Child marriage has been illegal in India for 73 years, but the tradition still lives on: a third of all adolescent girls are married by 15.
Hindus across India recently celebrated Akha Teej, the most auspicious day for marriage. Many thousands of couples were joined in matrimony during communal ceremonies.
Parents and relatives rejoiced, communities celebrated -and human rights campaigners despaired.
In most of the unions the bride and groom are children, even babes-in-arms, lifted up by family members to touch the marriage arch (Toran) and perform – without comprehension or consent – the most important ceremony of their lives.
Child marriage has been illegal in India for 73 years.
Across the world, another auspicious event also took place in May. The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children adopted 21 child welfare goals for the next decade, including an end to "harmful traditional or customary practices such as early and forced marriage".
According to the UN Children's Fund, millions of children are forced into early marriage due to poverty, tradition and parental desire to protect daughters from unwanted sexual advances. Most commonly practised in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, child marriage denies a woman the right to freely choose her partner, and often triggers further human rights violations including the end of her formal education.
The Akha Teej festivities began just five days after the UN deliberations concluded, despite a week-long campaign by India's National Commission for Women to enforce the country's 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act. The law currently prohibits marriage of girls below 18 years and of boys below 21 years of age.
Although the age of marriage for women – particularly in urban areas – is rising to approximately 19 years of age, according to the 1998-99 National Family Health Survey one-third of all adolescent girls are married by the age of 15.
In the relatively wealthy southern state of Karnataka, child marriage is the norm among members of the Gowli community. In October 2001, 12 child couples were married in a mass wedding ceremony, among them five year-old Bammubai, who attends pre-primary school. When asked if she knows what marriage means, she points to her mangalsutra (a chain worn around the neck that signifies marriage).
"I got my daughter married [early] because it is a tradition among us Gowlis," says Bammubai's mother Dhondubai. Defending the practice, she says that her daughter will not be denied her childhood. "She will be sent to her husband only when she attains puberty," Dhondubai insists.
Fourteen year-old Fatima, who takes care of her husband, aged in-laws and two younger sisters-in-law, has reason to doubt. "It is assumed that once a girl is married, she is an adult, even if she is only just a child," she says.
Dr Sunil Mehra of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Health Institute for Mother and Child, did not mince words when he spoke to a packed meeting on child marriage at the Children's Summit.
For girls, adolescent marriage is "child labour in its worse form", Mehra said bluntly.
While tradition is often cited as the reason, "it is poverty that compels people to go for an early marriage of their children," according to Manoj Satpathy of the Manab Seba Parishad, an NGO working in the eastern state of Orissa.
Parents of a girl are often eager to relieve themselves of the burden of feeding one more mouth. There is also the lure of money. The Gowli tribals practise bride price. Getting a girl married early could bring in money for a family, however small the amount.
Many parents choose early marriage for altruistic motives. "In urban slums, girls are married early to protect them from unwanted sexual advances," says Dr Sandhya, a doctor at the Sultanpalya Health Centre in Bangalore.
The reality is sex within marriage can also be dangerous for vulnerable girls who may endure "unequal, potentially coercive, uninformed and [unhealthy] sexual relations with a relative stranger," according to researcher Judith Bruce, of the New York-based Population Council.
A 1997 study by the international aid organisation Oxfam, among women in Calcutta, found that half had married at or below the age of 15 and that 80 per cent of the young wives endured sexual violence within marriage.
"Though marriage is often seen as the gateway to safe, socially sanctioned sexual relations," Bruce argues, when girls' first sexual exposure is through marriage to older men, "it does not reduce and… clearly increases girls' exposure to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV."
Family pressure on young brides to prove their fertility is intense, and they lack bargaining power with partners over sexual relations and contraception. Young brides who fail to immediately conceive are deemed barren – and may be cast out of the marital home.
"The transition from child-bride to child-mother is almost immediate in the case of many girls in India," agrees Dr Mala Ramachandran of the India Population Project.
Married adolescent girls -often suffering from severe anaemia and malnutrition -are at heightened risk during pregnancy and childbirth. According to the UN, maternal mortality is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15 to 19 year olds.
In a bid to halt child marriage, government and NGOs are uniting to strengthen the Child Marriage Restraint Act -which clearly has failed to stop the practice. The present Act is notoriously difficult to enforce – police cannot make arrests without applying for a magistrate's order, which may be granted days after marriages are solemnised -and some officials are guilty of accepting bribes.
The punishment for offenders -a maximum three month prison sentence and fine of approximately $25 -is too mild to act as a deterrent, reformers believe. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, few are sentenced: the number of prosecutions under the Act never exceeded 89 in any year between 1994 and 1998.
Now India's National Commission for Women has proposed amendments to the Act to include stringent punishment, compulsory registration of all marriages, the appointment of child marriage prevention officers in each state and make it obligatory upon anyone attending a child marriage to prevent or report it to authorities.
A multitude of interventions that encourage later marriage are also needed to halt the practice, experts believe. "Increasing girls' time in school may be one of the best ways to foster later, chosen marriages," says Bruce.
In the Indian state of Kerala -which has given high priority to facilitating better health and education for girls -most women marry between 21 and 24 years of age.
"[Child] marriage can't be handled in isolation," Mehra agrees. "The issues are so deep-rooted there will be no [single] answer."