Lest we think child marriage is a socially backward practice afflicting only some Hindi heartland states, it is sobering to learn that Assam and Aruchal are not free of the malaise either. Two districts of Assam – Dhubri and Goalpara – figure among 70 districts of the country with high incidence of child marriage. Lower Subansiri, Kurung Kumey and Changlang districts of Aruchal Pradesh too are in this list. These 70 districts spread across 13 states, account for 21% of the country’s child marriages, according to a study by tiol Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Young Lives India. The country’s third richest State Maharashtra has as many as 16 such districts, followed by Rajasthan with 13 and Madhya Pradesh with 9 districts. However, among all States, it is in Rajasthan where more girls (8.3% of those aged 10 to 17) and boys (8.6% of those aged 10 to 20) are married before legal age. Overall, the scerio in Assam mirrors the tiol average in terms of marriage before legal age, which is 1.32% for boys and 1.9% for girls. But Dhubri and Goalpara, both Muslim domited — having a high incidence of underage girls getting married off, bears serious implications for population growth as well as materl and child mortality ratios in the two districts. Early marriage means longer fertility span for girls, with multiple pregncies as well as childbirth complications, more underweight babies and mother-child deaths. The Assam government needs to find out why child marriage incidence is much higher in these two districts than the rest of the State. The powers-be in Dispur may be wary of probable adverse reactions from some minority organisations, but causes must be pinpointed sooner rather than later to bring about development.
In states with high child marriage rates, there could be social perceptions like biological maturity being enough for marriage, particularly for girls after their first menstrual cycle. Then there is ubated gender discrimition against girls, which could mean entrenched patriarchy, girls being considered as burden in poverty-ridden societies, lack of education and employment opportunities, and failure of government awareness drives. According to the study, the mindset of ‘protecting family honour’ continues to hold sway over rights of the girl to childhood, so that early marriage is seen as the only way to protect them from premarital sex and pregncy outside marriage. On the whole, there is a declining trend of child marriage incidence at the tiol level. In case of boys, the drop in incidence was from 9.6% in 2001 to 2.5% in 2011, including both rural and urban areas. But in case of girls, the study has thrown up a surprise with underage marriages declining in rural India, but actually increasing in urban areas! Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra, Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad in undivided Andhra Pradesh, Davangere in Kartaka, Gandhigar and Ahmadabad in Gujarat are among urban districts with high child marriage incidence. This trend has left social activists and organisations struggling for explations — as to why such incidence rose from 1.78% in urban areas in 2001 to 2.45% in 2011, which translates to 51 lakh girls married below legal age of 18. Some believe the trend may have something to do with rural migrants feeling insecure about the ‘honour’ of their daughters in urban settings — that the girls are unsafe, or they may have relationships with youths ‘unsuitable’ not just in terms of character, but caste and creed as well. So they end up exercising strict control over their daughter, and are relieved when the son-in-law takes over. Which is why, women’s rights groups are now demanding that the government should re-orient its policies to combat underage marriages in new urban settings. If it fails, most of the earlier gains will be negated.