Around the world, there are many adolescents who are sexually active, some within marriage and others outside marriage. In many developing countries sexual relations and pregnancy become socially, culturally, and legally acceptable only if they occur within marriage. Child marriages, i.e. marriages below the age of eighteen years for girls, are part of customary practices and are prevalent since time immemorial. Such child marriages are also forced marriages as young girls are not mature enough either to make a choice of a life partner or to understand the meaning and responsibilities of child marriage. Parents and family members are responsible for taking such major decisions on behalf of their children affecting their future life.
Marriage in India
In contrast to the North American and European society, where the conjugal family and the individual are at the core, in the traditional family structure in India, every individual is expected to be primarily under the control of the family through its head in particular and elders in general. Major decisions, like marriages in the family, are taken by these elders and are respected by younger individuals. Modern influences have made some impact on the institution of marriage, but the basic values and norms still remain unchanged.
Reasons for Child Marriage
Institution of Patriarchy
The collective effect of patriarchy is thus to reinforce subordination of women in the name of care, protection, and welfare and make them dependent on men throughout their lives. Child marriages for women, comparative seniority of husbands, and patrilocal residence upon child marriage are thus the attributes of the patriarchal institution. Besides, patriarchy operates in Indian culture where the role of mother is glorified. In the absence of alternatives to the role of wife and mother from which women’s social identity and so-called economic security are chiefly derived, older women have no choice but to support the custom of child marriage. Thereby they also contribute to replication of their subordinate position. Precisely because the practice of child marriage reinforces subordination of women, discriminates against them, and treats them as slaves, I have challenged it by using the feminist method: ‘asking the woman question’.
In the patriarchal family structure, the attitude towards women is that they are not to be left independent. So at every stage in their life, they are under the dominion of some male member of the family: father, husband, or son. The purpose of the child marriage is transference of the father’s dominion.
Over a girl in favour of her husband. Such transfer is then expected to take place before a girl reaches the age when she might question it. The subjugation of women is further achieved through the custom of marrying girls to men who are older by five or more years than they are. The wide age gap assures inequality between them as she has little power and is not included in decision making. Besides the age disparity at child marriage between men and women, gender inequality is rooted in stereotyped gender roles which hold that women are to be mothers and wives and men are to be providers for the family unit. Women are therefore deemed to be ready for marriage at an earlier age than men who ought to finish their professional training and ideally be financially secure. Education and career are not perceived as essential for adolescent females. Discrimination against girls in decision-making in the family, education, employment, matters of sexuality, etc., is what creates and perpetuates the conditions in which child marriages of women occur.
Control over Sexuality
Another significant implication of patriarchy lies in its control of female sexuality and reproduction, which is at the heart of unequal gender relations and is central to the denial of equality. Through culturally embedded concepts of virginity and chastity, women’s sexuality is not only controlled by men but is often a symbol of the honour and status of a family, clan, caste, ethnic group, or race. Since marriage represents an alliance between two families and patrilineages, the honour, reputation, and consequently, the power of men is measured in terms of ‘purity’ of their women. Consequently, there are marked pressures towards performing child marriages at early ages of girls in order to minimize the risk of, and attendant dishonour associated with, improper sexual conduct by females.
Child marriages are arranged, therefore, either immediately after or sometimes even before she attains puberty. Such a practice supposedly reinforces the value of daughters, but actually only ensures their subordination as women. Otherwise, communities talk about the bad name which a young girl would bring to a household if she were to become pregnant out of wedlock. To avoid the problem of teenage pregnancy out of wedlock, a solution thought up by parents and society is to marry off the girls at younger ages. Rather than confronting teenage sexuality and encouraging safe and protected sex, child marriage is considered to be the only and proper solution by the parents and the community in the name of culture.
Malleability and Child Marriage
Traditionally and culturally marriage in India is arranged by the parents and is looked upon as an alliance between two families more than of two individuals. Parents play a responsible and major role in arranging the marriages of their children, and this practice has acquired a social legitimacy. In an age- and sex-stratified patriarchal society, the choice and preferences of a daughter in the selection of her life partner are thought to be irrelevant. It is assumed that parents make decisions in the best interest of their daughters. In this background, it is easier to make her, as a young girl, abide by the dictates of the father or senior members of her natal family and get ready for the marriage.
