India’s West Bengal state tries to put an end to child marriages: ‘we want to save all girls’

The legal age for marriage in India is 21 for men and 18 for women. However, child marriages, both forced and voluntary, have become more common in India’s eastern state of West Bengal. According to a January study by medical journal The Lancet, the state accounts for 15.2 per cent of all child marriages in India.

According to Unicef, India is home to 223 million child brides – the largest number globally.

Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages, during the Assam government’s statewide crackdown, protest outside a police station on February 4, 2023. Photo: AFP

In 2022, the United Nations Population Fund, stated that some 42 per cent of the women aged 20-24 in West Bengal marry before 18, as opposed to 23 per cent, nationally.

To improve girls’ quality of life and delay their marriages, the state government founded conditional cash transfer programmes – Kanyashree and Rupashre – but there is concern the funds could be used for paying a dowry, activists said.

One of the main reasons child marriages are so prevalent in India, is because the bride’s family pays a lower dowry price to the husband for younger girls than for older women, activists said.

Special adolescent girls’ clubs have also been established in some areas, to stop child marriages, where mothers talk to young men to prevent them from marrying minors.

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Religious leaders from both Hindu and Muslim communities have also come forward.

In one video on social media platform X, a Muslim cleric in West Bengal’s Malda vows that to discourage parents from allowing their young children to be married. Muslim clerics have also organised rallies, warning parents they could face jail time for marrying off their underage daughters.

Aminuddin Faizi, the imam of Jama Masjid at Malda’s Sonakul, said after prayers on special religious days such as Eid, he sends out messages persuading families not to let their girls get married, because they are physically and emotionally not ready.

In another video, a Hindu priest in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri vowed to report any child marriage cases to the authorities.

Muslim clerics and community members hold up a sign for the Child Marriage Free India campaign in Siliguri in West Bengal. Photo: Shakti Vahini

Debabrata Panda, a Hindu priest in Purba Medinipur’s Amdamad village, who is part of a nationwide Child Marriage Free India campaign, told This Week In Asia he checks the birth certificate of the bride and the groom before solemnising a marriage, and urged his fellow priests to do the same.

Including religious leaders in putting an end to this practice, however, was not easy for the volunteers of Delhi-based non-profit Shakti Vahini, part of the nationwide campaign along with more than 160 other organisations.

Only, after being told by activists that they could go to jail for promoting, permitting, or failing to prevent underage marriage, did they understand the importance of stopping underage marriage.

“Religious leaders are often the first set of people to know about such marriages, and they are best equipped to generate awareness and stop them,” Nishi Kant, executive director at Shakti Vahini, said. “Making them socially responsible is important, as they enjoy considerable influence and trust among people.”

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A child rights’ activist in Malda, on the condition of anonymity, however, said the campaign by faith leaders is “superficial” and “hogwash” because they work in tandem with the political leaders, who don’t want to upset the local community – their “vote bank”.

At least 350 child marriages in both Hindu and Muslim communities at Dakshin Dinajpur district were stopped in 2022 and 2033, owing to the collective effort of activists, teachers, welfare officials and community members, said child rights activist Suraj Das.

But, thousands more goes unreported, he said, with several hospitals in the district jointly reported 6,000 underage mothers giving birth to children in the same period.

According to Das, secretary of non-profit Ujjiban Society in Dakshin Dinajpur, local marriage registrars prepare duplicate birth certificates certifying minors as adults, making it impossible to prove cases of child marriage.

Hindu community members taking part in Child Marriage Free India campaign at a temple in Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal. Photo: Shakti Vahini

Such cases of fake birth certificates facilitating child marriages have been reported in other parts of India including Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana.

In Dakshin Dinajpur – a district on the Indo-Bangladesh border, most child marriage cases end in human trafficking through the underage girl’s husband or his friends, who lure young girls with work opportunities in far away cities.

“But legally, these cases are barely reported, and therefore tracing back these girls becomes impossible,” Das said.

Das said data is missing because most cases are registered as kidnapping and abduction and slavery, and not trafficking, but child rights activists have rescued many underage child marriage victims, who have been trafficked.

A paper titled, Child Marriage Trafficking in India: Victims of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, stated child marriages in India are linked with poverty, low educational attainment and trafficking.

A 2023 study by non-profit Vipla Foundation, in collaboration with a Mumbai court, found that 76 per cent of 163 victims rescued from commercial sexual exploitation between 2019 and 2022, got married after dropping out of school at a young age, indicating an increased vulnerability to trafficking.

According to the International Labour Organization, 30 per cent of those impacted by human trafficking globally, are in a forced marriage.

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“Almost every victim of trafficking is a victim of child marriage,” said Murshidabad-based child rights activist Soma Bhowmick.

Adding that adolescent boys leave school in Murshidabad to work as child labourers, while girls drop out to get married, either under coercion or by choice, Bhowmick said. When the husbands of these girls leave for cities in search of work, they make friends with other unknown males over social media, who often hand them over to traffickers in exchange for money.

The high number of child marriages in West Bengal, also leads to another problem – teen pregnancies.

A 2023 government survey found that one in six pregnant women in West Bengal is a teenager. Adolescent pregnancy in the state is 16 per cent, opposed to seven per cent nationally.

But Bhowmick said that auxiliary nurses, midwives, and accredited social health activists, who treat pregnant teen mothers, do not report the cases to police fearing harassment, by officers during questioning over facilitating the childbirth by underage mothers.

But we don’t want to give up, we want to save all girls from underage marriage

Rupsha Sarka, activist against child marriage

“There is a need to break this culture of silence,” Bhowmick added.

Some steps are taken by adolescents themselves to curb child marriages.

In Murshidabad, around 17 girls between the ages of 11 to 17 formed a club last year, to discourage families from allowing their underage daughters to get married. But the job isn’t easy.

“Sometimes, locals threaten us that we could be trafficked or sent into prostitution if we confront influential people, and therefore we should keep ourselves away from anti-child marriage campaign,” said 17-year-old club member Rupsha Sarkar*.

“But we don’t want to give up, we want to save all girls from underage marriage.”

*names changed

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