Child Marriage in an International Frame: A Feminist Review from India 9780367643355, 9780367745851, 9781003158592

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Table of contents :
Endorsement Page
Half Title
Title Page
Copyright Page
Table of Contents
List of figures
List of tables
Chapter 1: Historical soundings: India 1800–2000
A few thoughts on the pre-colonial period
The colonial period
Beginnings in colonial Bengal
A different framing in western India
The Rakhmabai case
The age of consent controversy
The Age of Consent Act
Age and girlhood in the wake of the Age of Consent Bill
The “second social reform”
The modernizing impulse: the case of the princely state of Mysore
Child marriage in the imagined nation to be
What is the story with independence?
Towards Equality and the Marriage Act of 1978
Chapter 2: Elements of the international story and the question of concepts
Notions of marriage
Marriage in history
Median ages of marriage in Northwestern Europe and the Blackstone laws
From Centuries of Childhood to the emergence of childhood studies
Where are feminist studies of childhood?
Two case studies for situating early and child marriage globally
The US and the American child bride
China, marriage and leftover women
Adolescence: a master concept in the making?
From invention to normalization and “putting girls first”
Reframing girlhood
Chapter 3: Child marriage in the new millennium: Law, policy and the work of demography
Law and the girl child
Criminal law amendments and child marriage
State policy
Demography in an international frame
Measuring early and child marriage in India
India’s data sets and their possibilities
Population census
National Family Health Survey
District-Level Household Survey
The Indian Human Development Survey
National Sample Survey
Select statistical reports on child marriage
Demographic explanations
Causes of early marriage
Where do we take the knowledges of demography?
Chapter 4: Reintegrating the “other”: Age, education and work under compulsory marriage
Age at marriage in contemporary India
Scholarship on education
Labour, work and employment
The case of child labour
Women’s work and child marriage
Adolescence and adolescent sexuality
Where are the debates and differences?
The notion of social norms
Child marriage and the adverse child sex ratio: Two sides of the same coin?
Towards a conceptualization of compulsory marriage
From theory to practice?
Regression tables
Author Index
Subject Index
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Child Marriage in an International Frame: A Feminist Review from India
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With her characteristic brilliance and perceptiveness, Mary E. John makes a signal contribution to feminist scholarship in this book. Her genealogy of child marriage draws upon historical, comparative, and intersecting analytical frameworks. This deep and nuanced contextualization compels us to consider afresh what we had long assumed we knew about a familiar subject. Her argument about “compulsory marriage,” which she introduces to reframe the discussion of child marriage, offers an important conceptual advance that will likely become a valuable new resource in the feminist toolkit. This is one of the most original and exciting feminist interventions to come along in a while. – Mrinalini Sinha, Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History, University of Michigan, USA This elegantly incisive book by Mary E. John, one of India’s leading feminist scholars, challenges us to interrogate some of the myths of public discourse and social policy on the issue of child marriage, a ‘social problem’ which, for close on two centuries, has been an object of attention by Indian social reformers, women’s movement activists, and latterly, in a global context, by international development agencies. In a tour de force, John decodes the intricacies of various data sets and the assumptions that drive them, to suggest that it is not child-marriage that is the problem for Indian women, but rather the ‘compulsory’ nature of marriage itself which must be the frame of reference for genuine change. – Patricia Uberoi, Retired Professor, Institute of Economic Growth & Chairperson, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, India


Child marriage has been given a pre-eminent place in agendas addressing “harmful practices” as defined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. India leads the world in the number of women who marry below the age of 18 and therefore is of unique interest to international and national forums. Refusing simplistic labels like “harmful practice”, this book explores the complex history of child marriage as a social and feminist issue in India across different domains.  It critically reviews a wide range of historical, demographic and legal scholarship on the subject. Major concepts relevant to child marriage – such as childhood, adolescence, the girl and marriage − are analysed in a comparative framework that uncovers the unnoticed presence of the practice in the US and China. The volume questions existing approaches, analyses the latest data sources and develops a new concept of compulsory marriage. A definitive study of child marriage in India in a changing global context, this book will interest scholars and students in the fields of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, childhood studies, development studies and the social sciences. It will also be of great appeal to all those working with civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, states and international agencies in India and globally.

Mary E. John is Professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, India. She was Director of the Centre from 2006 to 2012 and the Deputy Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, from 2001 to 2006. Publications include Discrepant Dislocations: Feminism, Theory and Postcolonial Histories (new edition, 2021), A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India (coedited 1998, new e-book edition 2021), Women’s Studies in India: A Reader (2008) and the co-edited volume Women in the Worlds of Labour: Interdisciplinary and Intersectional Perspectives (in press).


Mary E. John

First published 2021 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2021 Mary E. John The right of Mary E. John to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. The international boundaries, coastlines, denominations, and other information shown in the map in this work do not necessarily imply any judgement concerning the legal status of any territory or the endorsement or acceptance of such information. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record has been requested for this book ISBN: 978-0-367-64335-5 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-367-74585-1 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-003-15859-2 (ebk) Typeset in Sabon by SPi Global, India

For my father Elavinakuzhy Cherian John (1927–2020) and my mother-in-law Ushabai Nagesh Deshpande (1935–2019) who knew the book was on its way


x xi xii

List of figures List of tables Acknowledgements


Introduction 1 Historical soundings: India 1800–2000


2 Elements of the international story and the question of concepts


3 Child marriage in the new millennium: Law, policy and the work of demography


4 Reintegrating the ‘other’: Age, education, work under compulsory marriage

147 192 199 203 208

Afterword Appendix Author Index Subject Index



1.1 Timeline for age at marriage in the 1800s 3.1 Absolute numbers of married women in India by age, census 2011 3.2 Trends in singulate mean age at marriage for women, census 1901–2011 3.3 District-wise percentages of all women married below 18 years in the period 2007–11, census 2011


26 119 120 127


3.1 Proportions in the age group of 20–24 years marrying below 15 and below 18 years, select countries, UNICEF 3.2 Proportions of women in age group of 20–24 years marrying below 18 years, top 15 states 3.3 Marriage rates of women in the age group of 20–24, at or below different ages, NFHS 4 (2015–16) 3.4 Perceptions of four groups of stakeholders about early marriage of girls 4.1 Major reasons for never enrolling/dropping out, age group of 5–29 years, 71st Round, NSSO 2014 4.2 Occupational status by age of marriage groups in India, NFHS 2015–16 4.3 Female work force participation across social groups, NSS 1999–2000 to 2011–12 A1.1 Maternal health associations with age at marriage in India A1.2 Child health associations with age at marriage in India


