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Uphill Battle Against Child Marriage Is Being Won in India, for Now

But as awareness has spread about the detriments associated with underage marriages, and as the authorities have responded more diligently, the prevalence has dropped. In some areas, it has done so sharply.

Data released by Unicef on Tuesday found that a girl’s risk of marrying before her 18th birthday in South Asia fell by more than a third in the last decade, from nearly 50 percent to about 30 percent, in large part because of progress in India.

Child marriage here is finely threaded with other practices, including the exchange of a dowry from the bride’s family to the groom, and sometimes with sex trafficking, making it difficult to tackle any one issue without addressing others. Social workers said there are no easy solutions.

Uphill Battle Against Child Marriage Is Being Won in India, for Now
Uphill Battle Against Child Marriage Is Being Won in India, for Now

“You cannot wave a magic stick,” said Anand Madhab, principle consultant at the Gender Resource Center, an organization that supports women’s empowerment. “It’s a deep-seated problem.”

Bihar, a poor, agrarian state in northern India, has one of the highest rates of underage marriages in the country, according to India’s National Family Health Survey. In 2005, 69 percent of surveyed women said they married when they were underage. Ten years later, the number fell to 42.5 percent.

Last year, the Bihari government launched its own campaign to crack down. The chief minister, Nitish Kumar, dispatched social workers to villages and cities across the state, and announced that priests who officiate weddings would be required to sign declarations affirming that both parties are of legal age to marry. The legal age for marriage for Indian women is 18 years old. For men, it is 21.

With the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Prevention Act, Indian lawmakers criminalized child marriage, imposing a jail sentence of up to two years or a fine for offenders.

Still, there is a long way to go. Many child marriages are unreported, and while police have clamped down on the practice in Bihar, more aggressive surveillance could be pushing illegal marriages underground and untraceable.

Photo

“Even Deepa’s mother disagreed with the marriage,” Anoj Kumar, the head police officer, said at a police station near Madhura.Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

Though India’s numbers are promising, a recent analysis of census data highlighted another disturbing finding. In pockets of India, incidents of child marriage are decreasing in rural areas, but increasing in urban settings.

Researchers involved with the study say it is unclear what is causing that phenomenon. One hypothesis is that an uptick in migration from villages to cities could mean that these weddings have simply been redistributed.

In order to curb the figures, Mr. Madhab said laws must complement locally generated pressure among neighbors to hold each other accountable. He likened the push to stamp out child marriage with another sweeping initiative, the banning of liquor in Bihar in 2016, which worked because it tapped into “fear psychology,” he said.

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“People consuming the liquor, they are very scared,” he said. “They think they are not doing the right thing, they think they are doing wrong.”

But unlike consumption of alcohol, child marriage is socially accepted in parts of India, where there is a belief that marrying daughters off at a young age shields them from unwelcome sexual advances and consolidates families’ status in a community.

At a police station near Madhura, Anoj Kumar, the head officer, said that this part of Bihar has evolved. Leaning over the criminal complaint lodged against Suresh Chaudhary, the father of Deepa Kumari, he noted that other villagers were against the union.

“Even Deepa’s mother disagreed with the marriage,” he said. “Suresh said he was marrying her off because of poverty.”

A few miles away, in Madhura, Mr. Chaudhary told his side of the story through clenched teeth, balling a pink stole with his fist. “Nobody gave any money,” he said. “Society said that we were marrying the girl off by force. Someone from the outside complained.”

When the police disrupted wedding preparations, on Feb. 5, Mr. Chaudhary avoided arrest by sprinting into a nearby cornfield and waiting out the night. He remained in hiding for two weeks.

Pressed about his daughter’s age, Mr. Chaudhary said he shaved off two years on government documents to give her an advantage in school. As for Ms. Kumari’s police statement that he tried to marry her against her will, Mr. Chaudhary posed a rhetorical question: “Now, she is scared of the police. How can she say she wants to get married?”

Amused with the scrum that had formed around Mr. Chaudhary, a man in a white dhoti spoke up in English from the back of the crowd, announcing himself as Kailash Mishra, the landowner who employed the girl’s father in his fields.

Mr. Mishra understood that Mr. Chaudhary was technically a man on the run. But he credited him with being a “very good guy, very gentle guy” who happened to be caught doing something virtually everybody else in the village was guilty of.

“The parents are scared,” he said. “They are fearing that if a daughter grows up, she’ll meet some boys on her own.”

There was one part of the police investigation that Mr. Mishra said he could not dispute. As night fell on Madhura, Mr. Chaudhary sounded a halfhearted call for Ms. Kumari to make an appearance. When no one came forward, Mr. Mishra cracked a smile.

“She must be hiding,” he said. “She didn’t want the marriage. She’s happy. What was supposed to happen has not happened.”

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