouraged it. Tradition required my aunt, as a child widow, to shave her head and wear a plain saffron sari to make herself unattractive to men and become, in effect, a lifelong household servant. To save her from this fate, my grandfather entrusted my aunt to Sister Subbalakshmi, the great reformer who ran a sanctuary for child widows. She educated the widowed girls, enabling them to earn a living in an era when respectable women were not supposed to work outside their house. My aunt became a well-known doctor.

Through the centuries, little girls were married not only to little boys but also to grown men. This had the full sanction of tradition and religion. But it had horrendous outcomes. Some of these are described in Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book ‘Mother India’. She recounts that in 1891, the legislative assembly of the British Raj debated reforms including a minimum marriage age. Hindu traditionalists strongly opposed any reform. The reformers presented evidence from doctors who had treated girls at hospital after terrible abuse by adult husbands.

Here is a partial list.

1. Girl on the day after marriage. “Left femur dislocated, pelvis crushed out of shape, flesh hanging in shreds. ”

2. Girl aged 9. “So completely ravished as to be almost beyond surgical repair. Her husband had two other wives and spoke fine English.

3. Girl aged 10. “Very small child entirely undeveloped physically. ” Bleeding to death from the rectum after being sodomised by her 40-year-old husband.

4. Girl aged 9. “Lower limbs completely paralysed”.

5. Girl aged seven. “Living with husband. Died in great agony after three days in hospital. ”

6. Girl aged 10. Condition “most pitiable. ” After one day in hospital, her husband demanded her back for his “lawful use. ”

7. Girl of 11. Great violence done to her person, will be a cripple for life. No use of lower extremities.

8. Aged about 10. “Crawled to hospital on her hands and knees. Has never been able to stand erect after her marriage. ” My body shook and eyes shut with horror on reading this. What deplorable brutality! All sanctified by tradition! Mayo quotes another doctor. “I have never seen a creature so fouled. Her internal wounds were alive with maggots. For days after she got there, she lay speechless on her bed…. Meanwhile her husband is suing her to receive his marital rights and force her back into his possession. She is not yet thirteen years old. ”

The doctors also speak of rampant venereal disease in little girls, contracted from their husbands. “Ninety nine percent of pelvic infection is of gonorrheal infection. ” Mayo recounts a conversation with a senior Brahmin official. He says if he has any female children, he will have to get them married by the age of five or seven. Otherwise, he will become an outcast. Fellow Brahmins will not eat, talk, or socialise with him, and his son will not find a decent wife.

Writing in 1927, Mayo says that child marriage is overwhelmingly a Hindu custom, but less common in Muslims. Yet she cites the 1921 census as saying virtually every woman in India was married by or immediately after puberty, and “cohabitation begins in every case with puberty. ” This assessment does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. Child marriage was common across faiths.

1960-2017: women between 15-19 bearing children

June 22, 2019: The Times of India

Births per 100 women ages 15-19, 1960-2017
From: June 22, 2019: The Times of India

Sharp fall in child marriage bodes well for women empowerment

Until 1990, it was normal for every ninth or tenth girl in the 15-19 age group to have a baby. Since teenage pregnancy is only accepted in India if it happens within marriage, the high adolescent fertility rate clearly pointed to the prevalence of child marriage. However, the rate has steadily fallen over the past 30 years and is now down to 2.3, which means only 1 in 43 girls in that age group becomes a mother.

Marriage, before 18: Prevalence despite ban

2005-6: 45% of Indian girls married off before 18

Jharkhand, Bihar, Rajasthan Worst Offenders: Survey

Kounteya Sinha

Times of India

New Delhi: It’s a social ill that continues to shame India. Nearly 45% of women in the country, aged between 20 and 24, are married off before they reach 18, the legal age to marry. What’s worse, the number is over 50% in eight states.

While 61% of women in Jharkhand were married off before 18, the number stood at 60% in Bihar, 57% in Rajasthan, 55% in Andhra Pradesh, 53% each in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and 52% in Chhattisgarh.

Lack of education was found to be a major factor fuelling this trend. Over 71% of women who got married below the age of 18 had received no education.

These are part of the findings of the latest National Family Health Survey-III, carried out in 29 states during 2005-06.