117 130 132 135 158 165 168 199 201


The best part of finally finishing the writing of a book is that one can thank all those who made it possible. Shobhana Boyle, Ena Singh and Vidya Krishnamurthy at the Delhi Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) approached me in 2017 about doing a literature review on child marriage in India. First and foremost, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to them for their genuine interest and patience. Shobhana shared her concerns about the ways in which child marriage was being targeted as a “harmful practice” without an adequate understanding of the forces at play and frequently sent me materials that she thought I could put to good use. Ingrid Fitzgerald from UNFPA’s regional office in Bangkok was equally supportive. Both of them read the very first drafts of the book and offered invaluable advice. Yet another source of support that was not merely institutional came from Vanita Nayak Mukherjee, then at the Ford Foundation. My research was made much more collective with fellow travellers Janaki Nair, Meena Gopal and Samita Sen, who generously shared their views and commented critically on the writing. Nicholas Syrett graciously agreed to comment on an early draft of Chapter 2 for which I am most grateful, and Christophe Z. Guilmoto responded to a query with a graph which I have happily included in the book. Many agreed to meet me to talk about their professional work and respond to my questions. Anita Ratnam from Samvada, Bengaluru; Jameela Nishat, Shaheen Resource Centre, Hyderabad; Bharat from Vishakha, Jaipur; Dipta Bhog (founder and director of Nirantar) and Kumkum Roy (history professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University) have all enriched this book with their insights. I owe a very special debt to Nitya Vasudevan and Poorva Rajaram, whose ideas have helped shape mine. Research for this book was assisted from start to finish by the steadfast inputs of Nidhi Varma, without whom I could not have completed this work. Renu Singh and Prasannkumari helped in tracking down secondary sources. The statistical analysis of unit-level data from the National Family Health Survey was undertaken by Srinivas Goli, Mohammed Juel Rana and



Risha Singh at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University – I thank them for responding to an endless stream of requests and for listening to my sometimes contrary interpretations of the data. Min Dongchao, Tani E. Barlow, Usha Chandran and Patricia Uberoi have been central in my understanding of women and feminism in China while being most helpful in responding to queries about Chinese material on child marriage. The writing of this book dovetailed with new fieldwork in West Bengal, Rajasthan and Telangana undertaken with the help and able coordination from Indira Pancholi, Anindita Ghosh, Sheela Prasad and Shobhita Rajagopal. Some of this fresh research has found its way into this book. Colleagues, friends and comrades have provided the kind of meaningful contexts within which my writing could move along. In Hyderabad, A. Suneetha and Susie Tharu offered hospitality and wonderful conversations. The national network Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression has been a constant source of inspiration in times such as these, and Ajita Rao has been a special friend. Members of the Gender Module of the International Centre for Advanced Studies (ICAS MP) were quite enthusiastic when preliminary drafts of chapters were presented at their planning workshops on feminism and childhood. I am particularly grateful to Elisabeth Shömbucher-Kusterer for her encouragement. Old friends and new, both far and near – Tejaswini Niranjana, Ritty Lukose, Ravinder Kaur, Ratna Appnender, J. Devika, Rammanohar Reddy, A.R. Vasavi, Sebastian Mathew, Rupal Oza, Svati Shah, Vanessa Chishti, N. Sukumar, and Apoorvanand and Purva Bharadwaj – have given sustenance. The Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) has been my intermittent home for over 23 years. Neetha N., the acting director, has been more than a pillar of strength. She provided a detailed note on the state of India’s statistical data sets in relation to child marriage, from which I have liberally drawn in Chapter 3. Vandana, Renu Addlakha, Savitri Ray, Bijoya Roy, Seema Kazi, Indu Agnihotri, Indrani Mazumdar, Vasanthi Raman, Kumud Sharma, Narayan Banerjee, Malavika Karlekar and Leela Kasturi have been part of the life of being in a research centre – thank you for being there in all the ups and downs. The library of the Centre was a pivotal source of material for a book such as this one – Sanghamitra Jana Chatterjee, Madhu Shree, Akhlaq Ahmed, Ratna Sharma and Deepa Singhal responded to every request with efficiency and alacrity. It is not possible to individually thank all the support staff of the CWDS without whom no institution can run. A book like this has only been possible due to their labours, visible and invisible. Thanks to a collaboration with the Women’s and Gender Studies programme at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), CWDS faculty have also had the opportunity to teach eight batches of MPhil and PhD cohorts since 2012. I am grateful to colleagues, staff and students at AUD for several



years of fruitful mutual learning. Nidhi Varma, Arpita Anand, Renu Singh, Riya Singh, Himani Bajaj and Aanchal Dhull have shared their joys and travails as they embarked on the journey towards a PhD and have made concrete for me the struggles of a new generation of researchers in women’s and gender studies during such inhospitable times. Material that made its way into this book has been presented through talks in Bangkok, Kolkata, Delhi, Jaipur and Würzburg and has been the subject of newspaper articles, memorandums to the Indian government, online webinars, podcasts, Instagram snippets and press conferences. I drew from this material as an online panellist for the UNFPA’s Asia-Pacific release of the State of the World’s Population Report 2020. Institutional grants from the UNFPA New Delhi, the Ford Foundation New Delhi under the directorship of Pradeep Nair with Aparna Uppaluri as programme officer, and a two-week sojourn at the University of Würzburg in Germany (through their “Passage to India” programme supported by the German Academic Exchange Service) have provided financial assistance for this book. The Indian Council of Social Science Research is the major source of funding to the CWDS and hence supports all that we do. Thank you to all of them. The new friendships and alliances that unexpectedly emerged when this manuscript was about to be handed over to the publishers are the subject of the Afterword. It has been an overwhelming experience to discover what collective thought and action can achieve in the face of adversity, and I feel blessed to have been part of the current campaign questioning the government’s desire to raise the age of marriage of women to 21 years. Enakshi Ganguly, Madhu Mehra and Shireen Jejeebhoy are new interlocutors in this moment. Kavita Ratna and her untiring work with young people have been a source of inspiration. At Routledge, it has been wonderful to work with Shashank Sinha and Brinda Sen, among others. The reviews from two anonymous referees of the initial manuscript were crucial in my subsequent revisions. B. Balambigai and Stephen Poole have shepherded the book in its final stages. I do not know what to say about those whose love has been sustaining my life and work. Apoorv, Esther and Satish have made this book their own in too many ways to enumerate. My father, my siblings, “in-laws” and their families in other cities and continents also make up the warp and weft of life, sharpened by the physically unbridgeable distances suddenly created by the pandemic. It is a source of sorrow that my mother-in-law, whose two aunts were child widows, did not live to see this book come to fruition. I lost my father soon after I had handed over the final version for publication – he keenly asked after its progress whenever we communicated. This book is dedicated to both of them. Now, thankfully, it is out of my hands and in those of others. An earlier version of part of Chapter 1 is appearing as “Some Historiographical Challenges in Approaching Child Marriage in India”,



originally published in Love, Law and Labour: Child Marriage in India eds. Samita Sen and Anindita Ghosh © 2021. Reproduced with the permission of Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, and STREE, an imprint of Bhatkal and Sen, Kolkata. Delhi December 2020



