Ending child marriage in India ever more urgent due to COVID-19: Children Believe report calls for action
Pandemic accelerates opportunities for marital unions between children
With COVID-19 cases surging in India and devastating local populations, the release of a new Children Believe report, Child, early and forced marriage: What we know and what we need to know echoes the urgency of addressing and managing the situation in the country.
The pandemic has overwhelmed India’s healthcare system, and as infections and deaths mount, restrictions have heightened. This includes school closures, which currently affect more than 320-million learners in India, half of them girls.* When girls are out of school, they are more likely to be made to marry young, as families take drastic measures to relieve economic and social pressures.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated and worsened pre-existing inequalities,” says Dr. Belinda Bennet, chief international programs officer, Children Believe, based in Chennai, India. “For young girls who face the prospect of forced early marriage, it has heightened the desperation of their circumstances. Our response must be of the same significance as the gravity of the situation. This means taking action immediately, collaboratively and comprehensively.”
The report of Children Believe India — a Centre of Excellence on Gender and Social Inclusion — brings to light gaps in existing research and initiatives to end child marriage, and provides insight on critical areas where greater efforts must be made.
Child or early marriage is any marital union where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age. According to Indian law, child marriage involves either a female below the age of 18 or a male below age 21. Forced marriages are marriages in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union.
Globally, as many as 12-million girls** are married each year before they reach age 18. That is one in five girls whose childhoods end abruptly, compromising their future prospects. Child marriage is a human-rights violation disproportionately affecting girls and often involves those in poor socio-economic conditions. It takes away a girl’s right to choose a marriage partner, get an education, safeguard her health and future, and, as a result, has long-term, inter-generational consequences.
“Children Believe is committed to accelerating the pace of ending child marriage in India for good,” says Fred Witteveen, CEO, Children Believe. “Our report offers a combination of strategies to address the more rigid barriers to success. Building children’s agency and enabling them to raise their voice against outdated social norms gives children a new understanding of a girl’s worth; and engaging the community to question shared harmful norms and build collective ownership — these are among the strategies that can work,” he says.
India has the highest number of child marriages of any country in the world, with a total greater than the second, third, fourth and fifth leading countries combined.*** Efforts have been made to eliminate this harmful practice, including implementing laws and developing training and incentive programs, but these have had limited effect.
In India, the legitimacy and value of a marital relationship is complex. It is tied to an interplay of underlying social structures and inequalities rooted in patriarchy, class, caste, ethnicity, religion and sexuality.
“Our report recognizes these layers of factors and emphasizes that understanding the various reasons why the practice persists, is at the heart of addressing it,” explains Dr. Bennet. “This is what we are pursuing and by circulating the findings of this work, we’re looking to really propel the fight against child marriage forward.”
The report is grounded in literature reviews, interviews with subject matter experts and data from a two-day national consultation on child marriage hosted jointly by Children Believe and Girls Not Brides. The information gathered is organized into seven fundamental and inter-related categories. Each category is examined in the report, with barriers, contradictions and gaps being pointed to where additional research investment and efforts are needed. The categories include:
- Access and importance of girls’ education;
- Building agency, safe spaces and support networks;
- Impact of economic incentive programs;
- Social norms;
- Legal and policy frameworks;
- Engaging the community; and
- Digital access.
Child marriage is a significant issue in India that urgently needs attention, particularly with the pandemic exacerbating disparities and social inequalities. For Children Believe, these insights give tangible direction on where to invest efforts now to improve initiatives. It will also support the organization’s engagement in discussions and actions to strengthen policies, which will more successfully eliminate child, early and forced marriage (CEFM).
In sharing this report, Children Believe seeks to expand knowledge about the issue and bring key actors together to take further action. There is a strong will to end child marriage in India, as indicated by the partners, colleagues, experts and participants at Children Believe’s national consultation. The report findings can help show the way; it is intended to be a catalyst for advanced research, information sharing and a unified effort in developing and implementing comprehensive strategies to end CEFM in India.
Visit the Children Believe India website read the full report.
To learn about other issues children in India face and what Children Believe is doing to support them, read the case study, Balahitha: In favour of children, also found on Children Believe India’s website.
* Based on UNESCO data from 2021.
** According to UNICEF data from 2018.
*** According to Girls Not Brides’ Child Marriage Atlas, based on 2019 population data from United Nations.