An Indian child bride
An Indian child bride Reuters

The ancient practice of child marriage – reviled in much of the world – remains in force across the Indian subcontinent.
Child marriage is defined as the union of two people, at least one whom is below the age of 18.

However, a recent landmark development in India may finally begin the process to bring this evil to an end. Laxmi Sargara, an 18-year-old girl in Rajasthan in northern India, was able to get her “marriage” annulled by a court.

Laxmi had been “betrothed” to a boy named Rakesh when she was only one year old and her “groom” was three. She was not even aware of this matrimonial arrangement until her in-laws came to fetch her earlier this month.

I was unhappy about the marriage. I told my parents who did not agree with me, then I sought help, Laxmi told Agence France Presse (AFP).

A non-governmental organization that safeguards children’s rights, the Sarathi Trust, in the city of Jodhpur, took up her case after her parent refused to help.

[Laxmi] got depressed. She did not like the boy and was not ready to go ahead with her parents' decision, Kriti Bharti of Sarathi told AFP.

Bharti also said this might have been the first time such a marriage was officially annulled in India.

Child-marriages have been illegal in India since the 2006 passage of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, but the practice persists unabated, particularly among the rural poor. (India officially raised the legal marriage age to 18 in 1978, although the law was actually enacted in 1973).

In a stroke of powerful irony, the day of Laxmi's annulment coincided with the Akshaya Tritiya festival, a tradition where thousands of child weddings are conducted (in defiance of the law).

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 40 percent of all child marriages in the world take place in India.

However, child marriage is also a serious problem in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, in some these countries, the rates of child marriage are higher than in India. Given India's huge population, in absolute terms, it accounts for the largest number of these marriages.

Early marriages can lead to numerous medical and psychological problems, particularly in relation to early child-births where the mother is not physically mature.

Unicef said that more than one-fifth (22 percent) of women in India between the ages of 20 and 24 gave birth to a child before they turned 18 -- these young mothers are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women who have babies in their 20s.

A study published in Lancet magazine in 2009 found that almost half of adult Indian women between the ages 20 to 24 were married before the legal age of 18, and many of these unions led to unwanted and terminated pregnancies, repeat childbirths in less than 24 months, and increased sterilization rates.

The prevalence of child marriage remains unacceptably high, the study said.

These results suggest that neither recent progress in economic and womens' development, nor existing policy or programmatic efforts to prevent child marriage and promote maternal and child health, have been sufficient to reduce the prevalence of child marriage in India to that of most other developing nations.

Lead researcher on the study, Dr. Anita Raj, and her colleagues also noted that despite the huge economic strides India has made in recent decades, the rural poor – where child weddings tend to dominate – remain disproportionately trapped in poverty.

National economic development gains have inadequately targeted the most rural and poor populations, which might have hindered further reduction in child marriage, the study concluded.

All told, more than 60-million women around the world between the ages of 20 and 24 were wedded before their 18th birthday, according to the World Health Organization.

Girls Not Brides, an activist organization that seeks to stamp out child marriage, believes the practice victimizes girls since they are frequently married off to much older men, sometimes twice their age.

In many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are not valued as much as boys - they are seen as a burden, Laura Dickinson of Girls Not Brides, told Al Jazeera.

It must also be pointed out that there are some misconceptions about child marriage. In such an arrangement, the parents or guardians agreed to the union when the “bridge” and “groom” are indeed very, very young. But the “husband” and “wife” do not live together until they have reached puberty (that is, little children are not living together as “husband and wife”).

Dr. Anita Raj, a Professor in the Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine at The University of California at San Diego, said that Laxmi’s case may help to bring more attention to the plight of child brides.

“Anytime there is attention brought to this issue, or a demonstration of legal recourse, it suggests that the government and courts will be more committed to enforce the law,” Raj said.

Raj, who is of Indian descent herself, noted that among many Indian families, child marriage has been so common for so long that it has not even been questioned.

“It’s a normative process still, and many of us of Indian heritage have mothers or grandmothers who were married before the age of 18,” she said.

Indeed, even if Indian police and courts want to aggressively prosecute the marriage of under-aged people under terms of the law, many families may not want to stop such unions, nor do they even consider it a criminal act.

“Child marriage and forced marriage are closely connected and there are laws on the books in India that prohibits both practices,” Raj said.

“But enforcement remains rare because parents and elders are often the ones that initiate these marriages.”

Raj contends that while child marriage is more likely to occur among India’s rural poor, given the huge migration of people into the cities, it is increasingly becoming an urban phenomenon.

“A recent study we conducted in Mumbai revealed that about 30 percent of women in three migrant slum communities had married before they turned 18,” she said.

Raj suggests that the Indian government faces serious obstacles in ending the practice of child marriage.

“It’s been very difficult for the government to figure out how to effectively intervene in a practice that a great part of the population think is normal and appropriate.”

Raj added: “I think they are working to address the issue, but their efforts have not been adequate.”