Although a 2006 law prohibits girls from marrying before 18 (and men, 21) nearly half of all young girls in India are, in fact, married before this age, and child-welfare activists estimate that one-third of all child marriages take place in India. Because the punishment (when the law is enforced, which critics charge is infrequently) falls on guardians and the marriage is subject to annulment in a culture where purity is still valued, many such marriages have gone underground. Marriages are now required to be registered - but this has led to a thriving market in forged birth certificates.
The rationale is not just rooted in tradition; for poor families in rural areas, the groom's settlement is a powerful financial incentive. Marrying a daughter off means one less mouth to feed. And once married, a woman can often work and generate a little income. To offset this, the government is providing financial incentives for those girls who marry after 18. And, as the Times explains, activists are "organizing "wait till you're 18" parades, eliciting pledges, presenting puppet shows and lobbying holy men to stop officiating at underage marriages." Some charities actually lobby the individual families, talking about the benefits of education. Of course, as UNICEF pointed out in a 2009 report, "to be truly effective, these interventions must exist within an environment supportive of women's rights." But the fact that a few girls brave enough to refuse marriage have found support from their communities is heartening. Rekha Kalindi, a 13-year-old whose refusal to marry gained national attention, has become a rallying point and an inspiration.
But the bigger problem is that concerns are also "moral." As one father in the LAT article puts it, "I know the government says we should marry at 18, but even at 12 or 15, it's difficult to keep a girl's honor. And by 18, if unmarried, they get crazy thoughts." Of course, early marriage can lead to "crazy thoughts" too - girls who are basically children themselves are often unable to bond with or mother new babies. And the physical problems - girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth, not least because their marriages are often secret and tend to take place in poor communities - are legion.
Bucking the system is dangerous, too. Says the LAT,
Those trying to change this system can find themselves under attack, one reason activists tend to cite the damage to girls' health and future earnings rather than combat the practice head-on. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a village woman working for a nonprofit group, was gang-raped after she tried to prevent a child marriage. The accused men were acquitted on the grounds that "upper caste men, including a Brahmin, would not rape a woman of a lower caste," according to the court ruling. The decision has been appealed.
And in India, a culture that traditionally prizes parental respect, disobeying on such a scale is a very big deal. As Kalindi's mother put it, "parents have the right to control their children." And, activists would add, the duty to protect them.
Related: Child Marriages Targeted In India [BBC]
Child Marriages In India: UNICEF [The Hindu]
High Prevalence Of Child Marriage In India Fuels Fertility Risks [Science Daily]
Child Marriages Persist In Rural India [Asian Tribune]
Fight Against Child Marriages In India [MeriNews]
Girl's Refusal To Be Child Bride Inspires Nation [ABC]
Young Girls Refusal To Marry Inspires Millions [Bizzom]