This is not a book that was planned to be written. I first noticed some years ago how much attention child marriage was receiving among international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but without a parallel interest from the women’s movement and from feminist scholars. When I was approached by the Delhi office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2017 to do a “desk review” of scholarship on the subject in India and made some preliminary inquiries about the state of research on contemporary developments, there was precious little at the time. Indeed, much of the activism on the ground – in the form of numerous NGO-led programmes – appeared to be running along in a kind of epistemological vacuum. I therefore took on a task that I thought would be short and swift. Little did I realize that I had embarked on a long journey, one with many unforeseen twists and turns. The result is this book. When we begin a research project, we usually have strong ideas about what we are looking for. Indeed, we are primarily interested in confirming prior beliefs. I am no exception to this tendency. Among the many assumptions I started out with, one of the strongest was that there are very good reasons for keeping women’s and children’s issues distinct if not separate. After all, in contexts like India, the “womenandchildren” complex is more than unusually vexed. The concerned ministry to this very day is the Ministry for Women and Child Development, whose budgets have been totally dominated by concerns for children while shrinking and miniscule proportions are available for women. But this assumption was soon in complete disarray as a different subject began to take shape, frequently encountered as a double bind, one that I have rendered as the “childwoman” or “womanchild”. Having spent almost a lifetime in the field of women’s studies, first as a student, then a researcher and more recently as a teacher, I found it quite disconcerting and not a little humbling to revisit familiar histories with a different lens, such that the social reform of women became recast as all about the child. Tracing notions of marriage and childhood in other, less familiar spaces brought its own surprises. To take just one example out of many – the contradictions of law in modern England, with unexpectedly 1

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low minimum ages of marriage of 12 years for girls and 14 for boys, went hand in hand with capitalism at home and imperial policies globally. This kind of bumpy journey has no doubt left its imprint on this book as several sections had to be entirely rewritten in the light of unexpected findings. Feminist takes on childhood in Western scholarship were particularly elusive but then became all the more rewarding when I realized how shortsighted my search for meaningful accounts of girls within masculinist histories of childhood turned out to be. Gender politics has, after all, been very much about the deep asymmetries buried within unmarked universals, and why should childhood be any different? The politics of feminism in relation to children and childhood has been evolving on complex and at times conflicted terrain, and recent years in particular have seen a sharpened interest. Much of this new work, moreover, is happening with a greater awareness of the international scope of the problems at hand. These, then, are the contexts for taking stock of the twenty-first century, which is witness to massive global efforts to eliminate child marriage. India, we are repeatedly told, has by far the largest numbers of women in the world who have married before the age of 18. This has generated considerable international pressure on the Indian state (and on NGOs) to be seen to act against such a “harmful practice” (to use the terminology of the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]). The Government of India appears to be actively contemplating further amendments to its laws on the age of marriage for women, currently set at 18 years for girls and 21 for boys. There have been signs that the existing law against underage marriage could be turned into a no-exception law, making any such marriage a crime. We are quite ill prepared to assess the nature of these challenges. By way of contrast, consider the status of another “harmful practice” in the United Nations’ SDGs, namely gender-biased sex selection. Here is an issue where the Indian women’s movement has been involved for decades. The pre-birth elimination of female foetuses is currently more responsible than female child mortality for India’s worsening child sex ratio and “missing girls”. The misuse of sex determination technologies was discovered and taken up by the women’s movement in India in the 1980s, and it was only pressure from the movement that produced the first law against these technologies in Maharashtra in 1986. All this was before Amartya Sen made headlines with his global estimate that “100 million women are missing” (Sen 1990). Over the years, the “stakeholders” and “agendas” have certainly multiplied as the issue became ever more daunting, but feminist research, debate and activism are keeping pace. I cannot say the same in relation to campaigns against child marriage. I mention all this to indicate that the subject of child marriage is approached in this book with motives that are more mixed than usual. On the one hand, I certainly wanted to see greater feminist involvement. The institution of marriage in contemporary India has mostly been an invisible 2

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undercurrent in the campaigns of the women’s movement – from domestic violence and dowry murders to debates over a uniform civil code. Protests against cases of “honour killings” (triggered when young couples elope to marry against caste and community norms) certainly highlighted the extraordinary violence that families were capable of as well as the heightened legal repercussions if the girl was under the age of 18. But here too the structures of marriage remained in the shadows. Despite our longstanding insistence that “the personal is political” and even though the cliched contrast between “arranged” and “love” marriage suffuses popular culture, the institution of marriage itself, except for a few occasions of public feminist debate, has not received much attention. One such occasion has been the film festival called Larzish, Tremors of a Revolution: An International Film Festival of Sexuality and Gender Plurality, held in Mumbai in 2003 and 2004. The organizers staged a discussion from Marxist, feminist, anticaste, and queer perspectives in ways that sought to refashion radical perspectives on marriage and family (Shah, Hensman, John, Rao and Rinchin 2005). This is not the only instance when explicit attention to marriage derived most of its energy and purpose from debates on gender and sexuality rather than feminism. At the same time, the question of age did not figure in it. On the other hand, I have approached dominant frameworks for dealing with child marriage with considerable ambivalence. While there has been much to learn on the subject, questions and problems abound when it comes to the routes of analysis promoted and the “solutions” being mooted today. Thus, this book has required that I step back from my own frames in order to explore the existing kinds of scholarship and writings on child marriage in India and what perspectives could be brought to bear on current concerns and agendas. Although much has changed in the last few years, the enduring unevenness of this scholarship is reflected in these pages. As readers will discover, certain periods in India’s history and some academic disciplines are very densely represented whereas others are almost absent. At times, this has meant reading against the grain, looking for clues about early and child marriage in texts that did not address the subject or confined it to their margins. It also meant looking in unlikely places. While I have tried to represent faithfully the perspectives animating the literature discussed here, this book also takes on the tasks of critique, raising doubts about silences and exclusions and about methodology or frames of analysis. As in my other work, I have adopted an approach that is broadly historical. The contemporary concern around an inherently social and political subject like child marriage cannot be understood unless one has a sense of its historical evolution in modern times. This lack of historical context stands out in a literature that is inevitably global today, featuring nations from Asia, Africa and South America but offering little sense of their distinct trajectories. 3

