The last two weeks have witnessed a brutal crackdown under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 and the Prevention of Child Marriages Act (PCMA), 2006 in the state of Assam. So far, thousands have been arrested under PCMA. Supposedly driven by the underage marriage rate estimate provided by the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) released in 2022, the government says it will continue this exercise until the next state elections of 2026. Subsequently, news reports are rife with incidences of teens bleeding to death during childbirth or dying by suicide to prevent their parents or husbands from being arrested. Dread and dismay pervade across the state as young mothers are rendered helpless in the face of the sudden arrests of their husbands, who are in most cases, the sole breadwinners. Clearly, the legislative actions of the state have only worsened the situation.
One explanation for this is that mere legislative action, that too ex post facto, breeds a sense of fear and helplessness, inducing individuals to conceal and adopt illegal means to evade being arrested. If the cause of concern motivating this legislative frenzy is high maternal mortality ratios and teenage pregnancy rates, then emphasis should be laid upon providing access to contraception and maternal healthcare, increasing education, providing job opportunities and enabling financial independence to women. Enabling provisions such as these to provide women with the agency to exercise personal choice, bodily autonomy and will allow them to postpone births to a later age.
Moreover, teenage pregnancies, maternal and infant mortality are not solely driven by age at marriage. The cause-and-effect relationship between child marriage and maternal and child health outcomes are more complex than the government’s assumptions. They are responses to a variety of factors at play, the most prominent of which is poverty and lack of access to education. In fact, the age at marriage itself is determined by poverty and lack of access to education. Below, some of these issues are explained in detail.
What is causing child marriage in Assam?
Research demonstrates that the reasons for child marriage in India are heterogeneous across the states. In the case of Assam, cultural factors play a key role alongside poverty and lack of access to education. Assam, along with parts of West Bengal, has precarious, uncertain and unsustainable livelihoods – primarily attributable to factors specific to local geographies. Communities are often mobile and comprise a huge migrant population. Under this uncertain circumstance, inadequate access to education for children, coupled with poverty, makes them vulnerable to marrying off young girls – who are perceived as a “burden” – and also as a matter of protection and safety. And, the presence of Muslims in such poverty-stricken locations is higher compared to Hindus.
Although religion-wise differences in child marriage rates are greater in Assam compared to other states, it is difficult to say religion itself is causing child marriage. If religion is the major reason for child marriage, why is the situation different in other states with a significant Muslim population? The NFHS data in Figure 1 shows that the child marriage rate among Hindus is more compared to Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir.
From Figure 2, we find a strong correlation between the lack of schooling and child marriage rates across the districts of Assam. Similarly, the percentage of women giving birth as teenagers in Assam is about six times higher among those who did not attend school than those who had 12 or more years of schooling.
Is child marriage the sole reason for poor maternal and child health outcomes?
Child marriage certainly deepens the problems of poor and poorly educated women, especially in terms of maternal and child health outcomes. However, the mechanisms through which child marriage affects the socio-economic and health outcomes of women and their children are more complex. For instance, Figure 3 suggests lack of a minimum of 10 years of schooling results in poor maternal healthcare uptake, while from Figure 2, it is evident that child marriage is proportional to lack of schooling.
Furthermore, careful observation of the infant mortality rate (IMR) prevalence in Figure 4 for the state of Assam suggests that the differences by schooling are several times higher compared to the differences by mother’s age at first birth and religion.
The Assam government’s recent efforts to address child marriages in the state through legal means and force are doing more harm than good. Such a futile legislative crackdown is worsening the vulnerabilities of those who already suffering from extreme poverty, illiteracy and poor maternal health outcomes. A careful study of the data suggests that legal measures such as the PCMA can make marriages cluster around 18 or just after crossing 18 years. And, marriage after reaching 18 years of age is not a magic milestone which results in better socio-economic and health outcomes for women and their children.
However, exercising harsh laws to curb child marriages retrospectively plunges women into further throes of deprivation, trapping an entire generation in a vicious cycle of poverty and compromise on seeking essential social safety programmes including maternal and child healthcare services. Moreover, the PCMA doesn’t support a retrospective application. Once a marriage is consummated, the law considers it to be valid and children born out of such unions enjoy all legal rights. It is imperative that the focus shifts back to improving women’s access to education, job opportunities, contraception and maternal and child healthcare services for better holistic socio-economic and health outcomes and move towards sustainable development goals.
Srinivas Goli, associate professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. Shreya Singh, student, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.