Forced early marriages are rampant in South Asia, primarily because of cultural ideas about the appropriate age of marriage.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) estimates that over 140 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade and almost 50 percent of these child brides are in South Asia.
Child marriage is prohibited by national and regional laws in South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. But the practice persists unabatedly. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 24.4 million women between ages 20-24 were reportedly married before the age of 18 between the years 2000 and 2010.
"This practice is common across South Asia, and a girl is considered to be of marriageable age as soon as she attains puberty," Priya Nanda, director of Reproductive Health and Economic Development at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), told DW.
Nanda explains that this form of marriage is linked with the chastity and sexuality of the girl that needs protection as she represents the family's honor. The fear of sexual assault and premarital sex drive families to arrange marriages of their children early on.
The UNHCR initiated a proposal calling upon the world to co-sponsor the resolution to strengthen efforts to prevent and eliminated child, early and forced marriage. A total of 107 countries including Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen with high rates of child marriage adopted the resolution. India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan chose not to co-sponsor the resolution, despite having high rates of child marriage.
"Customs take precedence over laws." Kriti Bharati, an Indian activist, explains that the village elders in India do not observe the constitutional law, and local authorities simply turn a blind eye. Bharati receives death threats on a daily basis from victims' family members, locals and even politicians as her NGO Saarthi Trust helps rescue child brides. She has also helped 150 victims have their marriages annulled legally.
"Peculiar rituals in Rajasthan persist and that makes it difficult to change the mindset of the people. The Mausar ritual is one such tradition of forced marriage. Upon the death of a family member, a marriage must be solemnized in the family within 13 days in order to convert the occasion of sorrow into one of joy, even if the family members are not of marriageable age ," Bharati told DW.
An economic decision
Marriages in South Asia are expensive social events with large gatherings. The entire extended community is invited to participate in the family's announcement. The event becomes a financial burden for familes. Many even take loans to organize wedding ceremonies.
Studies show that child marriage is primarily prevalent in rural areas in countries with dowry norms" As the girl gets older, the price of her dowry goes. So poor families are torn between paying the cost of delaying the marriage vs. he cost of a higher dowry, " Nanda told DW.
She adds that the value of the girl is equated to the labor she can provide. Because most of her productivity and labor will be provided in the husband's home, families see no point in investing in a girl who brings them no productive value.
Some of these marriages are simply business transactions."The poppy brides in Afghanistan are victims of loans taken by farmers from warlords. When the farmer cannot pay back his loan, he settles the debt by giving away his daughter in marriage," Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch told DW.
Studies show that the lack of education for girls traps them not just in a cycle of poverty, making them economically dependent, but also puts their health at a serious risk. These people are unaware that girls who get pregnant before their bodies are fully developed are in a fatal situation. Young brides also risk domestic abuse and marital rape. The UNFPA report shows that South Asia also records the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy and maternal death in the world.
Barr insists that the only way to tackle the problem is by creating awareness of the laws pertaining to child marriage. "The governments need to do a lot of work. In Afghanistan, for example, the Mullahs performing the marriages don't know that there is a law in Afghanistan that sets the minimum age of marriage for boys as 18 and for girls as 16."
While laws exist in all South Asian countries, experts agree that the implementation of these laws is not widespread enough.
"The problem is deep-rooted and starts with the value of the girl which is very low when compared to boys. It is this basic mindset that needs to be changed," Nanda told DW.
She believes that on one hand people need to be convinced to change their mindset, and on the other the Indian government needs to come up with viable alternatives for girls so they are no longer seen as a burden.