Three out of every five child brides, surveyed as part of a study across four states, went through teenage pregnancy, a new report has claimed.
The report by NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) said under-age marriage has a detrimental impact on girls’ sexual and reproductive health (SRH) as majority of them become mothers before attaining adulthood.
Study included 40 villages
The study was conducted in 40 villages of eight blocks from four districts namely Chittoor, Chandouli, Parbhani, and Kandhamal in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha.
The study was conducted on the occasion of Children’s Day and Child Safety Week (November 14 to 20).
The study claimed that only 16 per cent parents and parents-in-law and 34 per cent of child brides or grooms are aware of the negative consequences of child marriage.
While the study highlighted social norms and practices majorly influencing perception of under-age marriage in the society, it said other factors contributing to child marriage were extreme poverty, forced migration and gender inequity.
The findings also implied that lack of educational opportunities due to issues of accessibility, availability and affordability pushes girls to drop out of school, leaving them far more vulnerable to child marriage in comparison to boys.
Dominant reason for child marriage
Fear of girls eloping or having a “love affair” leading to premarital sex and pregnancy emerged as dominant reasons why parents prefer to marry off their daughters as soon as they reach puberty, the study claimed.
Lower dowry, the patriarchal construct of ‘women’s honour’, finding grooms and adaptation by girls being easier in new households too are reasons behind high prevalence of child marriage, the study suggests.
Puja Marwaha, the CEO of CRY said the study aimed to understand the prevailing knowledge, attitudes, practices and social behaviour regarding child marriage as well as to document nuanced initiatives taken at the community levels to challenge child marriage practices. “The study also tried to map the convergence of community and government systems under the available provisions and practices to determine the scope for synergies at both ends,” Marwaha said.
Child marriage and its impact
Going by the findings of the study, child marriage has a detrimental impact on girls’ sexual and reproductive health as the majority of them become mothers before attaining adulthood, thus being exposed to high-risk pregnancy, it said.
More than half of the women respondents – 51 per cent of child brides with at least two children, stated that the gap between their first and second child was less than two years, while 59 per cent of child brides stated to have experienced teenage pregnancy, it said.
A sizable proportion of adolescent mothers reported to have given birth to babies with low birth-weight. According to the study, 17 per cent and 16 per cent of child brides reported having babies with low birth-weight for their first and second child, respectively.
The study found that cases of child marriage in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha were still prevalent, even though there has been some decline in number of cases over the past few years as observed by duty bearers and community members.
However, in Maharashtra, there was a discrepancy in the responses of duty bearers and community members.
While the duty bearers asserted that cases had decreased, the community members, particularly adolescent girls, responded that in some clusters, people managed to arrange child marriages in greater numbers than before, the study claimed.
Child marriage cases have gone down in the past 5 years
Comparative analysis of NFHS-4 (2015-16) and NFHS-5 (2019-21) done by CRY shows that child marriage cases have indeed declined over the past five years both at the national level and in the four research states, it said.
Andhra Pradesh has recorded highest percentage of child marriage cases followed by Maharashtra, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. However, the pace of decline in child marriages is comparatively slow in Odisha over the past five years.
According to the Sample Registration System (SRS) 2020 data (published in 2022), Odisha has the highest percentage (3.7 per cent) of females who married effectively below the age of 18 years, followed by Uttar Pradesh among the four above mentioned states. The least has been recorded in Maharashtra.
Mean age at effective marriage of females during child marriage is lowest in Uttar Pradesh (16.3 Years) followed by Odisha (16.5 years), Andhra Pradesh (16.6 years) and Maharashtra (17), while the national average stands at 16.5 years, it said.
According to the NFHS-4 and NFHS-5 data, percentage of women within the age group of 15-19 years who were already mothers or pregnant is highest in Andhra Pradesh (12.5 per cent).
It is pertinent to note that the other three states have been a showing declining trend of child marriages and teenage pregnancy in the past five years, but Andhra Pradesh has shown a reverse trend over the same period of time.
“These findings imply that public health emergencies such as pandemic and other calamities may have a significant impact on increasing vulnerabilities, putting many children, particularly girls, at risk of marrying at an early age,” Marwaha said.
Talking about the way forward, she said, “Strengthening village-level child protection mechanisms by the government and the civil society organisations, along with sustained efforts to alleviate poverty and social inequality by creating livelihood options are some of the ways which will go a long way in to address child marriage.” She also highlighted that increasing girls’ access to education can play a key role in reducing child marriages.
“Study findings revealed that 86 per cent of child brides who had ever attended school dropped out after marriage. Ensuring that girls are retained in schools till they complete 18 years will be a strategic step in preventing child marriages,” she added.