Child marriage and adolescent pregnancy is a global concern across regions as it violates human rights. The recent Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) 2013-2014 shows that 30.3% of women aged 20-24 are married before the legal age of 18 in India. In the lowest income group, 44.1% are married as children. Child and adolescents hold the future of the world in their hands, but only if they have access to the opportunities and skills they need.
Girls who are married early are most likely to drop out of school and discontinue formal education. They are also likely to be pushed into early childbearing, which increases the risk of maternal mortality, morbidity and infant death, and malnutrition for the mother and child. The state of Odisha ranks 13th among states with 21.3% child marriages – highest reported in the district of Malkangiri 39.3% and Koraput places itself in the red zone with a total of 34.7% child marriage. In terms of the locality, child marriages are more rapidly taking place in rural areas than in urban areas with figures showing 0.7% in the urban area and 34% in the rural area.
The district of Koraput has a unique demographic profile consisting of 14.2% Schedule Castes (Dom, Generic Caste Dhoba, etc.) and 50.6% are Schedule tribes (Gadaba, Omanatya, Paroja, Saura, Bhumia, Paroja, Saura, Hhumia, Bhottadas, Durua, etc.). Both SCs and STs have their own age-old custom of child marriage which is showing in the data that rural Koraput has more child marriage than in urban area.
The literacy rate of Koraput is 49.21%. The male literacy rate is 50.21% and the female literacy rate is 32.43% in the district indicating that most of the girls are out of school. Along with various socio-cultural, economic and development related reasons, lack of education is one of the important causes for the high prevalence of child marriage in the district.
To prevent child marriage, the government of India passed the Child Marriage Act in 2006. According to the Act, child marriage is a formal or informal union before the age of 18 for girls and 21 for the boys. In 2009 the state of Odisha passed the rule and in 2010 it implemented the rule at the block level. The district collector is the responsible authority and the Social Welfare Officer (SWO) will be the main responsible person in the district level and the ICDS will be the implementing authority and the CDPO will assign as Child Marriage Prohibition Officer.
As per the rule, CDPO cum CMPO is responsible for documenting all the data related to the child marriage incidence in the district and send to the DSWO in quarterly basic. The DSWOs/ Programme officers are responsible to cross verify and compile all the data and send to the Department of Women and Child Welfare Department of Odisha for further action and record. As per the rule, once the CDPO cum CMPO get any information about the child marriage he/she will fill up the form II which is the Child Marriage Information Report and investigate the case. After investigation and the procedure used to prevent child marriage, the child marriage CDPO cum CMPO will fill the Form III, which is a report of Child Marriage Prohibition Officer and submit it in front of the Magistrate. Then he/she has to submit the quarterly report, which is Form I and send it to DSWO.
But unfortunately, the procedure is not followed by the CDPO cum CMPO because of lack of awareness on the importance of the issue in hand. As per the rule, police should file a case against child marriage and take appropriate action with the help of CMPO. But in many instances, the police is not registering any case and simply going with the team to maintain the law and order which is again the violation of the law.
In the light of the above systemic issues and developments at the ground level, following strategies/action plans may be adapted to bring in suitable reforms and better streamline the government’s effort to prevent child marriage at the district level:
First, strengthening the information channel that can provide an information edge to the district administration to prevent child marriage. As evidenced in the recent child marriage cases in Laxmipur Block and other blocks of Koraput, tips of information about the child marriage taking place in rural remote areas are not reaching to the appropriate authority at district/block level. The information gap that exists helps the community get away with completion of child marriage often in a closed circuit of their own community bounded by strict adherence to community social laws and traditions. The villagers often do not open their mouth about child marriage due to their fear of being sanctioned or outcasted from the community.
In Laxmipur case, the tip of information we received about the child marriage was from a person who wanted to take revenge for his dispute with the father of the child bride on a property related case. Clearly, this is not a permanent or reliable source of authentic information one that the administration seeks to address the issue. There is a need to build a strong and reliable channel of information involving government or para-government staffs including Anganwadi workers, school teachers, PRI officials, and grassroots workers at the ground level who can help the administration with tips of information of child marriage taking place in their locality.
This brings to the second strategy of departmental and programmatic convergence and cooperation. Child marriage is a multidimensional deprivation arising out of various forms of un-freedom. Lack of access to basic education and skills, basic and reproductive healthcare and sanitation and the larger social and gender discrimination meted out to the girls even at an early age makes them vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, exploitation, and mistreatment. Hence, given the multidimensional effect and implications of child marriage, the need is to suitably and strategically converge the program of actions among key departments including NGO sector efforts that comprehensively address the issue of child marriage and further actions usually followed after stopping it. For instance, strategic convergence for comprehensive and joint action against child marriage may be possible among social welfare department, school education department, department of women and child welfare and several other line departments dealing with the issue of child rights and development.
Last but not least is the need to energize and sensitize on the serious implications of child marriage among key government stakeholders and line departments including the police. This can be done through sensitizing through training and capacity building programs under the supervision of district collector/CDMO and cooperation and participation from NGOs. There is also the need to strengthen the monitoring of child marriage system supported by up-to-date data and an Electronic Monitoring Information System to prevent child marriage (EMIS).