By Nidhi Kinhal
Just last month, the grand world of Indian television promised viewers an ‘unconventional’ couple in an 18-year old girl and a nine-year old boy. If it wasn’t already absurd and regressive, the female-lead Tejaswi Prakash tried to defend it by saying, “It’s not a love story at all. It’s more like a bond of friendship. She is basically Ratan’s pehredaar who protects him from all bad things. Nobody can protect a man better than his wife.” Um, okay, if you say so Tejaswi.
Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves the gravity of child marriage. India has 17 million children (ages 10-19) who are are married, according to an IndiaSpend report. The World Health Organisation has testified that child brides suffer from violence and abuse, are subject to a high risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and early pregnancy. Many of them drop out of schools, and pregnancy itself causes multiple health problems. We are still far from a post-child marriage society. This February, Childline (after initially refusing to act on a girl’s request), prevented 10 schoolgirls from being married off forcefully. And in June, UP CM Yogi Adityanath had the fabulous idea of letting the police monitor schools to prevent child marriage. Don’t even ask.
If we didn’t have enough arguments already to take it seriously, a new study by the World Bank and International Center for Research on Women, argue that “the lack of adequate investments in many countries to end child marriage is likely due in part to the fact that the economic case for ending the practice has not yet been made forcefully.” In simple terms, the report concluded that over the next seven years, five billion dollars (or Rs. 33, 500 crores) in healthcare costs could be saved if India eliminates child marriage and early childbirth.
Five billion dollars, which is a little over the 2017-18 budget for higher education. Coincidence? I think not. Erasing child marriage needs to be a holistic and long-term approach, because it’s necessary that girls pursue their education instead of getting married. This might reportedly offset some benefits, but in the long run, it will definitely lead to results. More than anything, we have the Right to Education Act, passed in 2009, which promises free and compulsory education for all children between six and 14 years, and the most recent figures for primary school enrolment stand at an impressive-sounding 98 percent. Of course, this isn’t without defaults: absence of teachers, lack of sanitation and infrastructure, with only 5 percent of government schools compiling with basic standards and other issues forces girls to drop out, who are then made to help out at home only to get married soon enough.
While it’s good that the conversation around child marriage has fixated too long on social progress, what we’ve been missing in tackling it is an economic perspective which brings attention to the need for government investment towards ending child marriage. Collecting data and revealing insights or possibilities is just the first step, but hopefully, there will be no Sony TV predicaments or helpline inefficiencies anymore.