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The nations in Africa and Asia most strongly associated with child marriage are not part of my study, not even those within South Asia. The literature that I could access about our neighbours (some of which, like Bangladesh and Pakistan, have a shared colonial past) did not provide a sufficient ground to grasp how child marriage has fared since these became independent nations, the social groups for whom it matters, and the stakes involved. My sense of limitation is therefore not merely epistemological but also political. How should one evaluate global data about changing trends in child marriage across the erstwhile Third World? But equally pertinent is the question of whose agendas are being furthered in these studies, especially when sponsored by international agencies. The fact that a few studies were as detailed and as provocative as they needed to be only added to my sense of inadequacy. Thus, for instance, an essay on child marriage in Bangladesh that I briefly discuss in this book (Amin and Das 2014) portrayed the anomalous nature of trends there, revealing how the authors found themselves at odds with dominant perspectives on the subject. Yet another remarkable essay that raises questions about current approaches “to end child marriage” comes from Bali. Hoko Horii describes with great care the fieldwork she conducted among “child brides” in Bali, some as young as 14 years, with a baby to look after and a household to run. These are accounts where their decisions to marry are taken seriously, neither romanticized nor opposed, and where Horii ends with dilemmas, constraints and unresolved questions about childhood and adulthood. She demonstrates “that the current international child marriage framework fails to walk the thin line between empowerment and protection of children” (Horii 2020: 254). But even a rare account like this one, undertaken in the best traditions of ethnographic research, needs to be complemented by further scholarship that is more fully accountable to local political realities, to marriage practices and social structures, to national and international policy agendas, and to those who may be implementing or questioning them. This does not mean that the present book is only about India; indeed, it could not be. My title refers to child marriage in an international frame, and it is partly borrowed. Over three decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote an essay titled “French Feminism in an International Frame” (Spivak 1987). Spivak explicitly situates herself in the context of US academics at a time when “French feminism” had become quite influential beyond its borders. Spivak begins her essay by recalling an encounter she had with a Sudanese sociologist who told her that she had just completed a “structural-functionalist thesis on female circumcision” in her country. Spivak stages her essay as a response to this meeting. Rejecting both the Sudanese academic’s concept and her choice of methodology, Spivak effectively puts yet others in their place. While she seems absolutely certain that the right term is clitoridectomy (today the official description has shifted to female genital mutilation/cutting), Spivak is more probing and questioning 4

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in her discussion of several well-regarded texts from the French feminist corpus for what they might have to offer. Where are the pitfalls and where might there be alternative resources for approaching the exclusions of female pleasure that clitoridectomy evokes, she asks. Spivak’s essay offers a mode of conducting feminist analysis that is critical of universal claims without getting trapped in cultural or nationalist frames. This book has benefited from such a method. At the same time, it is only too obvious that we are in quite another world today compared with the 1980s. Female genital mutilation (often shortened to FGM) is among the “harmful practices” to be eliminated under the United Nations’ SDGs, along with practices like child marriage. Spivak’s “international frame” was set up as a transaction between “French feminist theories”, her own location as an Indian academic in the US, and a Sudanese scholar’s problematic approach to an oppressive practice. As Chapters 1 and 2 will attest, “child marriage” itself is nameable only in a series of international frames, from the colonial era to the twenty-first century. Some of my international staging has been deliberately counterintuitive. I have foregrounded the presence of child marriage within the borders of the world’s foremost superpowers – the US and China – so as to bring out the specificity of India more carefully. The major difference in my method compared with Spivak follows from the politics of my location in India’s research environment and my links to feminism here. Spivak’s essay leaves feminism in the Sudan entirely outside her frame. In the time since I began this research a few years ago, the field has expanded considerably. The UNFPA chose to make the “harmful practices” of child marriage, gender-biased sex selection and female genital cutting the subject of their State of the World’s Population Report 2020. It bears the title Against My Will: Defying the Practices that Harm Women and Undermine Equality (UNFPA 2020). We appear to have moved far from the structural-functionalisms of yesteryear and have had to develop critical skills for a situation where the language of feminism is everywhere. Many scholars have added new contributions to this field, and although I have benefited considerably from this recent literature, some came out too late in India for this book to be able to draw from their insights. Ashwini Tambe’s Defining Girlhood in India: A Transnational History of Sexual Maturity Laws (Tambe 2019) and Ishita Pande’s Sex, Law and the Politics of Age: Child Marriage in India, 1891–1937 (Pande 2020) appear to travel along similar paths. The publication of these works is a welcome sign, along with other forthcoming work with which I have been more closely aligned (e.g., Sen and Ghosh forthcoming). Soon, the inadequacy that I felt not so long ago when embarking on this review may be a thing of the past. Yet another study, by Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Mitra 2019), would also have been invaluable but arrived too late to benefit this book. Mitra’s provocative suggestion is that “the heterosexual/homosexual definition” is not the critical driver “in 5

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the making of modern sexuality from the nineteenth century” in India (Mitra 2019: 8). In her view, the sexually deviant woman embodied as a prostitute plays a more foundational role. My own interest is in marriage, the institution that must invariably house this inherently dangerous and always excessive female sexuality, one that seems to hold men, especially those creating social theories, in such thrall. Since we are talking about what is after all a thought construct, my question comes from the other side and is clearly relevant for the present moment: Why has the institution of compulsory (heterosexual) marriage – repeatedly invoked as the means to control women’s otherwise unrestrained sexuality – been rather peripheral to feminist inquiry? This book leads up to my main claim: In twenty-first-century India (if not earlier), it is compulsory marriage that must be the necessary referent for gaining a better perspective on child marriage. Or rather, I should rephrase this from the other side: when seen from “below”, child marriage is the form that compulsory marriage takes. In an essay written over 20 years ago in the context of panics around representations of sexuality during the 1990s, I had tried – unsuccessfully I now think – to shift emphasis away from such panics towards the assumptions undergirding marriage in “its compulsory, everyday, normalised aspects” (John 1998: 386). It is insufficient to speak of marriage solely in the language of the control of female sexuality – as Mitra suggests, this would keep us imprisoned in the thought construct. Economic, social, sexual and reproductive forces are ensuring that marriage is effectively compulsory across class, communities and age. Moreover, I argue that marriage is (what I call) capacious – in its claims if not in actuality – so that consent can be fully accommodated within it. Child marriage is not a separate practice creating unique victims out of children but is structurally bound up within the forms that compulsory marriage as a modern, dynamic and deeply hierarchical system is taking in contemporary Indian society. Whereas child marriage is declining, compulsory marriage is not. The challenge is far greater than the elimination of child marriage, given the differential forces shaping diverse women’s life chances and futures in India today. A word or two about the term “compulsory”. Here, too, there is a debt to be acknowledged – to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence” (Rich 1981). Rich wanted to show how widespread the erasure of lesbian existence has been in the history and society with which she was familiar. Even the best feminist texts of her time were contributing to this erasure by effectively naturalizing women’s sexual relations with men rather than recognizing the often forceful and even violent history of heterosexuality. My use of the term shares her perspective but also departs from it. The most pervasive socializing structure in India is marriage and not heterosexuality. Therefore, it is marriage (with heteronormativity folded within it) that feminists in India need to call out. Its most powerful form is not through the actual use of explicit force but through 6

