As per the NCRB’s annual Crime in India report, a total of 782 cases were booked under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 in the year 2020. This is about 50% more than the number of cases registered in 2019. Compared to the year 2011, the number of cases has increased by almost seven times.
The minimum age of marriage has been a topic of discussion since the introduction of the Prohibition of the Child Marriage Amendment Bill, 2021 which seeks to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years, bringing it at par with that of men. This is to be done by amending personal laws including the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969. The Minister of Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani introduced the Bill in the Winter Session of the Parliament in 2021. Following heated debates in the Parliament and opposition, the bill was referred to a standing committee. In the recently concluded Budget Session of the Parliament, the committee was given an extension of three months.
Crime in India reports provide data on cases registered under PCM Act,2006
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCM) prohibits 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 CII report is available for the year 2020.
Cases of child marriage increased by over 50% in 2020
As per the NCRB report, the number of cases registered under the PCM Act has increased by almost 7 times in the last decade. While the number of cases registered in 2019 (523) was more than four times the 113 cases registered in 2011, there was increase of almost 50% in 2020, the year in which the COVID-19 pandemic began in India. From 113 cases in 2011, the number of cases registered under the PCM act increased to 782 in 2020. During the ten-year period of 2011 to 2020, a total of 3,604 cases were registered under the PCM act.
11 states contributed more than 85% of the cases registered in the last decade
Of the total 3,604 cases registered under the PCM act between 2011 & 2020, 17.2% of the cases were registered in Karnataka alone. With 621 cases registered in the state, the number of cases registered in Karnataka exceeds the total number of cases registered across the country in 2019. With 514 registered cases, West Bengal accounted for 14.3% of the cases during the ten-year period. Tamil Nadu (480 cases) and Assam (441 cases) accounted for 13.3% and 12.2% of the cases respectively. Together, the four states alone contributed to 57% of the cases registered across the country during 2011 & 2020. Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Kerala, and Odisha registered more than 100 cases each during this period and together accounted for 26.8% of the cases. Altogether, these 11 states contributed to nearly 87% of all the cases in the last decade.
Each of the five south Indian states registered more than 100 cases each. A total of 1,575 cases were registered in the southern states that accounted for nearly 44% of the cases registered at the national level. No cases were registered in five (Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim) out of the total 8 northeastern states. One case was registered in Meghalaya, 11 cases in Tripura, and 441 cases were registered in Assam during the ten-year period. In other words, 97.4% of the cases registered in the north-east were from Assam alone, while Tripura and Meghalaya accounted 2.4% and 0.2% respectively.
Number of cases registered in Karnataka and Assam has continuously increased
Karnataka and Assam have reported a gradual increase in the number of cases registered in the last decade. Being the only states to register more than 100 cases in a single year (in both 2019 and 2020), the two states accounted for 41% of the total cases registered in India in 2020 and 43% of the cases registered in 2019. In 2020, Karnataka registered more than 15 times the cases registered in 2011 while Assam registered 138 cases in 2020 as against 0 cases in 2011 and 2012.
Telangana too has reported a continuous increase in cases since 2014, except in 2018. Despite a decline in cases in 2019, states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala have reported an increase in cases in 2020. Surprisingly, the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Sikkim which had high crime rate against children in 2020, registered only 1,5, and 0 cases of child marriage in 2020, respectively.
The only two plausible reasons for this increase are either the improvement in reporting of such cases or the actual increase in the incidence of cases or both. Despite the increase in cases, one has to bear in mind that the numbers provided in the NCRB report only pertain to incidents that have led to filing a FIR. There could be numerous other cases which have not been reported to the police.
Karnataka and Assam governments rolled out measures to curb child marriages
According to media reports, Karnataka reported 296 cases of child marriages in 2020-21, 156 in 2019-20, while 119 cases were reported in 2018-19. The concerned minister is reported to have cited poverty, illiteracy, superstition, lack of knowledge about laws related to child marriage, negligence towards educating girl children, and traditional wishes of elders as the reasons behind the high number of cases reported in the state. The number is high in the state despite the 2017 amendment to the PCM act which declared child marriages as void ab initio or invalid in law.
Meanwhile, in Assam, as per media reports, the Social Welfare Minister told the Assembly recently that 3,192 child marriages were recorded between 2016-17 and 2020-21. The number of child marriages was 74 in 2016-17 which increased to 448 in 2017-18, 759 in 2018-19, and 1089 in 2019-20. In 2021, the state government announced a one-time financial package along with a tola of gold as marriage assistance for girls of marriageable age as a measure to check child marriage in the state.
Prevalence of child marriage in India was higher than in Pakistan, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka
According to a UNICEF Report, Ending Child Marriage: A profile of progress in India published in 2019, there were over 650 million child brides globally of which 285 million were from South Asia, and 223 million were from India alone. In simpler terms, one out of three child brides globally live in India. Of the country’s 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before even turning 15 years of age. In terms of prevalence of child marriage, calculated as percentage of women aged 20 to 24 years who were first married or in union before age 18, the prevalence in India was 27%, higher than in its neighbouring countries of Pakistan (21%), Bhutan (26%), and Sri Lanka (10%).
As per the report, Uttar Pradesh had the largest number of child brides in the country- 36 million, followed by Bihar and West Bengal with 22 million each. Over half of Indian child brides lived in five states- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. The prevalence across states ranged between 8% in Kerala and Punjab, and over 40% in Bihar and West Bengal.
Prevalence was highest among women from poorer families with lower education levels
Large disparity in the prevalence of child marriage was found across women with different levels of education and economic background. The prevalence was as high as 56% among women from poorest economic background from rural areas without education and 2% among women from rich families with high education. The report also noted that disparities in prevalence was smaller among women from different religious groups and castes/tribes. On the other hand, only 1 in 25 men were married before the age of 18. Contrary to the international definition, the legal age of marriage for men in India is 21 years and one in five men were married before turning 21 years.
While there has been a considerable improvement in the awareness about the adverse effects of child marriage, the report added that to achieve the SDG target of eliminating child marriage by 2030, India must accelerate the progress.
The efforts will have to be ramped up both in the light of increasing cases and the pandemic which is expected to have increased child marriages and reversed the progress made over decades.