Child marriage and health

A collective approach of society and government can surely exterminate the worthless custom like child marriage

By Dr Rosalin Hansda

Jalpaiguri: The notion of child marriage can be interpreted as a formal or informal union between two children before the age of 18. Child marriage should be seen as an abuse of human right as it is a form of forced marriage. According to the Indian law, a girl should be 18 and a boy 21 to be married.

Child marriage in India existed from pre-colonial age. From the beginning, child marriage is viewed as economic negotiation. A girl child is often contemplated as an economic burden. Bride prices and dowry were large motivation for early marriage which was prioritized above the well-being of marrying a child.

People believed marrying a girl at a young age can protect them from rape premarital sexual activity and unintended pregnancies. As per UNICEF, more than 40 percent of the world’s child marriage takes place in India. Child marriage affects both the girls and boys and as it takes away the right to a happy childhood from both.

India has made miraculous breakthroughs in the field of science, technology, medicine, heavy machinery, defense and even space technology but can a nation be modern and buoyant when children are being sold off for a sum of money or forced to marry at a very early age to a man old enough to be their father?

The cause and consequences of child marriage are solely linked including poverty, child’s lack of education, lack of autonomy, poor health status, and low socioeconomic status. The rate of child marriage varies among states.—the highest is 69% to 65% in Bihar and Rajasthan.

Young brides are not adequately prepared for the role of wife, a domestic worker and eventually mother. It becomes a burden for a young girl to cope up with the demand of husband, family, and society. Naturally, all this pressure has a significant effect on the psychological welfare, their insight of themselves and their marriage. Studies have shown that girls marrying at a young age think that they are allowable for a husband to beat his wife and there’s more likely to experience domestic violence.

Once married, the girl moves into her husband’s house, where the new environment can be completely different. In some cases, the husband is much older and thus they have very little understanding of them, as a result, the girls feel rejected, isolated and depressed. Minor girls are exposed to sex at the age when the girl’s body is still developing. They are abused and exploited sexually as they know little about their rights and their sexual and reproductive health.

The child bride is neither physically nor mentally ready to conceive but she is required to reproduce once she is married. Child brides are at higher risk of death during childbirth and are vulnerable to pregnancy-related injuries like obstetric fistula.

Child marriage elevates the risk of human papillomavirus transmission and cervical cancer. Marriage by age of 20 is a risk factor for HIV as young girls are married to older infected men who had prior sexual partners or where polygamous. Other sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes simplex virus type 2, gonorrhea, chlamydia are also more frequently transmitted and enhance girls vulnerability to HIV.

Mothers below the age of 18 have 35 percent to 55 percent higher risk of delivering a preterm or low birth weight baby. Infant mortality rate is 60 percent higher when the mother is under 18 than the mothers above the age of 19. Mortality and morbidity are due to poor nutrition in mother, lack of knowledge about pregnancy and a higher risk of infected diseases.

It is an urgency to bring some positive changes to put an end to this age-old tradition that cripples the nation. Educating girls can itself reduce the rate of child marriage. Improving access to education removing gender gap in schools, school-based sex education can be effective for eradicating child marriage.

More than half of the Indian population lives under the poverty line and poverty is one of the main cause of child marriage. The government has to promote policies to develop rural areas, mass education programs, campaigns have to be conducted to uplift the poor living condition.

The government should also take strict action against the people indulging in child marriage. In some circumstances just words aren’t enough to change a person’s heart; strict gestures in form of punishment can change the minds. As per the new bill, prohibition of child marriage bill 2006, the priest, police or local leader will be jailed and fined if they will be found indulging in any illegal practice declared by Renuka Chaudhary, the then minister of women and children.

A collective approach of society and government can surely exterminate the worthless custom like child marriage. Let’s individually do some effort like sharing a talk with the bigoted minds about the privilege of having a daughter, the advantage that lies in educating a girl and the attainments a girl child can achieve. Children are the crux of nations present and future, let’s not be inert to the long-established custom of child marriage.

(Dr. Rosalin Hansda is a general physician. Earlier she worked at Bishop James Memorial Rural Healthcare Centre, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal)

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