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the manufacture of consent – force and violence therefore can be treated as aberrations (and more easily condemned). This is what makes it both compulsory and hegemonic. My limited task in this book is to call out compulsory marriage in relation to child marriage. The question of lesbian existence in India is, of course, absolutely vital for feminism, as are all non-normative genders and sexualities. Although it is not the subject of this book, a telling example of the pervasive and multiple erasures of non-normative selves is the extent to which the ubiquitous evocation of the “girl child” in public life and policy is always already assumed to be cis-gendered and on the path to (heterosexual) wifehood and motherhood. To help guide the reader, the voyage of this book has been divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 looks at scholarship from around 1800 to 2000. It covers periods like the nineteenth century – by far the best known, the stuff of school textbooks. But much of this legacy, as it turns out, is yet to be fully grasped. As I mentioned before, what happens when the subject of “women” so taken for granted in histories of social reform becomes recast – on closer inspection and after a critical re-reading of canonical works – to have been all about the child? Yet another challenge is of a more historiographical nature. The contested subjects of Indian history do not allow for any simple act of “recovery” or permit themselves to be transplanted from ancient times into the present: child marriage is an excellent example. Even so, the compulsion to look for ancient roots to modern problems is part of India’s colonial legacy. The period from the nineteenth century up to the 1930s is densely hatched with a rich literature that is now regionally diverse, differentially marked by caste, and still a matter of debate and contestation. Something changes decisively with independence and even more so with the onset of a new moment of Indian feminism in the 1970s. From having been (almost literally) the “mother of all controversies” – with an intercontinental reach and where the first women’s organizations of the early twentieth century cut their teeth on the campaign against it – child marriage recedes into the background with independence. Once the defining “social evil” of a colonized people, child marriage transmutes into the problem of the “other” – the rural poor, disenfranchised castes, minority groups and backward regions. This is the scene as the twentieth century winds to a close. But rather than pick up the story of its revival in twenty-first-century India, Chapter 2 goes in a different direction altogether. I train an international lens on the very categories that tend to be taken for granted as culture-bound – those of marriage, the child, the adolescent and the “girl”. The trajectories followed by the West as it proceeded to invent and transform ideas of childhood, adolescence and the institution of marriage have had direct repercussions for conceptualizing child marriage in the rest of the world. Moreover, it turns out – as it has with so many things colonial – that there is nothing uniquely Indian or Third World about child marriage. The child-woman encountered in Chapter 1 reappears in all her complexity over 7

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and over again in the history of Europe and America. Western feminism itself has had a very instructive relationship to childhood from which there is much to learn. This chapter also briefly explores the histories of two nations not associated with child marriage – the US and China – that have successfully marginalized the phenomenon (and mostly avoided international scrutiny) even though American and Chinese girls are marrying too young to this very day. Chapter 3 returns to the Indian context at the end of the twentieth century, when international frames work more powerfully than ever to bring “child marriage” back into the limelight. Here, I interrogate the domains of law, policy and demography, which together have been the most prominent sites of intervention and knowledge creation around child marriage in the twenty-first century. Over the years, the age of 18 has been made a converging benchmark in state policy – for many things but especially for reproductive health, sexual consent, and marriage. This convergence does not have a harmonizing effect but creates a host of problems. Of these three fields, only the sphere of the law has seen considerable debate among feminists. Problematic policies, such as conditional cash transfer schemes for daughters, need as much critical attention but have been largely ignored. The work of demography has been quite decisively shaped by international covenants where different registers of analysis get entangled. The new language of the rights of the child, that make any marriage below 18 a violation, go hand in hand with fears of escalating fertility rates and calculations of reproductive health risks. The really critical question here is: How much of statistical weight can age justifiably bear in relation to a host of other factors making for the vulnerability of girls who marry too young? What is the relative causal importance of age at marriage compared with other “independent variables” like poverty, social location, access to health care, education and so on? Does the ease with which age at marriage can be “corrected” by legal fiat – in contrast to the challenges of addressing the other ills and inequalities woven into the lives of those who marry too young – account for its sudden elevation to the status of root cause and prime suspect? Chapter 4 introduces my own arguments about compulsory marriage. Age at marriage, education, and above all the world of work are, in my view, the most critical interlocking forces shaping women’s life chances in relation to this compulsory institution. I explore the scholarship in these domains in order to build the necessary scaffolding for addressing the paradoxes and peculiarities that characterize our situation. The sparseness in these disciplinary fields when it comes to making links with questions of age has meant that I have gone beyond the ambit of a “review of literature” to mooting ideas of my own. The prevalence of underage marriage – a practice that has declined sharply in recent decades – must be connected to the expansion in education, on the one hand, but also, on the other hand, to the shocking declines in women’s employment opportunities during these very 8

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years. Although some of these paradoxes in the sphere of women’s work have been on the agendas of feminists and development economists, they have not really gained sufficient traction in public life, and least of all in relation to compulsory marriage, especially for those who marry too young. A very influential approach in the current literature on child marriage is to view the problem as a highly regressive social norm among certain communities and families. Solutions range from delaying the age of marriage until 18 to trying to provide adolescent girls with “agency”. The notion of social norms as the root cause and site for intervention is particularly flawed. I would like to think that the directions for positive change on offer would benefit from being reframed in relation to the forces shaping and directing compulsory marriage at the present time. What kind of “agency” will make a difference to life chances when the trajectory of compulsory marriage at higher ages is not even in the picture? What kinds of support are required for those who marry too young? To indicate where the fault lines might lie, I have at times drawn from my own ongoing research on this and related subjects. I do not see any shortcuts in terms of “solutions” to the problem of child marriage, and the journey is far from over. Or to put it more plainly, the journey has barely begun. Given the current state of our economy, polity and society, there is no option but to critically re-conceptualize and repoliticize the dominant international and national agendas on child marriage. We may well see a further decline in the phenomenon in the years to come, perhaps even in Census 2021 or the next round of the National Family Health Survey. But without a genuine feminist frame and the backing of a movement, such declines may not even be grounds for hope. Feminists have much to learn from those who have been supporting the struggles of the young, including those who have married when they were “children”, who are from our most disenfranchised castes, communities and regions. This book is a plea for more involvement, more research and a greater readiness to name the challenges before us.