A woman’s autonomy, her ability to obtain information and to use it as the basis for making decisions about her private concerns and personal matters, is not recognized or respected culturally in India. In fact, it is denied by restricting her movement and refusing her opportunities to interact with the outside world. Her experience has no value and is never reflected in cultural norms. In fact, it is seen that her experience is specifically excluded from any norms governing social relations including matrimonial relations. Child marriage ensures her easy submission and acceptance of the traditional gender roles. She herself then becomes the carrier of the patriarchal ideology and unknowingly contributes to the strengthening of patriarchy.
Economic Reasons of Child Marriage
The social and economic background of people determines the quantity of resources available for a marriage ceremony, influences marital values and attitudes, affects the cultural milieu in which the need for early or late marriage is felt, and provides the social networks in which spouses are sought. These factors, in turn, contribute to determine the age at marriage for girls and boys.
In India parents of a girl are required to give gifts, either in cash or in kind, to the bridegroom and/or his family in the form of dowry. The amount of dowry may go on increasing as marriage gets delayed. The reason is that as the girl gets older and older she needs an older bridegroom. An older the bridegroom is likely to be more educated. And the more education the more dowry is an established trend. To avoid more expenditure by marrying her at a later age, parents prefer to marry her off at an early age. Thereby the system of dowry perpetuates child marriages. If there are more girls in the family, they are all married off at one time to save expenses on marriage celebrations. Such a situation may involve the child marriage of younger daughters in the family irrespective of their ages.
Child marriage also reduces the economic burdens involved in supporting females as, after marriage, a girl joins the family of her husband. The reason is based on the presumption that women do not contribute monetarily to the income of the family and, therefore, the burden to be wiped off as early as possible. In reality, though women contribute substantially, this myth is still accepted in the Indian setting.
Further, as women are out-marriers—they marry out and go away— parents can expect little help from their daughters after marriage. Culturally, on marriage, the daughters cease to be members of their natal family and there is no responsibility on them to support their parents or siblings. Married daughters are not expected to contribute financially or in any other manner to their natal home. On the other hand, sons remain at home and do contribute financially. Thus, it becomes a straight economic, utilitarian calculation of gains and losses in marrying daughters off young.
Lack of Alternatives to Child Marriage
If young girls are not to be married off, alternative opportunities need to be provided to them. The fact is that there are no such constructive opportunities for them. Usually, girls are withdrawn from schools because of marriage. Educational opportunities, which could help develop their personality and autonomy or employment skills, are denied to them. Division of labour based on sex identifies a woman with household work for which she is not required to attend a school. Alternatives other than marriage are not provided to adolescent girls. From childhood, daughters are socialized to believe that marriage is the sole goal of their lifes and their own interests are subordinate to those of the family group. Any challenges to this mode of lessons are systematically kept away. It is equally important to note that access to schools in rural areas is not easily available to girls. They are required to travel long distances to reach the school. Parents who are anxious about the possibility of involvement of their daughters in premarital sex do not like to send them a long distance to schools as on their way either they are likely to become the victims of sexual abuse or to get themselves involved with men.
Besides, even if people know the law, their attitude is not going to be favourable to such laws that try to bring about change in social values and interfere in intimate, personal relationships. That too if the area is such where cultural and religious influences are strong, people either oppose such laws or just ignore them. Unless people are taken into confidence and explained the need to prevent child marriages, they are unlikely to obey the law.
Lack of Political Commitment to Child Marriage
There seems to be no strong political will for amending or enforcing the Indian Act or for creating awareness about it in India. Lastly, women’s interests are accorded less weight in the political process thus adversely affecting any further improvement in their status. Over the last two decades, all political parties have stated their commitment to the improvement of women’s position. However, no serious efforts have been made either for better implementation of the legislation or for improvement of women’s health. The government, in response to the demands of the international community, introduces frequent policy changes regarding the reproductive health of women. But there is enough scope for doubting their commitment, as budgetary provision for implementation of these policies is generally inadequate.