Child Marriages in India: An Acceptable Form of Human Trafficking

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Although the International Center for Research on Women reports that it has almost 40% of the world’s child marriages, India has decided against co-sponsoring a UN human rights council resolution aimed at eliminating child, early and forced marriages. The government has given the unconvincing explanation that the resolution’s vague definition of “early marriage” prompted this response- even though India’s laws, which defines a child as someone below 18 years, are in line with the UN’s definition. Whatever the reason, be a desire to avoid scrutiny or pessimism about reaching the resolution’s goals, India’s gesture reveals its inability to seriously tackle child marriage for what it is- a form of human trafficking.

India’s long history of child marriage has dulled both Indians and the rest of the world to its atrocities. Akshay Tritiya, sometimes called “Child Marriage Day”, is an auspicious event still celebrated every year in which multitudes of girls are married off by their parents. In most of rural India child marriage is commonplace and viewed as normal. More urban areas see it as a troubling tradition that will be eradicated naturally alongside modernization and economic development. However, neither perception accurately reflects the reality of child marriage. Child marriage is not only forced marriage, it is also displays many of the characteristics of human trafficking. But while human traffickers face harsh penalties in India, laws against child marriages range from non-existent to minimal.

A child bride is a victim of forced marriage because she is unable to give her consent as a minor. Like a victim of human trafficking, she is usually stuck with her fate for life, experiences mental and physical abuse (including forced labor and sex), and lacks opportunities because of her poor health and education. She has no possibility of being free. The Palermo Protocol, a UN convention to eliminate trafficking of women and children, states human trafficking as:

“…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of…the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitations shall include…sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, or slavery or practices similar to slavery…” (Palermo Protocol 2000).

The parts of this definition that apply most to forced marriage are underlined. Child marriage can be divided into the two halves of human trafficking: coercion, which occurs before the marriage, and exploitation, after the marriage. Both violently desecrate the fundamental human rights of women and children.

In a study published by Gender and Development, Ouattara et al show that coercion takes place before the marriage, where the girl’s parents “abuse their power” by imposing a marriage on their daughter, who, being young or powerless, is “in a position of vulnerability”. The US Bureau of Consular Affairs published an informational flyer on forced marriages that states that a girl who refuses the marriage set up by her parents often faces “isolation and threats or acts of physical and emotional abuse”. “Benefits” to the girl’s parents would include not having to pay for her ‘upkeep’ (important if they are facing poverty, as the majority of Indians are) and ensuring that they do not face social stigmatization if the girl decides to marry outside her caste or have pre-marital sex.

When the girl’s parents hand her over to the groom and his family, there is always dowry money involved, fulfilling the “giving or receiving of payments” part of the definition. In fact, the younger the girl is, the lower the dowry will be. This encourages parents to marry off their daughter as soon as possible. The fact that most victims of child marriage come from poverty-stricken backgrounds where the girl-child is always seen as a burden and neither the parents nor the child have had an education exacerbates the problem.

The “transfer, harboring or receipt” of the victim occurs when the girl moves to her husband’s house after marriage. Here, her husband and in-laws now have complete control over her actions. This control is compounded if the bride is still a child. This control leads to “sexual exploitation, forced labor or services”.

Once the girl is married, her exploitation begins, and it can take many forms. Rape is one of the most devastating. Just by definition, sexual intercourse within a forced marriage is rape because the woman did not consent to the marriage itself. Data from the 2013 ICRW report shows that sex within a child marriage, where the groom is often many years older and the girl is a minor, is even more devastating. But more generally, sex within forced marriages tends to be especially abusive as compared to normal marriages. Women who get married as minors are three times more likely to experience sexual abuse and PTSD.

The study by Ouattara et al shows that that the age group of 15 and below has the second highest vulnerability to sexual abuse. The most vulnerable are the girls whose dowry had already been paid in full. This points to a disturbing commodification of the girls- once they had been paid for, their husbands can use them any way they wanted to. Girls married at a very young age are often forced into having sexual intercourse even before the onset of menstruation, which is terribly painful. In about half the cases of marital rape, the girls made their husbands aware of their unwillingness to have sex because of the pain. In 80% of these cases, the rapes continued unabated.

