Though there has been a significant decline in the number of child marriages in the country, the high number of minor girls entering motherhood and their poor health status is a cause for worry, according to latest data released by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) for 2015-2016.
Since child marriage is considered the reason behind high maternal mortality rate among minors, government initiatives like the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (RGSEAG) SABLA, a programme initiated under the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), is to be largely credited for the decrease in child marriages. Rani Singh (name changed), a 13-year-old school-going girl in Gumla district, Jharkhand, who received counselling through SABLA, said, “I believed in obeying my parents. So when my parents told me they were going to find a suitable groom for me, I agreed. My mother worked at the Anganwadi centre where she got to know about the SABLA programme. After the sessions, my mother was convinced that she must postpone my marriage and instead helped me focus on my studies.” NFHS-4 data reveals that the number of child marriages in several states has fallen dramatically. In Madhya Pradesh, the number of women aged between 20-24 years who were married before the age of 18 came down from 53% in 2005-06 to 30% in 2015-16; in Haryana, the figure came down from 39.8% in 2005-06 to 18.5% in 2015-16; in Bihar, the decline was from 60.3% in 2005-06 to 39.1% in 2015-16; Meghalaya witnessed a decline from 24.5% in 2005-06 to 16.5% in 2015-16 and in Uttarakhand, the numbers came down from 22.6% in 2005-06 to 13.9% in 2015-16.
Dr Aparajita Gogoi, Executive Director, Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3), said, “India has the highest number of child brides in the world. It is estimated that 47% of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday. While fewer Indian girls are marrying before the age of 15, the rates of marriage have increased for girls between ages 15 to 18.”
A recent United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report said that 720 million women around the world, alive today, were married before 18 years, and one third, about 240 million, of these are in India. Around 16% or one in six girls in the age group of young mothers in India has conceived.
Dr Gogoi said, “The unprepared bodies of young girls cannot take the pressure of child bearing and there are high chances of health complications like anemia from malnutrition, which is widespread among the young mothers and has adverse effects in brain functioning.” India contributes to 15% of the global maternal death toll. About 44,000 Indian women die annually. Young mothers contribute to about 45% of maternal mortality. The maternal mortality rate in India was 174 per 100,000 in 2015 (World Bank), out of which half of the maternal mortality rate is attributed to young mothers. Annually, four million Indian girls aged 15-19 give birth, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA 2013). These young girls are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth compared to those over 20 years of age. The SABLA scheme targets girls in the age group of 11-18 years and is currently piloted in 200 districts across the country using the platform of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The scheme aims to enable girls to improve their nutrition and health status, hygiene, adolescent reproductive and sexual health (ARSH).
Dr Gogoi said, “A girl in India who finishes secondary education is six times less likely to marry early. Educated girls would mean increase in contraceptive use. If 10% more girls finish secondary school, our country’s GDP will increase on average by 3%. Schemes like SABLA, Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), and Beti Bacho, Beti Padhao should be implemented and budgetary allocations for women’s empowerment schemes need to be increased with a focus on education and employment.”
Rani Singh said, “We are searching for a bride for my 23-year-old brother. One family made us meet their 16-year-old who dropped out in Class 8. We refused the match and advised the girl’s father to educate her first.”