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'Incomplete' Independence: 23.3% women in age group 20-24 yrs married before 18

By A Rama Krishna Raju* 
As we celebrate 76th Independence Day, it is imperative to reflect on the real essence of freedom that our nation's builders ever envisioned. Despite significant strides in various sectors, one deeply rooted practice continues to question the idea of freedom is Child marriage.
It is time we acknowledge the urgency of freeing our girls and boys too from the shackles of this harmful tradition and reaffirm our commitment to creating a future where they can thrive without the burden of early marriage. While the practice affects both genders, girls are disproportionately affected, enduring physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequality.
As per Census 2011, 45 lakh girls below the age of 15 years who were married had children and as per NFHS (National Family Health Survey) 2019-2021 data, 23.3 per cent women in the age group of 20-24 years were married before 18 years.
Although central and state governments have been very active towards ending child marriage, there is a lot more work needed to be done as far as awareness is created. At the outset, we congratulate the Government of Assam for initiating decisive ground level action to stop child marriages and crimes committed against children.

Core causes

Child marriage is a part of cultural norms, economic factors, and societal pressures. Poverty, limited access to education, and gender inequality are some of the key drivers that perpetuate this harmful practice. In many instances, families view child marriage as a way to secure their daughters' futures or alleviate financial burdens, unaware of the long-term consequences.
Our country is now on the threshold of becoming world’s third largest economy by 2030 as predicted by International Monetary Fund (IMF), but to our misfortune, child marriage continues to thrive as many vulnerable sections of our society have genuine “security concerns” for their daughters, so they marry them off early.
Further, girls from vulnerable sections do not have many alternative choices including higher education beyond 14 years of age so are forced to marry early. It is time we evolve as a modern society by building a fair eco-system for all our women to participate in country’s progress and stop them from falling victims to child marriage.
Child marriage has far-reaching consequences for girls' physical and mental well-being. These young brides are more likely to experience early pregnancies, which increase the risk of maternal mortality and infant mortality. It perpetuates the exploitation of health, rights and safety of adolescent girls. Despite stringent laws and acts for trafficking and for prevention of child marriage, large number of young girls are trafficked and sold for the purpose of child marriage.
To truly honour the spirit of Independence Day, we must commit to ending child marriage and its detrimental effects. This requires a multi-faceted approach that involves governments, civil society, communities, and individuals. Civil society organizations play a pivotal role in challenging harmful norms and providing support for at-risk girls.
One of the most potent tools in eradicating child marriage is education and it takes a backseat, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

True liberation

By ensuring girls have access to quality education, we equip them with knowledge, skills, and confidence to make informed decisions about their lives. Schools can serve as safe spaces where girls learn about their rights, develop critical thinking, and envision a future beyond the confines of early marriage.
In the year 2022, Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi gave a clarion call against child marriage and thousands of people joined him and billions took pledge against child marriage. 
The highlight of the launch of Child Marriage Free India Campaign was that it was led by more than 75,000 grass-roots women leaders across 10,000 villages representing 26 States of the country. The issue was then taken up by different state governments and many civil society organizations collectively came together to end child marriage by 2030.
As we hoist the flag of freedom on this Independence Day, let us remember that true liberation is incomplete until every girl is free from the clutches of child marriage. It is our collective responsibility to break the chains that bind them, enabling them to reach their full potential as empowered individuals and active contributors to society.
By addressing the root causes, challenging harmful norms, and prioritizing education, we can pave the way for a brighter and more equitable future for our girls. Only then will we be able to celebrate a real and meaningful Independence Day – one where our nation's daughters are truly free to pursue their dreams.
---
*CEO, Bapuji Rural Enlightenment and Development Society (BREDS)

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