References Amin, Sajeta and Maitreyi Das. 2014. “Marriage, Continuity and Change in Bangladesh”. In Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World, edited by Ravinder Kaur and Rajni Palriwala. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. Horii, Hoko. 2020. “Walking a Thin Line: Taking Children’s Decision to Marry Seriously?” Childhood 27 (2): 254–270. John, Mary E. 1998. “Globalisation and Sexuality in the Visual Field: Issues and Non-issues for Cultural Critique”. In A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India, edited by Mary E. John and Janaki Nair, 368–396. New Delhi Kali for Women and London: Zed Press. Mitra, Durba. 2019. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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Pande, Ishita. 2020. Sex, Law and the Politics of Age: Child Marriage in India, 1891–1937. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rich, Adrienne. 1981. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. In Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985, New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Sen, Amartya. 1990. “More than One Hundred Million Women are Missing”. New York Review of Books 37 (20) December. Sen, Samita, and Anindita Ghosh, eds. Forthcoming. Love, Law and Labour: Child Marriage in India. Kolkata: Stree and New Delhi: SAGE Publications. Shah, Chayanika, Rohini Hensman, Mary E. John, Anupama Rao and Rinchin. 2005. “Marriage, Family and Community: A Feminist Dialogue” Economic and Political Weekly 40 (8): 709–710. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. “French Feminism in an International Frame”. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 134–153. New York and London: Methuen. Tambe, Ashwini. 2019. Defining Girlhood in India: A Transnational History of Sexual Maturity Laws. Urbana Champaign: University of Illinois Press. UNFPA. 2020. Against My Will: Defying the Practices that Harm Women and Undermine Equality. New York: UNFPA.




Child marriage in India has a very special relationship to history. This needs to be understood in both a historiographical and a strictly historical sense. Is there a story in the first place and how can it be told? From pre-colonial times to the era of colonial rule, from the making of the new Indian nation to the first decades of the twenty-first century, child marriage throws up a distinct set of questions. It is the task of this chapter to read the existing historical literature as carefully as possible, against the grain if need be, to mark the beginning of the story, its subsequent highs and lows. It will be necessary to discern what kinds of historiographical perspectives are required and which ones should be rejected. It will also be possible to track the many phases and shifts from the nineteenth century when child marriage repeatedly became the most controversial of issues, to the time after independence when it recedes from the public eye, to the contemporary moment with its particular rekindling of focus. Most current studies of present-day trends of child marriage in India, be they demographic, statistical or qualitative in scope, begin with a short introductory historical section. They frequently evince an obligation to go back to pre-colonial, if not pre-medieval, times to look for the root cause of child marriage. It is not just that they suffer on many counts – whether by virtue of sweeping generalizations about Indian tradition, claims that child marriage was a response to the rape and abduction of unmarried girls by Muslim invaders in the medieval period, over-hasty critiques of what nineteenth-century social reform may have been attempting in its time and place, and (all too frequently) patchy, if not basically incorrect, accounts of this history itself. There is a more fundamental problem in producing historical accounts when it comes to the Indian situation, which I shall try to explain below.

A few thoughts on the pre-colonial period The existing literature on the subject of child marriage in India leads me to believe that one can begin an account of such a history only in the colonial period (or, more precisely, from the early nineteenth century). In fact, I am 11

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tempted to go on to say that it is not possible to come up with a history from before this period in the first place. Was there a pre-colonial idea of childhood let alone of child marriage? When and why does child marriage become nameable as an issue? As we shall see, it is only under conditions of colonial rule that the child becomes a problem category and it is child marriage that grips the national imagination in the late colonial period. There is nothing in the existing literature to show that there was a concept of child marriage in earlier times and even less that it was a matter to be questioned. Let me add that India is by no means alone here since child marriage is taken for granted – or, to put it differently, does not exist as an idea or a concern – in most parts of the world for a very long time, as Chapter 2 will be addressing in more detail. This brings me to the next crucial point. Many scholars have pointed out how, as a direct consequence of the experience of colonialism, there was a compulsion to trace some kind of ancient historical ancestry to the problems they were attempting to tackle. However, there are no robust data to reconstruct such a history in the first place, alongside having to acknowledge the obvious existence of a multiplicity of practices, all of which may have been in flux. So what one sees are either generic claims without providing the source from which they are taken or an overwhelming reliance on certain Brahmanical texts in the existing literature (some examples will be provided shortly), but without the acknowledgement of the impossibility of providing anything like a history of marriage in India. Such accounts do a grave injustice by leaving out non-Hindu and non-scriptural pasts, apart from the very real intractabilities of interpreting scriptural sources themselves. So, the comments that follow should be understood in the spirit of these major caveats. Given these preliminary but essential remarks, it should not be surprising to discover that child marriage hardly crops up in the literature on households and gender relations in the ancient period. Kumkum Roy has pointed out that whereas early Indian textual sources describe the ritualistic aspects of marriage in considerable detail, the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) focus on marriage for its critical social and political purposes, namely the acquisition of new kin alliances between royal families (Roy 2014). This is why I would suggest that there is a problem in the following efforts to actually come up with conceptions of childhood or child marriage that resonate with our contemporary concerns. Some developmental psychologists, for example, have tried to align ancient textual notions of the stages of life of a male Brahman – i.e., infancy and childhood, brahmacharya (translated as apprenticeship), the householder and finally the stage of sanyas or renunciation – with modern ideas of developmental psychology under the notion of “Hindu conceptions of life span development” (T.S. Saraswathi and others 2011). Saraswathi, Datta and Mishra say that in such a “Hindu” conception, childhood stretches from infancy to about the age of eight, 12