The ICRW 2013 report reveals  that the treatment of the girl within a forced marriage extends to other forms of physical abuse. Women married as children are two times as likely to be beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands. India has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, and the highest for women under 18. Renuka Chowduhury, junior minister for the Ministy of Women and Child Development, said that 70% of women in India suffered from domestic violence at some point in their lives.

Child marriages to much older men occur often, and they contribute to the abusive power dynamics. The 2009 UNICEF study shows that women who marry at a younger age are also more likely to believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. Husbands are not the only ones who abuse the girls, however. Members of the husband’s family often abuse the girl themselves.

As Ouattara et al’s study demonstrates, it is hard for the girl to get help because she is often socially isolated and cannot turn to other family or friends. Once married, she is often cut off from society because she is overburdened by domestic and family responsibilities. This isolation, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, “poses a host of challenges that limit [the girls’] ability to promote their health, development, and well-being”. Child brides have much less of a chance to be educated, come into contact with government organizations or NGOs, or to own any assets- in short, anything that helps them be more independent.

Finally, the health risks associated with forced marriages are disturbingly high, and are especially prevalent among child brides. The 2009 UNICEF report show that child brides have a much higher chance of contracting HIV because their partner is usually an older man with more sexual experience. Low condom use exacerbates the presence of HIV and other STDs. Moreover, childbirth is another health risk for both the mother and child. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than are women 18 or older. If they do survive, they suffer from anemia and malnutrition, and their babies are less likely to live.

Taking into full consideration everything that a girl being forced into marriage has to go through, there seems to be little doubt that a victim of child marriage is a victim of human trafficking. Simply because child marriages are much more socially accepted does not mean that the law should delve out any less of a punishment for child marriages than for human trafficking.

But the laws in India concerning forced marriages are disturbingly inadequate and under-enforced. There is no specific law prohibiting forced marriages per se, although the Bureau of Consular Affairs states India does at least recognize it as a violation of fundamental human rights. India has, however, passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006. Legally, marriage can only take place if the man is 21 and the woman is 18- but the maximum sentence for someone participating in and helping to organize a child marriage is just two years.

More troubling is that some laws the government has passed are actually detrimental to the child bride. Although the girl has the opportunity to annul her marriage by the time she is 20, her marriage will automatically become valid once she passes this age. Ouattara et al’s study shows that this closes the window on an easy annulment of the marriage and encourages families to simply “wait it out” until it is too late.

In terms of sexual abuse, the law is severely lacking. It explicitly states that sex within marriage is not rape. It only recognizes marital rape if the girl is 15 years old or below. However, the man is only punished if the girl is 12 years old, and even then with only two years of imprisonment. In contrast to these flimsy and antiquated laws, the laws concerning human trafficking are much more severe. Anyone even taking part in human trafficking might be sentenced a minimum of 7 years to a maximum of life imprisonment.

Forced marriages in India, of which child marriages make up the majority of cases, should be criminalized as harshly as human trafficking. They display many of the same characteristics of human trafficking, but are not given the same importance because it is a social norm. Passing harsher laws would increase the risk of forcing women and children into marriage. The girl would also have more of a reason to come forward if her marriage could still be annulled after she turned 20, or if she were sure her husband would go away to jail for a much longer time. Also, stronger laws against marital rape would help prevent them.

Overall, more severe forced marriage laws serve to underscore the seriousness of this issue. People in India should no longer accept forced marriage and what goes on in it as normal. The Palermo Protocol must also reflect this reality. It should recognize that a girl who is forced to marry is stuck with her fate for life, experiences mental and physical abuse (including forced labor and sex), and lacks opportunities because of her poor health and education. She has no possibility of being free. This girl is a victim of human trafficking.

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