The NCRB’s Crime in India (CII) report for 2021 indicates that more than 1000 cases of child marriage were registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 for the first time in 2021. While this is more than a 9-fold increase compared to 2011, the actual prevalence of child marriages is much higher as evident from the NFHS-5 data.
One of the concerns raised amidst the uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak was the increase in child marriages. An analysis by UNICEF in 2021 revealed that up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides over the next decade, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also noted that prior to the pandemic, 100 million girls were already at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. Further, globally in the last ten years, the proportion of young women who were married as children had decreased by 15%, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. This progress has been challenged by the pandemic. UNFPA estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic would globally result in 13 million additional child marriages over the 2020-2030 decade due to economic challenges and hindrances in the implementation of prevention programmes.
In India, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCM) prohibits the solemnization of marriage of a boy who is less than 21 years of age or a girl who is less than 18 years of age. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in its annual Crime in India (CII) report, provides data on the number of cases registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 across states under the head of Special and Local Laws (SLL) crimes. The latest report for 2021 was released recently.
More than 9-fold increase in cases in the last 11 years
As per the NCRB’s CII report, the number of cases registered under the PCM Act crossed 1000 for the first time in 2021. The number of cases registered in 2021 was 1050, up by 34% compared to 2020. In other words, while an average of 2 cases of child marriage were registered in 2020, this increased to about 3 cases a day in 2021.
Compared to 2019, the number of cases went up by almost 50% in 2020 and more than doubled in 2021. Since 2011, the number of cases registered under the PCM Act has been on a gradual rise. Between 2011 & 2021, the number of cases registered increased by more than nine times.
Between 2011 and 2021, a total of 4,654 cases were registered of which 39% were registered in 2020 and 2021 alone. The increase may reflect improved reporting of such cases or the actual increase in the incidence of cases or both.
Between 2011 & 2021, one in every five cases was reported from Karnataka
Karnataka alone accounted for more than 19% of the cases registered between 2011 and 2021 with 849 cases, the highest among all states/UTs. Tamil Nadu (649) and West Bengal (619) had the second and third highest number of cases registered, while Assam registered 596 cases. Together, these four states accounted for more than 59% of the cases reported between 2011 & 2021. Maharashtra, Telangana, and Haryana too registered more than 200 cases each. These seven states together contributed to 75% of the cases registered under the PCM Act between 2011 and 2021. Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, Kerala, and Bihar reported more than 100 cases each. The 12 states together contributed to more than 90% of the cases registered between 2011 & 2021.
The five south Indian states accounted for 45% of the cases registered under the Act since 2011. On the other hand, among the northeastern states, no case was registered in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim while 1 case was registered in Meghalaya, 2 in Manipur, and 12 in Tripura. 97.5% of the cases registered in the northeastern states were registered in Assam alone.
Record number of cases were registered by many states in 2021
Between 2011 & 2021, a continuous increase in cases registered has been observed in the states of Karnataka and Assam. In Karnataka, the number of cases registered touched 273 in 2021, the highest so far. The number is higher than the total number of cases registered all over India in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Only Karnataka crossed the 200 cases mark in 2021.
In 2021, apart from Karnataka, the states of Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal also reported the highest number of cases registered in a year since 2011. Tamil Nadu (169) registered more than 100 cases for the first time and overtook Assam (155) to account for the highest number of cases of child marriage after Karnataka. West Bengal (105) also registered more than 100 cases in 2021.
Telangana which reported a continuous increase in the number of cases since 2014, registered fewer cases in 2021 than in 2020. However, states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Haryana, which witnessed a drop in cases in 2019 have reported an increase in cases in 2020 and 2021.
In 2021, the number of cases registered in Odisha was 2.7 times that registered in 2020. Likewise, in the same period, the cases registered in Tamil Nadu went up 2.2 times. Maharashtra and Haryana also witnessed an increase in cases in 2020 and 2021, compared to the previous years. More than 50% of the cases registered in the states of Odisha and Karnataka since 2011 were registered in 2020 and 2021 alone. In the states of Assam, Maharashtra, and Telangana, the two years of 2020 & 2021 contributed to more than 47% of the cases registered since 2011. These two years also accounted for more than 30% of the cases registered in the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Haryana, and Punjab during these eleven years.
Despite high rates of crimes against children, states like Chhattisgarh and MP register very few cases under PCM Act
Compared to the general increasing trend of registered cases of Child marriage in many states in 2020 & 2021, states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh did not report any unusual trends in 2020 or 2021. Uttar Pradesh (12) registered the highest number of cases in 2020 in more than a decade which dropped by half in 2021 to six (6). According to the 2021 NCRB Report, some of these states have a high rate of crimes against children. In 2021, the rate of crimes against children was 33.6 for India while Chhattisgarh reported 61.6 and Madhya Pradesh reported 66.7.
The data provided in the NCRB report covers only those cases for which an FIR has been filed. Hence, there could be numerous other cases that may have not been reported to the police. In fact, the findings of the National Family Health Survey support this.
NFHS survey reports underage marriage among men and women
The fifth National Family Health Survey or NFHS-5 was carried out in 2019-2021 in two phases because of disruptions due to the pandemic. Nearly 6.37 lakh households were covered in the national level questionnaire survey, including over 7.24 lakh women and 1.02 lakh men across 707 districts, 28 states, and 8 union territories. The report provides data on the percentage of women aged 20 to 24 years married before the age of 18 years and the percentage of men aged 25 to 29 years married before the age of 21 years.
According to the survey, 23.3% of women surveyed got married before attaining the legal age of 18 years, down from 26.8% reported in NFHS-4. The same among men was 17.7%, down from 20.3% in NFHS-4. That is, at the national level, more than 1 in 5 women surveyed was married before 18, which is illegal as per the PCM Act, 2006. The situation is worse in rural areas, where underage marriage was 27% among women and 21.1% among men while in urban areas it was 14.7% and 11.3% respectively.
More than 4 in 10 women were married before 18 in Bihar, Tripura, and West Bengal
Among states, more than 40% of women surveyed in the age group of 20-24 were married before the age of 18 years in the states of Bihar, Tripura, and West Bengal as per the NFHS-5. In Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, more than 30% of men surveyed in the age group of 25-29 were married before 21. However, the NCRB’s CII data shows that in Bihar, Tripura, and Madhya Pradesh, only a handful of cases under the PCM Act 2006 were registered.
Also, underage marriages were less than 15% among women surveyed in the age group of 20-24 in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Tamil Nadu. Among men, the share was less than 10% in Karnataka, Kerala, and Himachal Pradesh. These are the states that have reported a relatively higher number of cases registered under the PCM Act, as per the NCRB Report.
Which data is reliable?
The NFHS-5 data clearly indicates that the number of cases registered for child marriages (as per NCRB’s CII report) is next to nothing when compared to the prevalence of child marriages. As mentioned earlier, NCRB considers only those cases for which FIR has been filed. So, states with better reporting are bound to report higher numbers compared to the others. However, being a survey, the NFHS-5 also has its own limitations. Despite these limitations, it is evident that the reporting of child marriages & registration of cases leaves a lot to be desired especially in states with a high prevalence of child marriages.