Schooling and underage marriages

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Schooling and underage marriages

Wednesday, 22 March 2023 | Archana Datta

There Should be more efforts to create an enabling framework for improving girls' enrollment in schools, instead of penal actions

Assam is on a vigorous drive through penal actions under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA). Over 4,000 cases have been registered and more than 3,000 people arrested, including many fathers, brothers and Muslim and Hindu priests, as 'facilitators'. The Assam Chief Minister vowed to eliminate the menace of child marriages in the state by 2026.

Amid massive public outrage, the Gauhati High Court criticised such large-scale arrests with non-bailable charges, and insisted on 'society-driven change'. The Opposition claimed it was for 'political gains'.

Many legal experts vouch for the law as a means to set new norms and practices. India had the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, subsequently replaced by the existing PCMA, 2006, raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for women and 21 years for men.

Now, a move is afoot to make it gender-neutral at 21. It was claimed by the votaries of the amendment Bill that the move would enhance girls' agency, their reproductive autonomy, and reduce gender inequality. However, opponents contended that “it is not a sufficient condition to bring in changes in the mindsets of people,” as it fails to address the underlying socio-economic and cultural factors that push many resource-poor families, who are also the worst victims of emergencies, such as internal conflicts, natural disasters or the pandemic, into underage marriage of girls, either to avoid higher dowry or as a way to ‘protect’ the girls.

A national network of adolescents from rural and semi-urban areas suggested to the task force set up for the purpose that focus should be more on “the disadvantaged rural contexts through adequate resourcing for quality education, employment, safety, mobility, and the freedom to choose when, and who to marry, as child marriages are closely tied to low levels of education and poverty”

While, as per the NCRB data, an abysmally low number of cases booked under the PCMA, only 785 in 2020, and a study by the Partners for Law in Development found that 65 per cent of them are filed by disapproving parents against eloping daughters, and male partners of their choice have been punished as criminals. Child rights activists fear the proposed legislation would further increase the misuse of the law, criminalising all adolescent sexuality.

However, in today's society, the existing PCMA has undoubtedly created some awareness, encouraging many girls to stop or delay their marriages. The successive NFHS data also registered a declining trend in the proportion of girls marrying below 18 years from 47 per cent in NFHS-3 (2005-06) to 27 per cent in NFHS-4 (2015-16), and, now, to 23 per cent in NFHS-5 (2020-21).

Studies also ruled out that early marriage is linked to high fertility. In most of the states, including states with relatively high prevalence rates of child marriages, fertility rates have been dropping.

The NFHS-5 data corroborated that mother and child health indicators like MMR, have decreased by 80 per cent (113 per lakh live births in 2016-18 from 556 in 1990), and, the IMR by 69 per cent (35 per 1,000 births in 2019-21, from 114 in 1990). A parliamentary question in 2021, confirmed that there is no credible data to suggest that child marriage is the major reason for affecting the IMR and MMR. Instead, factors like health, nutrition, and lack of medical facilities adversely impact them.

Moreover, a correlation study in 109 districts of 19 states by the CRY, analysing NFHS-5 data and Education Ministry's Performance Grading Index scores of Districts (PGI-D) (2019-20) on indicators like effective classroom transactions, infrastructure and students’ entitlements, school safety, etc, found that “education remains the most powerful tool to curb child marriages.” For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the districts with comparatively higher percentage of women having 10 or more years of schooling like Lucknow (51.9 per cent), Gautam Buddha Nagar (51.9 per cent), Varanasi (55 per cent), and Allahabad (47.6 per cent) had significantly lower percentages of child marriage cases—9.9 per cent, 13.5 per cent, 10.4 per cent, and 13.8 per cent, respectively. While districts like Badaun (21.6 per cent), Lakhimpur-Kheri (28.7 per cent), and Kaushambi (31.9 per cent) with lower percentage of women having 10 or more years of schooling, had higher percentage of child marriage at 22.9 per cent, 19.7 per cent, and 17.6 per cent, respectively. Over 10 million girls have been married as a result of the pandemic, according to UNICEF's report last year. As an antidote, it urged nations to “invest more in girls' education, secondary education, in particular.” In addition, it was found that “better educated women tend to participate more in the formal labor market, earn higher incomes, and thus, lift their families out of poverty...”

(The author of a former Director General of Doordarshan and All  India radio)

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