A detailed baseline study conducted in seven districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh shows that underage marriages are still widely prevalent, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
By Nayana Chowdhury*, Uttar Pradesh
India is today a country of the young, but rigid patriarchal structures and regressive social norms in many parts of the country are making it impossible for the country's youth to realise their full potential. The widespread practice of underage marriage is a prime example of this.
As per Census 2011, around 2 million adolescent girls —which translates into 9.2% of all girls of ages 10-19 years — were married in UP.
The country has around 240 million adolescents (10-19 years) according to Census 2011, forming about 22% of the total population of India. We often talk of a demographic dividend because most of our citizens are young. However, this advantage quickly turns into a nightmare since 70% of adolescent girls in India are anaemic; the figure for boys is 50%. More worryingly, as many as 47% of Indian girls get married before they are 18 years of age, according to a 2016 report by UNICEF. This severely damages their potential of growing into productive adults.
Adolescence represents a critical stage of transition from childhood to maturity. The physical and emotional experiences, knowledge and skills acquired during this phase have important implications during adulthood. Adolescents, however, are neither seen as adults nor as children and often bear a double disadvantage due to it. Like any other vulnerable demographic group, gender discrimination makes it even more difficult for girls.
Some of the states that are very important for driving overall growth indicators of India represent a grim picture. Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous state within India, is a case in point. The state ranks first in terms of adolescent population in the country. Census 2011 threw up several bleak statistics for this age group in UP. As per the Census 2011, around 2 million adolescent girls —which translates into 9.2% of all girls of ages 10-19 years — were married. An even more alarming figure is that around one million children were born to these adolescent girls in Uttar Pradesh and 10.1% of those babies died.
No girl as bride
Says Girls Not Brides, an international civil society organisation:
"Patriarchy, class, and caste influence the norms and expectations around the role of women and girls in India. In many communities, restrictive norms limit girls to the role of daughter, wife, and mother who are first seen as the property of her father and then of her husband. Controlling girls' and women's sexuality is an influential factor in the practice of child marriage too."
These deductions become clearer when we engage in research in eastern UP, which generally presents a worse picture than the rest of the state. The districts bordering Nepal in eastern UP are among the worst in all human development indicators. In 2016, a situational analysis (SA) study was undertaken by an NGO called Breakthrough Trust with the help of research agency NRMC in seven districts of Eastern UP to understand the issues in depth. The study found that the school dropout rate rapidly increases with age and therefore, fewer numbers of children can be found in the school after the age of 14 or class 8, compared with ages 10-12.
The prevalence of early marriage is higher amongst Scheduled Castes (SC) compared with non-SC communities.
Cohorts covering standard 6, 7, 8 hence seemed most critical for direct intervention for any program that tries to target reduction in adolescent pregnancy and early marriage, as these are the formative years and there is still some chances of getting adolescents in schools. It noted that along with physical, psychological and emotional changes that adolescents go through, social and gender norms at different levels start playing out extensively at this stage. However, it is critical to remember that the ages between 15 and 19 years are crucial for adolescents as pressure to drop out from school increases manifold (on anyone who is still attending)—for girls to get married and boys to start earning.
An analysis of the prevalence of married adolescent girls in the age groups 10-14 years and 15-19 years (Census 2011) in seven project districts shows worrying trends. While early marriages among adolescent girls (10-14 years) in the project districts were low at 3-4%, the percentage rises significantly in the age group of 15-19 years. While Maharajganj and Siddharthnagar had the highest proportions — 24% to 23% — who were ever married, Varanasi at an average of 20% showed a higher prevalence. The remaining four districts had 14% to 18% of girls who were married.
An overwhelming 46% of the adolescents said they have experienced physical and verbal abuse within the family.
A further analysis of the census data reveals that the prevalence of early marriage is higher amongst Scheduled Castes (SC) compared with non-SC communities. The proportion of married adolescent females of 5-19 years amongst SC communities ranged from 19% to 33%, while the same range among non-SC communities ranged from 17% to 24%. The SC communities also fare worse on other social economic development indicators such as education, employment and poverty.
Acceptance of violence
An overwhelming 46% of the adolescents said they have experienced physical and verbal abuse within the family. This acceptance of physical violence if they break norms means that bringing in change is going to be an uphill task. This applies to the practice of underage marriages as well.
The good news is that organisations are focusing on this and governments are aware of the need of working with adolescents to accrue the real demographic dividend. It is a positive signal that governments and NGOs are increasingly coming together to tackle the issue of adolescents' empowerment.
Nayana Chowdhury is Program Manager at IKEA Foundation. She started her career with a grassroots organisation that supports people's movements to secure basic human rights and entitlements in rural and tribal areas of India. Chowdhury also had a long stint with the Tata Trusts. She has a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Delhi. The views expressed in the article are personal.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.