Reframing the contemporary child marriage debate – Lessons from India

Recent legislative developments on child marriage in India come at a time when the national data shows declining prevalence and a shift from child to early marriage. Evidence indicates that poverty and insecurity within patriarchal contexts are the main drivers of early marriage, a fact corroborated by the reported spike in child and early marriage under continuing Covid pandemic. In wake of economic distress, job losses, closure of schools and complete suspension of learning for girls without digital means, the numbers of those in poverty have only increased. Such developments add to the urgency of addressing the underlying conditions that exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to early marriage. Yet, precisely at this juncture, the proposal to raise the marriage age of girls from 18 to 21 years is made.

Drawing on the studies by Partners for Law in Development (PLD) in its series on child marriage and adolescent sexuality, as well as the collaborative work of the National Coalition Advocating for Adolescent Concerns (NCAAC) and the wider civil society mobilization in India, the presentation traces the dangers of static child marriage narratives that obscure complex trends, and underplay the role of structural drivers. In national and global policy framing, child marriage discourse increasingly prioritises punitive legislative responses, without equal urgency placed on provisioning of opportunities and resources that expand life choices for girls from marginalized populations. In India and elsewhere, the emphasis on ‘age’ centric outcomes, propel deterrence measures that delay marriage, while diverting attention from welfare obligations to deliver quality education, health care, skill building and livelihood; as well as, safety, mobility, for girls, which are ultimately transformatory. The presentation outlines how the focus on punitive law obscures multiple intersecting concerns as well as structural drivers; it disempowers the young, rendering them more vulnerable to harm.

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