The disconcerting rise in the number of child marriages in the past five years in some pockets of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh is reflective of the continued backwardness of the area. While 16 cases of children entering wedlock were reported in 2015, the graph soared sharply to 51 three years later, underpinning the grip of complex socio-cultural norms, exacerbated by poverty and illiteracy. On a positive note, the increase in the reporting of the cases is evident of a society that is becoming aware of the evils of this illegal practice. This trend to defy the khulmi panchayat system, that has a strong hold on the local residents and attempts to hush up such incidents, is indicative of a people — or, at least some of them — ready to embrace change.
The administration would do well to tap this progressive lot among them and induct them in its task force involved in educating and motivating people to send their girls to school rather than lose their adolescence to matrimony and teen-motherhood and its associated health issues. More parents need to come forward and support the children’s transition to secondary school and postpone their marriage. No girl or boy should slip through the crack and get trapped in wedlock before the legal age. For that, it is essential that the teaching infrastructure in the six backward blocks is accessible and up to the mark. Educated and self-reliant women hold the key to bettering their socio-economic lot.
The National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 shows a steady decline in the prevalence of child marriages across states, barring two — Himachal Pradesh and Manipur — which registered a marginal rise. In a heartening development, the median age of marriage for women increased from 17 years in 2005-06, to 19 in 2015-16. But despite all this, India holds the shameful tag of being home to the largest number of underage brides. An estimated 1.5 million girls below 18 years are wedded every year even though the union is null and void and attracts penalty. India is committed to ending child marriage by 2030 under the UN sustainable development goals. A lot needs to be done fast to catch up.