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followed by the phase of celibate apprenticeship until 18 years (or more), after which a man is to marry and start a household, although it is not known where these age spans come from. (The idea of stages of life is quite a widespread notion in ancient cultures, as will come up in Chapter 2, but these cannot be narrowly mapped by age since notions of strict age were introduced only into modern societies.) They neglect to mention that this is reserved not just for the “twice born” upper castes but for upper-caste men. Moreover, we do not know how common such ideas were, for whom and when. The sociologist K.M. Kapadia appears to be quite unselfconscious in his descriptions of the celibate state of brahmacharya in his early work on Marriage and Family in India (third edition 1966). Kapadia equates this stage with being a student, “marked by a rapid growth of the body, emotional instability, the development of the sexual functions and stimulation of sexual activities. It is a period of storm and stress, of impulsiveness… He was taught to engage his mind in more worthy pursuits than merely bodily comforts… the kind of life that was bound to withstand the storm of adolescence. It might be dubbed a repressed life, but there could be hardly any talk of repression when …the body was disciplined for a higher purpose in life”. (Kapadia 1966: 29–30) There is no reference to Freudian notions of repression nor that the idea of “storm and stress” comes from the work of Granville Stanley Hall, a founding figure in the psychology of adolescence in his work of 1904, for whom adolescence was very much a modern phenomenon. Kapadia has a chapter on “age at marriage” in which he cites from various Brahmanical sources and writers to try to figure out when marriages took place in ancient India and whether there were changes over time. A textual reference in the Ghryasutras (700–300 BCE) to the consummation of marriage within three days of the rites being performed compared with references in the Dharmasutras (300–100 BCE) that the right time to give away a daughter in marriage is when she is “still naked” (i.e., pre-pubertal) makes him believe that marriage before puberty for Hindu girls cannot be firmly dated. But he is careful to add that such prescriptions need not imply that this was actual practice, which once again does not lead to any conclusions about trends or customs. Kapadia has other points to make: Since marriage was all about the transfer of authority over a woman, from the father to the husband, “it should hence take place before a girl reached the age when she might question it” (Kapadia: 142). Kapadia cites several texts, especially from the sixth century CE, that mention – in passing – marriageable ages for the girl of eight, nine or ten years, including statements that a Brahman who married a girl beyond this age would lose his caste and her parents and brother would go to hell. He also believes that 13

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caste endogamy would have promoted early marriage, as the father of the girl would be on the lookout for a groom from within a relatively narrow field of selection. The husband was to be older, by anything from three to ten years or more. It became a matter of prestige for girls to be sought after in marriage from a “tender age”, and with the passage of time, any departure was a matter of disapproval if not social disgrace. Kapadia then makes a huge leap from Brahmanical texts to cite major figures from the pantheon of social and religious reform in the nineteenth century who married very young girls: Ramakrishna Paramahamsa married a girl of six, M.G. Ranade a girl of eight and D.K. Karve a girl of nine (Kapadia: 146). There is also a chapter on Muslim marriage but which is quite general in scope, concentrating mainly on polygamy and with no particular discussion on the Indian situation. Buddhist texts are never referred to. Textual references to the threatening nature of the sexuality of women – whether in the Brahmanic tradition or in stories coming from the Buddhist Jatakas – are better known and frequently referred to (Chakravarti 1993; Roy 2014). It does not take much to realize that such textual excesses about the uncontrollability of female sexuality would have been obvious and undisguised justifications for the need for strong measures of control, especially over those women most valued by virtue of their high status. And with procreation being central to the very meaning of being a woman, it would only further cement the surmise that early marriages were an unspoken norm, whether in religious texts or in the worlds of custom, and indeed that this is not at all surprising. A brief look at a popular mythological figure like Sita would, however, indicate that we would be on treacherous terrain if we were to make any attempts to come up with substantive notions of childhood and adulthood in pre-modern times. It may be true that two of the most popular heroines of the epics are remembered as adult women – Sita and Draupadi (Kumkum Roy, personal communication). But too much cannot be read into this. The anthropologist Irawati Karve quotes the following lines by the character Rama in an eighth-century Sanskrit drama Uttara Rama Carita (After the Rama Story) by Bhavabhuti, when Sita was about to be exiled in the forest by the King: “the loved one was fed and clothed (in my family) since she was a child, in youth she was never separated from me and now I am handing her over to death like a pet bird to a butcher” (in Karve 1968: 73). Equally telling, according to Nabaneeta Dev Sen, is that the many later stories of Sita that were written or sung by women begin with Sita’s birth, not Rama’s. Sen’s project has been to collect these “alternative Ramayanas” that range from sixteenth-century narratives by Chandrabati in Bengal and the Telugu writer Molla to the countless songs of village women across the country in contemporary times. So, once again, a note of caution is required when we approach the numerous folk songs that she has interpreted from across present-day rural India, where Sita is evoked as a foundling, an orphaned girl child. Such songs invariably go on to the travails of child 14

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marriage, and giving-away songs lament the loss of her home and the hardships, including domestic abuse, that await among the in-laws. Sen quotes from a Telugu song sung by rural women in Andhra as follows: “The tiny girl is only as tall as seven jasmine flowers… Such a child is being given away in marriage to Rama today” (Sen 2008: 585). Notice, moreover, that Nabaneeta Sen’s many Sitas not only traverse the historical swathe from the sixteenth century to the contemporary but cut across quite distinct regions. Irawati Karve, in her well-known treatise on Kinship Organisation in India (third edition 1968) also, without reflection, refers briefly to Brahmanical texts from early India in order to then discuss her well-known thesis about the huge significance of different kinship practices drawing from anthropological accounts of her own time. In patrilineal households where a girl came from an alien family, early marriage was a necessity, a matter of ensuring her loyalty (Karve 1968: 73). Karve’s study of kinship patterns is well known for her discussions of the major divide between the north and the south. Northern India has exemplified marriage to a stranger with significant status differences between wife givers and wife takers – even the village of the bride is considered inferior to the village of the groom. Both girls and boys were generally married when they were children; the girl remained in her home, made occasional visits to the in-laws, and moved permanently only after her first menstruation with a “gauna” ceremony (Karve 1968: 126–127). Compare this description with what Karve says about Dravidian practices in the southern parts of India. Marriage in the south was not about seeking new alliances but strengthening existing bonds, often with permitted relatives. It does not symbolize separation from the father’s house for the girl. The future husband is “the cross-cousin and the playmate of his future wife, not her lord and master” (Karve: 242). This raises an interesting set of questions. After all, in the south too, marriages have been strictly arranged by families, at early ages and with no consideration of the desires of the girl or boy. Yet the tone adopted for the south by Karve in this classic text on kinship is one of comparative ease, naturalness and even a certain egalitarianism compared with the relentlessly oppressive situation of the girl from the north. I raise this as a question not so much of how accurate this description of marriage practices in the South may be but rather to show how it is the north that has occupied the standard position in anthropological discussions of kinship practices, whose very harshness makes the south seem so much better in contrast. Here, age appears as less of a criterion than such claimed differences in marriage patterns. This is not the most satisfactory way to begin an account of child marriage in India, given all the challenges that I have drawn attention to. Instead, we have to explore a modern entry point: the much-cited social reform of women from the early nineteenth century.


