On 3 February 2023, the police force in the state of Assam, India, announced a state-wide drive to implement the law on child marriage. Reports suggest that 2,000 people were arrested in the first two days, a figure which has since risen to almost 3,000. Opinion is divided on the outcome of these measures, sparking protests from affected families.
Implementing laws and policies
This action to address child marriage is in response to high adolescent pregnancy rates of 16.8% in the state (data from Reproductive Child Health (RCH) portal). Data-driven action to effectively implement laws against child marriage, recognising the two-way linkages between child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, is encouraging. Enforcement of laws – like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA, 2006) – also sends a strong message from officials that child marriage must end.
However, concerns have been raised around how this law is being implemented. The law states that a child marriage can be annulled if a petition is filed by a person who was a child at the time of their marriage, or by their guardian. If the petition is being filed by the person who was married as a child, it must be done so within two years of the person attaining adulthood. Reports suggest that many of the men arrested were married several years ago and their wives are now adults who did not file for annulment, representing a time lag before punitive action. Most importantly, evidence and learning have shown that criminalisation can be detrimental to girls and women, and so legal enforcement needs to be context-specific, address inequality, and transform social norms.
Providing long-term solutions
Long-term, holistic solutions that transform gender norms and increase educational, economic, and social opportunities for all girls are the only way to end child marriage and support girls who are – or have been – married. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, India, peer learning has been used to reduce barriers to accessing government schemes – on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and cash transfers – that will reduce risk of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy.
Punitive measures in the absence of long-term solutions often have negative consequences for girls and women. Where women lack access to educational and economic opportunities and are financially dependent on their male relations – including their husbands – arrests mean that families can be left without a source of income. In response, the Assam Cabinet has constituted a committee to frame a policy to rehabilitate survivors of child marriage. We welcome reports of financial and welfare assistance initiatives for affected survivors of child marriage from the state government.
Reports also suggest girls and young women in the state fear backlash for accessing the vital health services they need, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is therefore crucial that girls are supported to claim their rights; and that families, communities, and religious and community leaders actively participate in developing interventions aiming to end child marriage.
Ending child marriage will only be possible with coordinated action across multiple sectors. It is vital governments and policymakers commit to acting on the root causes of child marriage. Designing plans and mobilising resources that act to reduce poverty, transform gender norms, and increase opportunities for girls must be prioritised to end child marriage now.
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To find out more:
- Assam government's drive against child marriage a ham-handed attempt - Vidya Reddy, Sannuthi Suresh, Frontline Magazine
- Assam cracks down on child marriages, over 2,000 arrested across the state – Sukrita Baruah, Indian Express
- Assam: India child brides desperate after mass arrests – Zoya Mateen, BBC News, Delhi
- How girl groups, football, are tackling child marriage – Ketaki Desai, Times
- Odisha’s ‘silent’ assault on child marriage – Satyasundar Barik, The Hindu
In the time it has taken to read this article 40 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
The law and child marriage
Progressive legal frameworks are one element of a comprehensive response to address child marriage, as reflected within the Girls Not Brides Theory of Change. Any legal change to address child…
Theory of Change
Learn about our Theory of Change to end child marriage: its four pillars, how to use it, how to measure progress, examples of successful approaches, and how we created it.