Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA), 18 is the legal age of marriage for girls, and 21 for boys in India. Despite several years of this Act being in existence, the early marriage of children continues to be practiced in West Bengal. According to DLHS -3, 2007-08, the state ranked fifth highest in the country when it came to the prevalence of child marriage, with almost every second girl a child bride (54.7%). Although more pervasive in rural areas, statistics revealed than even in non-slum areas of Kolkata, more than a quarter of girls are married before they reach adulthood.
Child marriage is a gendered practice, affecting far more girls than boys. It is perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse of minor girls, and has a negative impact on their health and the health of their children, leaves them financially and socially disempowered, and vulnerable to child labour, trafficking and other forms of exploitation. In fact, the districts with the highest incidence of child marriage in West Bengal are also those where trafficking is rampant.
Child marriage and school drop-outs go hand in hand. In West Bengal, attendance of girls in school drops from 85% in the age-group 6-10 years to a mere 33% in the age group 15-17 years (NFHS III, 2005-06). After the implementation of free and universal elementary education in India, progress in enrollment and completion of elementary school has been noticed, however, the transition from elementary to secondary school remains a concern. Secondary education is not free, and many impoverished parents, failing to see the economic rationale for investing in their daughters education, marry them off at this age in the belief that this will enhance the girls and the familys security. This step however, condemns the girls to a life of financial and social insecurity. Field studies show that most women have to take up some economic activity in later years, and that their lack of qualifications and work experience makes them ill-equipped for the labour market, and therefore susceptible to poverty and exploitation throughout life. As a result, poverty, a factor that fuels child marriage, in turn perpetuates the feminization of poverty.
After the enactment of the PCMA 2006, the Department of Women Development and Social Welfare and Child Development (DWD) implemented anti-child marriage campaigns spreading the message of prevention, and endorsing enforcement of the law and its penal provisions for adults aiding and abetting child marriage,. However it quickly became evident that legal prohibition and social messaging are largely ineffective in addressing child marriage. For one, Indias multiplicity of formal and religious laws complicates the issue of what constitutes the appropriate age of marriage for girls. Secondly, because the practice is ascribed to time-honoured tradition and is justified from a patriarchal perspective as essential for protection of girls from the evils of society, eradicating it requires tangible drivers of social change that can transform victims made vulnerable by their age and gender into actors determining their own lives.
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