New Delhi: The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has concluded that one in every five girls in Gujarat gets married before turning 18, which is the legal age for marriage.
According to a report in Times in India, 5.2% of all married girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were mothers or pregnant at the time the survey was carried out.
The survey further found that 27.7% of males in the state had gotten married before they turned 21, which was the legal age for men to marry.
The survey also found that underage marriage was more prevalent in rural areas and that 26.9% of girls and 33.9% of boys were getting married before the age of 18. It also highlighted that 6.7% of married girls from rural areas in the 15-19 age group were mothers or pregnant, while the figure was 2.6% in urban areas.
Additionally, 21.8% of the women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they had turned 18, the survey, which was released on Sunday, said.
Last month itself, a nursing student, who was six months short of the legal marriageable age, called the 181 Abhayam women’s helpline in Gujarat’s Navsari town to stop her own marriage as she had not attained the legal age.
A senior officer from the state health department told TOI that the government had made no serious effort to curb child marriage and added that cultural sensitivities often blunt drives against child marriage.
A senior coordinator for the Abhayam 181 helpline said, that between 2017 and 2019, a 90% increase in calls relating to underage marriage was recorded in Gujarat. “In 2019, we had recorded a five-year high in the number of calls, at 271,” the coordinator said.
The survey also found a high prevalence of child marriages was found in Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura, where over 40% of women were married before they turned 18.
Andhra Pradesh (12.6%), Assam (11.7%), Bihar (11%), Tripura (21.9%), West Bengal (16.4%) reported the highest number of women aged 15-19 years who were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the National Family Health Survey-5.
Bihar (40.8%), Tripura (40.1%) and West Bengal (41.6%) were among the states where the highest number of surveyed women aged 20-24 years reported to have been married before they turned 18, which is the legal age for marriage.
Assam (31.8%), Andhra Pradesh (29.3%), Gujarat (21.8%), Karnataka (21.3%), Maharashtra (21.9%), Telangana (23.5%) and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu (26.4%) were other states and UTs where a high number of women aged 20-24 years reported to have been married before they turned 18, the survey said.
In 2018, counsellors of Abhayam 181 helpline recorded a 21% increase in reporting of child marriages to the helpline. While 143 marriages were reported in 2017, 174 or three child marriages per week were reported in 2018.
“With communities organising mass-wedding events, people hasten to get their girls married. Many parents fear that if they delay the marriage of their girls, they might not find a groom within their community,” sociologist Gaurang Jani told the national daily.
Across the country, as many as 5,584 phone calls were received by the Centre to prevent child marriages during the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Additionally, at least 92,203 interventions were made by Childline, the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development to protect children in distress during the lockdown period.
Of the total, almost 35% of the phone calls were related to child marriage – categorised under child protection concerns or Protection from Abuse and Violence (PFA).
In October, the Centre indicated its intention to revise the minimum age of marriage for girls after it received a report by a committee set up to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for girls.
“There is an important deliberation going on to decide what should be the ideal age of marriage for daughters,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said
However, in response to the proposal, a Gujarat civil society collective sent a memorandum to authorities in the state saying that “increasing the age at marriage may prove to be in fact more detrimental”.
“Amongst the major determinants of early marriage one is poverty, the second is the patriarchal control over a girl’s sexuality and a third is the failure of the education system to create a viable alternative. These have to be recognised and addressed squarely if we have to address the issue of early marriage,” its memorandum said.
The collective stressed that the focus of the government should be on better and more accessible schools, widely-available sexual and reproductive health services and a robust nutrition programme.
(With inputs from PTI)