The survey, conducted by 18 research organisations, including five population research centres, and designed to collect and provide vital information on population, family planning, maternal and child health, child survival, nutrition of children and status of women, also unmasks another worrying trend. Six states — Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and West Bengal — which reported a lower percentage of under-18 marriages among women during the NFHS-II survey conducted in 1998-99, show an upward trend in NFHS-III. Officials say more and more women in these six states are being married off at the age of 15. The survey, which interviewed 1,24,395 women and reported a response rate of 94.5%, shows that this social malady exists mostly in rural India. While 52.5% of the cases of under-18 marriages were found to be in rural areas, the number stood at 28.1% in urban India. Some states, however, have shown a low prevalence of this practice. States like Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Punjab, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Meghalaya reported 12%-25% prevalence.

2005-15: a decline from 47%(2005) to 27%(2015)/ UNICEF

March 6, 2018:The Indian Express

According to a statement issued by the UNICEF, 25 million child marriages were prevented globally in the last 10 years (2005-06 and 2015-16) with the largest reduction seen in South Asia with India being at the forefront.

India saw a sharp decline in child marriages over the last ten years with 27 per cent of girls getting married before their 18th birthday as against 47 per cent a decade ago, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said. This decline in India has contributed significantly to a global decline in child marriages. Overall, the proportion of girls who were married as children decreased by 15 per cent in the last decade, from 1 in 4 to approximately 1 in 5.

According to a statement issued by the UNICEF, 25 million child marriages were prevented globally in the last 10 years (2005-06 and 2015-16) with the largest reduction seen in South Asia with India being at the forefront. “South Asia has witnessed the largest decline in child marriages worldwide in the last 10 years, as a girl’s risk of marrying before her 18th birthday has dropped by more than a third, from nearly 50 per cent to 30 per cent, in large part due to progress in India,” the UNICEF stated.

The UN children’s agency attributed increasing rates of girls’ education, proactive government investments in adolescent girls, and strong public awareness about the illegality of child marriage and the harm it causes are among the reasons for the decline. “When a girl is forced to marry as a child, she faces immediate and lifelong consequences. Her odds of finishing school decrease while her odds of being abused by her husband and suffering complications during pregnancy increase. There are also huge societal consequences, and higher risk of intergenerational cycles of poverty,” said Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s Principal Gender Advisor.

“Given the life-altering impact child marriage has on a young girl’s life, any reduction is welcome news, but we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. Each and every child marriage prevented gives another girl the chance to fulfill her potential,” said Malhotra. “But given the world has pledged to end child marriage by 2030, we’re going to have to collectively redouble efforts to prevent millions of girls from having their childhoods stolen through this devastating practice,” sher stressed.

CHILD MARRIAGE Lax implementation of Act

New Delhi: The scourge of child marriage continues to haunt India. ‘‘Because women questioned for the marriage survey were between 20-24 years of age, this figure shows us a trend that is recent. It’s shocking that nearly half the women in that age group, many from progressive states, were married off before they attained the age of 18. In some of the country’s biggest states, over half the women met this fate. This has serious implications on their chances of higher education and their fertility rate,’’ said Dr Kamla Gupta, chief coordinator of NFHSIII from the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai.

According to a health ministry official, a girl marrying below 18 often gives birth to an unhealthy child. Dr R K Sinha, an expert on marriage trends in IIPS, told TOI, ‘‘This is a disturbing trend. Even though several states like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP have shown a decline in this practice in NFHS-III, the numbers are still above 50%. This shows that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1976 isn’t being implemented effectively by several states.’’

In 2009

80 yrs since ban, 45% of girls still married off before 18

48% Of Them Get Pregnant Before Attaining Majority: Survey

Kounteya Sinha

Times of India

New Delhi: Laws banning child marriages were introduced in the country in 1929 but 80 years down the line, the social ill continues to be as grave as ever.

Nearly half the women in India are married off before they reach the legal age of 18, a joint Indo-American study announced in the medical journal ‘Lancet’ on Tuesday.

After looking at data of 22,807 women aged 20-24 years, around 44.5% of these women were found to have got married before the age of 18.

According to researchers specialising in social and behavioural sciences at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), economic and educational reforms in India have failed to lower the prevalence of child marriages, fuelling risks of multiple unwanted pregnancies, their termination and sterilisations.

Even worse, it has been found to be associated with poor fertility outcomes, such as unwanted and terminated pregnancies and repeat childbirths in less than 24 months.

Lead author Dr Anita Raj, associate professor at BUSPH, said the study found that more than one in five — 22.6% — were married before age 16, while 2.6% were married before age 13. Women who married younger than 18 were significantly more likely to report no contraceptive use before their first childbirth. Nearly half — 48.4% — of women who were married as children reported giving birth before they turned 18.

