Breaking the silence, standing tall

Breaking the silence, standing tall

Sujata with her mother in her village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district ©Savvy Soumya Misra


India has the highest number of child brides in the world. Read how young girls are saying no to marriage

In Odisha nearly 37% children marry before the legal age. Some girls are a source of inspiration against child marriage. Read here

Young girls are fighting child marriage in Odisha

Sujata, a 17-year old girl, from a small village in Kandhamal district in Odisha, did something different. It was not easy and she had to convince her parents and future in-laws. She wasn’t even sure of herself initially. But finally she took a decision. She decided not to marry till she turned 18.

Sujata’s parents were not happy about it and they wanted her to get married. Her father was annoyed and so were the other relatives. But Sujata didn’t buckle under pressure and stood her ground.

Fifteen-year-old Sunita too faced a similar dilemma but her situation was different. Sunita lost her father when she was five-years-old and lived with her mother and two sisters. So when the marriage proposal came, her mother was keen to accept it. Sunita vehemently opposed it and even threatened to go to the police if she was forced to marry.

Sujata and Sunita opposed early marriage and stood by their decisions but there are many other girls who are married at an early age, against their will. Last year, in Malkangiri, I met a young girl at an anganwadi centre. She had come with her seven month old child; her first child. She was hardly 18 and she had been married for about nine months. “This is not uncommon in these areas,” the anganwadi worker told me perhaps sensing my shock.

The first question that comes to my mind is ‘Who is responsible when a girl is wedded before she turns 18 and becomes a mother — Is it the parents, the in-laws, neighbours, teachers, government or the child herself?’

Does anyone think on how marrying early and giving birth to a child at such a young age affects both the physical and mental health of the young girl.

Adolescent girls becoming mothers at an early age are most vulnerable to health problems and pregnancy-related complications. India has the world’s largest child population at 400 million . As per the 2011 census, around 253 million of India’s children are adolescents (in the age group of 10-19 years).

India also has the highest number of child brides in the world. UNICEF’s State of World’s Children 2014 ranks India 12th among 20 countries with high rates of child marriages; India ranks first in absolute numbers though. Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have the highest incidence of child marriage. In Odisha, around 37 percent children marry before the legal age and this is rampant mostly in the southern districts.

While both the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and District Level Health Survey (DLHS) data indicate a decline in child marriages, the percentage of girls marrying before the age of 18 remains on the higher side. Early marriage increases the possibility of early pregnancy and motherhood. This is important because of its implication on the health of the mother and child.

The Annual Health Survey data for the year of 2012-2013 reveals 43.4 percent women aged 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of survey. Complications are very common for this category of expectant mothers and many times it also leads to maternal death. During the period of September 2014 to January 2015, as part of Oxfam India’s GPAF maternal health project, we conducted reviews of 34 maternal death cases. We found that 12 percent of the deceased women were in the age group of 15-19.

Social determinants like education play a major role in preventing early marriage and thereby have an impact on maternal health. An analysis of NFHS-3 data reflects the link between child marriage and education. Around 65 percent of women, in the age group of 20-24 years are married by the age of 18, had no education.

For men the number is much lower at 43 percent (within the age group of 25-29 and married by the age of 21). Data shows that 43 percent women, who were married by the age of 18, did go to school but could not continue beyond Class 8th.

However, among those who completed 10 years of schooling, only nine percent were married by the age of 18 years. This clearly shows that going to school and completing 10-12 years of education can reduce the number of child marriages to a great extent.

Child marriage is prohibited in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA). According to the 2006 Act, promoting or permitting child marriage is punishable with rigorous imprisonment of upto two years and a fine of upto one lakh rupees. However, the act is barely implemented.

Similarly the most important social determinant like education is poorly ensured. The primary responsibility lies with the government to ensure that all children are in schools and completing education. Apart from the government, the community too should be held responsible to monitor and protect the children. Perhaps the first step then could be to create informed adolescent groups and involve the community. This will help many more Sujatas’ and Sunitas’ to take a stand.

The author is Programme Officer-Essential Services, Oxfam India, Bhubaneswar



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