The Ministry of Women and Child Development today held national consultations with States, NGOs, UNICEF and various experts to prevent child marriage. Smt. Neela Ganagadharan, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development presided over the meeting. The purpose of holding the national consultations with various States, NGOs, experts and UN bodies was to collectively deliberate on this issue such that collective wisdom emerging from the deliberations can inform formulation of a holistic policy and national strategy in this regard.
In her inaugural address the Chairperson outlined the various dimensions of the issue. She stated that child marriage seriously impedes the development of the children, although it impacts the girl child with a stronger incidence and intensity. It hampers her physical, mental, emotional and psychological development, the Secretary stated. It limits the child’s freedom to decision making, access to education, life skills and therefore to better opportunities in life, growth and empowerment. The girl children become especially vulnerable to domestic violence, early widowhood, trafficking and other forms of abuse.
The Chairperson informed the gathering that according to the Sample Registration System (SRS) findings of the Registrar General of India, the mean age for marriage of girls in the country has improved from 19.3 years in 1990 to 21.0 years in 2010. However, she also noted that as per the National Family Health Survey, 2005-06, 47.3% of all young women aged 20-24 are married by age 18, while 16% of men of age 20-49 are married by age 18 and 28% by age 20. The incidence of child marriage in rural areas is alarming as it stands at 52% when compared to urban average of 28%. These numbers are shown to be particularly high in states such as West Bengal, Bihar, UP, MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand.
While this issue is steeped in several multi-dimensional social, economic, cultural, community related aspects which make the prevention of child marriages a challenge for the various government, several legislative and programmatic frameworks have been designed to prevent child marriages. Their implementation however needs further strengthening, the Secretary pointed out. The need is therefore to collectively design a multi-sectoral national strategy in this regard, she emphasized.
Elaborating on the initiatives taken by the WCD Ministry, the Secretary said that the Government has declared 24 January as the ‘National Girl Child Day’. Moreover, the SABLA scheme of the Ministry is being implemented in 200 districts in the country on a pilot basis. It aimed at empowering the adolescent girl child, improving their nutritional and health status and providing them various life skills. The other schemes like the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, the National programme for education of Girls at Elementary Level has significant components which contribute to preventing child marriages by way of empowering girl child. There was however a need for the change in the mindset of the society which largely perceives the girl child to be a burden on the families due to the poor socio-economic status of many rural families. An enhanced role of the civil society organizations in creating awareness by way of community mobilisation is thus highlighted. The Secretary, WCD, also mentioned that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2012 has provisions which will deter child marriages.
The following issues and dimensions of the issue were discussed and deliberated upon during the day-long meeting: the low rate of registration of child marriages possibly due the prevailing norm in various communities where this is an acceptable; lack of substantial evidence in many cases arguably due to the support of the families and communities; the difficulty faced by the state enforcement officials and the NGOs to prevent child marriage due to several reasons; impediments in prosecuting the families due to their consent; extreme low rate of registration of cases and almost negligible cases of punishments; huge gap between reported statistics of child marriage in the country and the rate of registration of child marriages with NCRB due to all these reasons; lack of congruence among the extant laws and acts; poor deterrent measures and weak implementation of these measures; need for reconciliation between customary laws and the Prevention of Child Marriage Act 2006, and need for declaration of primacy of the specific act; need for making registration of the marriage compulsory which will act as a deterrent; prescription of minimum punishment under the PCMA 2006 (presently it contains the maximum term of punishment). The presenters discussed that in many rural areas the lack of alternative schooling when formal secondary school facilities are unavailable has contributed to higher incidence of child marriage. Moreover, lack of drinking water and proper toilets for girls has also been found to prevent girls from enrolling in schools due to which they become vulnerable to early marriage between the 14-18 age group. The members highlighted the crucial role the NGOs can play in this area by supplementing the efforts of the state agencies. Moreover, empowering of girls through information, life skills provision and more importantly legal awareness inbuilt within the education system was also very important. Increasing accessibility of girls to schools particularly at Secondary level and providing incentives for the same was also necessary.
Senior officers from Ministry of Health, Department of School Education and Literacy, and Department of Higher Education made presentations highlighting the initiatives taken by their departments to address the issue of child marriage. Representatives from States such as Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Odisha, and Karnataka made presentations providing overview of the initiatives taken by them to prevent and prohibit child marriages.
Senior officers from the WCD Ministry like Sh. Sudhir Kumar, Special Secretary; Smt. Aditi Ray, Sr. Economic Advisor; Sh. Vivek Joshi, JS; and Dr. Shreeranjan, JS were present during the consultations. Members of several NGOs working in the sphere of prevention of child marriage also attended the meeting