One in seven girls in developing countries is married before their 15th birthday, usually against her will. Across the globe, more than 60 million girls find themselves innocent victims as child brides, despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulation that 18 is the minimum age for marriage. While many countries have adhered to this age restriction, others have fixed the minimum age at 16, while some countries have yet to set or enforce any minimum age for marriage.
Though child marriage is outlawed in many states, it continues to thrive in the dark of night or in the rural villages often out of reach of the rule of law. In India, Parliament passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1978, setting the minimum age for women to get married at 18 and 21 for men. Despite the law, child marriages still continue, especially in populous northern states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. According to a 2010 study in India one-fifth of married women were wed before they were 15 years-old and half of those surveyed were married before they turned 18 years-old. The study was conducted by the Population Council of India and released by Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad in Febu. It also found that 47 percent had their first pregnancy in the first year of their marriage, while a quarter of those who were married as children also experience some form of physical violence in the marriage (Hindu).
Child marriages violate the rights of the child in many ways, but the most concerning violation is a girl’s right to consent. How do we end this outdated practice, that continues to harm girls across the globe? One Indian state believes that they may have found a viable solution to help curb child marriage. In the state of Haryana, child marriage is on the decline, a rare victory in this battle against.
Haryana instituted a cash-incentive program to prevent child marriage in 1994 called Apni Beti Apni Dhan, which translates to mean “Our Daughters, Our Wealth”. The program provides families with 500 rupees ($11, the equivalent of less than half a week’s pay) when a female child is born, and creates a savings bond account for the child. Once the girl is 18, if she has remained unwed, then she is eligible to redeem the bond, worth 25,000 rupees (roughly $500, or one third of an average yearly income). Whether it can be tied directly to Apni Beti or not, child marriage is on the decline in Haryana. The state saw an 18 percent drop in the practice between 1992 and 2006. Haryana community workers say that thus far none of the program’s beneficiaries have been married off by their parents, who know of the program’s promised payout (The Daily Beast). Many of the girls graduating the program have expressed that they would like to use the money for education; however, it is still unclear how the the first graduates of the program will use their incentives and if they will be able to allocate the funding as they choose or if family values and opinions will hinder many of the young women.
Will monetary incentives work in other Indian states and countries? It has become clear in other limited testings that such cash incentives, as I wrote in the piece Using Food to Increase Birth Registration, are proving successful in a number of areas of development. However, while the incentive may be a substantial asset in the fight against child marriage, it cannot be a one size fits all band-aid approach. The causes and implications of child marriage are complex and interconnected, thus there is no simple solution to eradicate child marriage.
In order to end this tradition for good we must look at all the reasons that people continue to practice child marriage: poverty, marginalization of girls, illiteracy, lack of education, poor health, among other factors. States and the international community must ensure that families are educated about the true effects of child marriage and see that sustainable solutions are put in place, while also enforcing the rule of law and ensuring violators are prosecuted for their roles in child marriage. Making education available for girls, seeing that families have alternatives methods to repay debts, eliminating poverty, providing health education on HIV/AIDS and other diseases, are all needed to end the suffering of girls across the globe, and put child marriage in the past, where it belongs. While support is growing to ban child marriage the fight is far from easy.
For more information on this global fight, please see previous posts on Child Marriage.