Kolkata: India has witnessed a decline in child marriage in the last two decades, but going by the slow pace it will require another 50 years to abolish the practice from the country, according to UNICEF.
"Child marriage has been declining at a rate of one per cent per year in the last two decades, but at this rate it will be eliminated in 50 years or so," UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in India Dora Giusti told PTI. "This is way too long and millions of girls will have married by then," she warned describing the scenario in the country as "alarming".
"A study among married women currently aged between 20-24 revealed that 43 per cent of them were married before 18 and two out of every five women during the survey said they were married as children," Giusti explained. Incidentally, a United Nations report in July said that India has sixth highest prevalence of child marriage, with one in every three child brides living in the country.
Stressing that the practice of child marriage was still prevalent in certain communities and groups in the country, the UNICEF official held deep-rooted superstitious beliefs as responsible for its slow elimination. "Child marriage is still a widely accepted practice ruled by social norms and gender roles. Girls are still seen as a burden and not worthy of investing on.
For generations, once girls hit puberty, their parents have married them off in the false belief that this will also protect them from violence," Giusti explained. "Often communities are resistant to welcome changes.
Furthermore, there are other factors, such as poverty, high costs of marriage, lack of education and other opportunities for girls that undermine change the practice," she elaborated.
Asked if the India government's cash transfer scheme as incentive to encourage retention of girls in school has helped in containing the practice, she said: "A recent study showed that the scheme has helped keep girls in school and therefore delay child marriage, but it did not have a long-term effect as it does not contribute to changing parents' mental set-up."
According to the official, a 'political will' was needed to eradicate child marriage completely from the nation. "Child marriage can be eliminated completely from the country only if there is a political will at all levels and concerted efforts are undertaken to systematically address it through education, opportunities for girls, better income for families, and continued awareness raising programmes," Giusti stated.
"As child marriage is rooted in ancestral practices and traditions, it is very hard to change the mindsets and community rules... Addressing child marriage requires a long-term process of awareness of raising and behavioural change," she added.
Talking about UNICEF's plan to counter child marriage in India, Giusti said: "UNICEF India is continuously collecting evidence to see what works best to accelerate the pace of change. For more or less a decade we have addressed the issue more aggressively. Targeting child marriage means addressing many other violations of children's rights, such as health, education and protection from violence."
"Overall our strategy is based on raising awareness on the harms of child marriage, mobilising communities and leaders to end with the practice, enhancing capacity for law enforcement and empower girls through life skills," Giusti added.