These results suggest that neither recent progress in economic and women’s development, nor programmatic efforts to prevent child marriage and promote maternal and child health, have been sufficient to reduce the prevalence of child marriage in India,” Dr Raj said.

The study found sterilisation rates were higher for women married as children than for those married as adults — 19.5% compared to 4.6%. Overall, more than one in eight women, or 13.4%. had been sterilised. Of those not sterilised, more than three-quarters reported no present contraception use. Child brides were also at greater risk of a fistula — a tear in the genital tract as well as pregnancy complications and death and sickness as a result of childbirth. India introduced laws against child marriage in 1929 and set the legal age for marriage at 12 years. The legal age for marriage was increased to 18 years in 1978.

The researchers said, “Women who had been child brides were 37% likelier not to have used contraception before their first child was born; seven times likelier to have three or more births; and three times likelier to have a repeat childbirth in less than 24 months.”

They added, “They were also more than twice as likely to have multiple unwanted pregnancies, nearly 50% likelier to have an abortion and more than six times likelier to seek sterilisation compared with counterparts who had married after the age of 18.”

Unicef recently said that child marriage was increasing India’s maternal and infant deaths. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60% greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. “More than 40% of the world’s child marriages take place in India. Worldwide, more than 60 million women between 20-24 were married before they were 18. Child brides become mothers much before their bodies are physically mature,” Unicef ’s Karin Hulshof said. She added child marriage prevented many girls from continuing education and are less likely to seek medical attention for babies.


22.6% girls married before 16, while 2.6% wedded before 13

48.4% of married girls have a child before they turn 18

37% of them did not use contraception before first baby

They are seven times likelier to have more than three children Three times likelier to have a child again in less than 24 months They are also nearly 50% likelier to have an abortion

Every third child bride in the world is India: Report, 2011

Every third child bride in the world is Indian: report, July 22, 2017: The Hindu

With over 10 crore Indians, including 8.5 crore girls, being married off before they turn 18, every third child bride in the world is an Indian, a report has found.

The report, titled ‘Eliminating Child Marriage in India’, was released by ActionAid India and analyses data on child marriages based on the 2011 Census.

Some improvement

The report found that there had been some improvement in the age of marriage, but that India still accounted for about 33% of all child marriages in the world. Of the married female population in India, 30.2% had been child brides.

The report also found that 75% of all child marriages took place in rural areas as on 2011. The number was even higher for the period between 2007 and 2011, at 82%.

Uttar Pradesh accounted for the highest percentage of child marriages in India, at 16.6%.

In fact, U.P., Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh accounted for 70% of all child marriages in India as of 2011.

While releasing the report, chairperson of ActionAid India Shabana Azmi said that there was a need to address the underlying causes of child marriage.

“Patriarchy is at the root of child marriage, and patriarchy has to be tackled to eliminate child marriage. Spreading education and building confidence among girls enables them to resist child marriage and chart their own lives,” she said.

‘Economic problem too’

The author of the report, Dr. Srinivas Goli, of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Regional Development, said that child marriage was not only a human rights or gender issue, but had an impact on the country’s progress as well.

“Women are half of the population and if we cannot combat child marriage, it may increase the extent of unhealthy and unskilled labour force. This can be a great hindrance to the economic prospects of the country,” said Dr. Goli.

2015-16: a decrease

Child marriages in India, 2015-16
From: February 8, 2019: The Times of India

See graphic:

Child marriages in India, 2015-16

2015-16: prevalence of child marriages, state-wise

Bengal has most child marriages, February 8, 2019: The Times of India

West Bengal now has the highest incidence of girls aged between 15 and 19 years being married off, far ahead of states such as Rajasthan that one traditionally associated with child brides.

However, the findings of the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4), conducted in 2015-16, show a steady decline across states, barring a marginal rise in two states – Himachal Pradesh and Manipur. The national average for child marriages now is 11.9% of all girls aged 15-19.

When NFHS-3 was conducted in 2005-06, Bihar topped in child marriages, with a prevalence of 47.8%; Jharkhand was second with 44.7% and Rajasthan third (40.4%). Bengal was fourth with 34%.

But in the 10 years since then, some Bimaru states — Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — managed to reduce the incidence of child marriage by over 20 percentage points. In the same period, Bengal managed only an 8.4 percentage point reduction.

District-level analysis using NFHS-4 reveals that Murshidabad (39.9%) in Bengal shows the highest prevalence of child marriage, followed by Gandhinagar

(39.3%) in Gujarat and Bhilwara (36.4%) in Rajasthan. Bihar has the most number of districts with high prevalence (20), followed by Bengal (14) and Jharkhand (11).

