By Nisha Mehroon, Program Director, Access to Justice and Veronica Gomes, Director, Community Based Interventions and Economic Empowerment, Sanjog, India
India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world: 223 million child brides as of 2020 – a third of the global total. While it is illegal for boys and girls under the age of 21 to marry in India, estimates suggest that in practice at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married each year. There has however been a significant decline in child marriages over the last decade - the prevalence of girls getting married before age 18 has declined from 47 per cent to 27 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016. Civil society reports children of economically distressed families are at greater risk of labour or sex trafficking, both of which have increased in the post COVID-19 pandemic period due to loss of parental employment and school closures. General economic hardship also resulted in a greater number of child marriages.
Child marriage is closely related to human trafficking, as it often involves the illegal transportation and exploitation of minors in the garb of marriage. Children, especially girls are often forced into marriage against their will. Traffickers may deceive, coerce or even lure families with money and promises to marry off their children, sometimes even selling them, all of which amount to trafficking. This practice perpetuates a cycle of abuse, as child brides often experience physical and emotional trauma, abuse, limited education, and economic dependence. Combating child marriage is crucial in the fight against human trafficking. It helps protect the rights and well-being of children, particularly girls, who are most at risk.
The consequences of child marriage and related trafficking not just impacts individuals and households, it cripples the community and the nation at large. Addressing the causes of child marriage calls for an integrated multi-level approach, involving children and other key stakeholders and beneficiaries at the family, community/society, state and national levels. Within this integrated approach, caution should be taken when examining and judging what is harmful to or protective of children. This is because while rights of participation and protection are important, traditional values through the concept of the collective good and social acceptance are also valuable. Bringing together survivor leaders in the community who have experience of trauma, exploitation, and trafficking has been instrumental in creating a safe space for adolescents and young adults. Flow of resources from the state to promote education and establish apprenticeships for children and adolescents is the need of the hour. Activation of vigilance groups to blocks and districts at the village level with strong communication links between each level is key to providing a safety net for vulnerable groups. The engagement of children in the path towards child protection and prevention of early marriages is the way forward. This encompasses education and awareness raising, including the integration of the negative impacts of child marriage in the school curriculum.