Laws banning child marriages

Child marriage human rights violation: HC


From the archives of The Times of India 2007, 2009

New Delhi: Stressing that child marriage violates human rights, the Delhi high court has restrained a minor girl and her forty-year-old husband from consummating the marriage till she attains the age of majority.

Unlike some earlier decisions of HC when minor brides were allowed to reside with their husbands, a bench headed by justice A K Sikri decreed that the 17-year-old bride would be staying with her parents and not with her spouse.

‘‘In actuality, a child marriage is a violation of human rights, compromizing the development of girls and often resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty,’’ the bench noted on a petition filed by an NGO pleading it to declare the marriage illegal as 17-year-old Chandni was forced to marry 40-year-old widower Yashpal.

HC however, refused to declare the marriage void as the matter pertaining to the legality of marriage involving minors is still to be decided by a larger bench. The court restrained the husband from consummating the marriage and said it will await the larger bench’s verdict.

‘‘Till Chandni attains the age of 18, she shall stay with her parents and not with her spouse. Yaspal shall not consummate the marriage and it would be not only his responsibility but the parents of Chandni shall also ensure this,’’ the court ruled adding, ‘‘Child marriage perpetuates an unrelenting cycle of gender inequality, sickness and poverty.’’

In this case, Chandni’s father got her married to Yashpal who claimed he was 35. After an NGO Association for Social Justice and Research intervened, the court asked the Delhi Police to find the couple and their family as she could not be traced out. The Delhi Police lodged an FIR and arrested Yashpal and Chandni’s father and she was produced before the court.

HC expressed concern over the prevalence of the social evil which perpetuates gender inequality. ‘‘The surprising thing is that almost all communities where this practise is prevalent are well aware of the fact that marrying child is illegal, it is even punishable under the law. NGOs as well as the government agencies have been working for decades to root out this evil. Yet, the reality is that the evil continues to survive,’’ the court said.

Other legal issues


The Times of India, Mar 07, 2016

Divorce must to annul child marriage: HC

A marriage of minors will not become void automatically without either of them obtaining divorce within two years of attaining the legal age for marriage, the Madras high court has ruled. A division bench set aside the order of a lower court refusing to take on file a woman's divorce petition on the grounds that she was a minor during marriage which was automatically void.


The advocate who ‘married’ a minor 40 years his junior

Swati Deshpande, May 7, 2019: The Times of India

In the case of an advocate who had ‘married’ a minor almost 40 years younger to him four years ago, the Bombay high court has said that on her turning a major and “ready to cohabit with him as his legally wedded wife, the otherwise voidable marriage, becomes valid”.

The HC had on May 2, as reported first by TOI, directed that the lawyer transfer 11 acres — including six acres offered to her earlier — to her name under the 7/12 land record extracts within three months and put Rs 7.5 lakh in fixed deposits for her, and stayed the trial of the lawyer, now aged. The girl, aged about 14 and a half in 2015 when they married after the lawyer offered to her grandparents that he would transfer six acres of land, had filed an FIR in December 2017 accusing him of rape, aggravated sexual assault and violation of the Child Marriage Act. The FIR also accused her 80-year-old grandfather, grandmother and two absconding uncles.

A day before being granted bail, on September 28, 2018, and 10 days after she turned 18, an adult by law, the lawyer filed for quashing of the criminal case against him, as did the grandparents.

A division bench of justices Ranjit More and Bharati Dangre opined that ultimately she would “suffer if the case is allowed to go on as she is now married and no one in the society would accept her as a wife”. “We think at this stage, securing her future is of prime importance,” it said.

The HC directed that the land once in her name not be transferred to anyone else during pendency of his petition. The bench also said it was “specifically made clear that this order is passed in the peculiar facts and circumstances of the present case and the same shall not be treated as precedent”. The court posted the matter for compliance in August. It also posted a hearing on February 10, 2020, to “observe the conduct” of the lawyer towards her after recording his assurance to look after her and her education; she wants to pursue studies after class XI.

The lawyer, who had lost his wife in 2014, had married the girl in 2015. The girl said she “consents” to his quashing plea as she had filed the FIR “in anger and misunderstanding”. When questioned by the judges, the girl stood by her affidavit that said she wanted to reside with the lawyer “quietly as his wife”.

In the case of an advocate who had ‘married’ a minor almost 40 years younger to him 4 years ago, the HC said that on her turning 18 now and ‘ready to cohabit with him as his legally wedded wife, the otherwise voidable marriage, becomes valid’

Arrests, convictions


AmitAnand Choudhary | Can use child rape law in teen marriages: SC | Sep 01 2017 | The Times of India (Delhi)

Persons arrested, convicted between 2014 and 2016 under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act

Despite prohibitory laws, child marriages are still prevalent and there are around 2.3 crore minor brides in the country .The Centre told the apex court that 899 cases of child marriage were registered in the last three years and 136 people convicted in those cases.

Solutions, causes

School education

Rema Nagarajan, February 10, 2023: The Times of India

Rural women married before the age of 18, state-wise; schooling beyond class 10 for women in the same states- 2019- 2021
From: Rema Nagarajan, February 10, 2023: The Times of India

Thousands are being arrested in Assam as part of a crackdown on child marriage even though studies from across the world and in India have shown that educational attainment and socio-economic status of a household are the most significant correlates of child marriage. Assam, where almost 86% of the population is rural, has among the largest proportion of rural women who haven’t completed 10 or more years of schooling, roughly 74%.

The real challenge: girls skipping school

“Among individual characteristics, the level of education of females has the most profound impact on the age they marry, irrespective of household wealth, locality and other characteristics,” stated a Unicef study on child marriages in India.

According to the latest National Family Health Survey (2019-21), about one-third of rural women in the 20-24 age group in Assam were married before the age of 18. There are only two states – West Bengal (48%) and Jharkhand (36%) – with a higher proportion of rural women in this age group who were married before 18 and they have roughly the same proportion of women who did not complete more than 10 years of schooling as Assam, about 74%.

Instead of doubling down on improving schooling for girls by investing in more schools and improving the condition of existing schools, in September last year, the Assam government announced that over 1,700 government-run elementary schools were being shut down and merged with neighbouring schools in keeping with the school ‘rationalisation’ recommended by Niti Aayog. Such mergers usually hurt girl students the most as they often have to travel longer distances to go to school. This results in girls being pulled out of school citing safety concerns. Parents’ fear about the safety of girls in public spaces is another reason for pushing girls into early marriages.

Limited paid work opportunities for women and girls is another factor that contributes to early marriage. Assam happens to be the state with the second lowest female worker population ratio of just 14. 2%. According to Niti Aayog’s multidimensional poverty estimates, the proportion of the population recognised as vulnerable vis-à-vis food and nutrition security under National Food Security Act as priority households is the third highest in Assam, 71. 2%. 

Missing development quotient

The chief minister tweeted on February 6 that the “drive against child marriage is for public health and public welfare” as teenage pregnancy ratio in Assam was as high as 16. 8%. He gave a list of districts with their proportion of teenage pregnancy. Incidentally, some of the districts with the highest proportion of teenage pregnancy also happen to be those with a highproportion of marriages before 18 years. Many of these are also the ones in which a large number of elementary schools were shut down or merged. Poor quality and inaccessibility of facilities and services, whether in health or education, would contribute to teenage pregnancies as poorly educated women are the most vulnerable. 
There have been charges that the crackdown was meant to target Muslims, which the government has denied. Though a Muslim girl can marry on completing 15 years or when she attains puberty according to Muslim personal law – a provision being challenged before the Supreme Court – child marriage is not exclusive to the community. According to the 2011 Census, 84% of the 12 million children (7. 8 million girls) who married before 10 years in India were Hindus and mostly from rural India. 

No community factors here

Moreover, Jammu and Kashmir, with 68% Muslim population, has the second lowest proportion of marriages before 18 years of age (5. 3%). Its proportion was low even in the NFHS survey of 2005-06, just 14. 4%, an indication of the influence of socio-cultural norms on the marital age of women.

More than 46% of rural women in J&K have 10 or more years of schooling. Similarly, in Kerala with almost 27% Muslim population, the proportion of rural women in the 20-24 age group who were married before 18 was just 8. 2%. The proportion of women with 10 or more years of schooling in rural Kerala was over 75%. At the same time, in Jharkhand where Muslims constitute barely 15% of the population, the proportion of marriages before 18 in the same age group is as high as 36%.

While for each individual factor contributing to child marriage there might be states doing worse than Assam, in Assam several of these factors coexist, contributing to a high proportion of marriages before 18 years of age among women. In effect, people, mostly the poorest, are being punished through the muchpublicised arrests, for the state’s failure to provide good quality schooling and health facilities and its inability to empower its women.

See also

Age of consent in India

Child marriage: India

Premarital sex

Rapes in India

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