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The colonial period It is surely remarkable that much of the social reform initiatives that centred on women during the long nineteenth century were primarily about the girl child. However, until very recently, there has been next to no discussion of the idea of childhood in this history. Although such a history remains to written, some beginnings have been made. My own strategy has been to glean from existing research as to when and how age became as much of a problem as the status of women. Without doubt, the institution of marriage came to be seen as being at the heart of what ailed Indian society in the eyes of the British colonial rulers, an opinion echoed by many Indians in the course of that century and beyond. We will see how this concern with marriage came to be indistinguishable from that of child marriage. In her more lyrical account of “coming of age in the nineteenth century”, Ruby Lal has observed that she “felt it necessary to reconceptualise the woman question as the question of the girl child/woman for a number of reasons” (Lal 2013: 36). In a world where women – whether young or old – could do nothing on their own (here she is citing James Mill’s references to Manu) or, in other words, where women lived as lifelong dependents, the separation of a distinct stage called childhood was practically impossible. She emphasizes the namelessness of this imbricated condition where woman and child kept collapsing onto one another. Her resolution of the problem was to deploy the idea of playfulness gleaned from Urdu textual sources on the one hand and an oral history of coming of age on the other (her book centres on the life memories of Azra Kidwai, born into an aristocratic Lucknow family in the early twentieth century) which offer Lal an opportunity to recover spaces beyond male control. This contrasts with other accounts considered below, which are dominated by all kinds of control. Rather than being in a state of namelessness, the child wife is inexorably talked about, fought over and contested and becomes everyone’s problem. The child/woman dyad is, moreover, a very critical site of slippage, one that, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, is by no means confined to Indian terrain nor simply of historical significance. There are many strands, events and famous men (and thereafter many women) associated with a history so focussed on marriage and the girl child/woman. Feminists and scholars of social history have been quite active since the 1970s in making some of this history more widely available. A major shortcoming is the considerable unevenness in regional terms, although this is beginning to get redressed. As a result, school textbooks across the country since at least the 1960s feature icons from colonial Bengal, like Raja Rammohan Roy and Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, while the achievements of Jotirao Phule in the western region of colonial Maharashtra are only now beginning to be better known.


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Beginnings in colonial Bengal The social reform period stretches from the late eighteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century. It is during this period that we can track how child marriage became not just the name of a problem but the biggest problem ailing Indian society, able to capture all that was wrong about us as a people. Two regions stand both together and apart in this history and have prominent commonalities and differences – that of colonial Bengal on the one hand and the western region of the Bombay Presidency, now roughly the region of Maharashtra, on the other. The critical difference between the two is the centrality of caste in the western region compared with the relative blindness towards caste in accounts dealing with colonial Bengal. Most historians begin their account of the period of social reform in India with the long drawn-out debate over the practice of sati or widow immolation in colonial Bengal between the 1780s and 1830. According to one influential account, if one looks closely at the three decades of controversy over whether and how to ban sati, as the debates unfolded between British colonial officials, Indian pandits and reformers like Rammohan Roy, the woman herself does not feature in these discourses, which are rather about whether sati as a practice is sanctioned in ancient religious scriptures (or shastras). This was a debate about religion as scripture, not about women (Mani 1998). The significance of Lata Mani’s study was to replace linear accounts of modernization or the emergence of women’s empowerment with the frame of a colonial discourse that relied on Hindu scriptural injunctions for any consideration of reform. (Indeed, in the light of the discussion above on child marriage in pre-colonial times, we have seen how this injunction to look for roots of contemporary practices in Brahmanical scriptural texts continues unabated.) In a study concentrated on examining the complex interpretative traffic between British officials and pandits over what exactly the shastras permitted by way of widow immolation, Mani mentions how colonial representations typically reinforced the victim status of such women by infantilizing her. She was invariably rendered as a “tender child” even though their very own statistics challenged such a claim (Mani 1998: 32). It would seem that, when cases of sati were brought up and enumerated, sati was not a practice that affected the child widow as much as the mature or older person, who was quite often in impoverished circumstances (Yang 1989). Although no details are provided, 16 was set as the age below which sati could not be permitted, indicative therefore of the new connections that were now being forged between considerations of age and, quite possibly, an unprecedented notion of consent, one that somehow fell back on “ancient tradition” in order to be authentic. Sati was a very specific phenomenon undertaken by small numbers in certain parts of Bengal and to a lesser extent elsewhere, gaining hugely in global publicity because of the extreme violence associated with it. The less


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sensational practice of ritually enforced widowhood was much more widespread, certainly amongst upper castes. A very significant number of women in the Indian population were found to be widows (i.e., seen to no longer have the protection of a husband). As Janaki Nair has put it, the law against widow immolation may have “saved them from the pyre, but condemned them to a living death” (Nair 1994: 61). Here, one can quite unambiguously see how ideas of the (girl) child came to be constructed through the plight of child widows, which grabbed the attention of reformers, especially those who may have never left their natal homes. In cases where the marriage had not been consummated, sexual innocence, the status of childhood and the loss of patriarchal protections could coalesce into a perfect symbol of victimhood. Widowhood was not just very common but, practically speaking, a phase in the life cycle of women where husbands were older. In several instances where such men themselves died early, the wives left behind were little more than children. Brahmanical laws decreed that widows remain chaste. As one commentator put it, Irrevocably, eternally married as a mere child, the death of a husband she had perhaps never known left the wife a widow, an inauspicious being whose sins in a previous life had deprived her of her husband, and her parents-in-law of their son, in this one. (Carroll 2007: 114–115) Lucy Carroll seems to be quite certain that not just enforced widowhood but also child marriage were purely upper-caste customs, confined to a minority (less than 20% of the population). As we shall see, others have not always agreed, nor is this entirely supported by historical evidence. One strand in the history of child marriage in India therefore begins with the figure of the (upper caste) child widow, and reform led by Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in Bengal took the shape of demanding the legal possibility of her remarriage. Pandit Vidyasagar was as concerned with child marriage and girls’ education, urging in 1850 that girls be at least 11 years old for marriage and boys 18. In 1861, the British declared in the just-formulated Indian Penal Code that sexual intercourse to a girl below ten would be considered rape. Although laws for widow remarriage were first proposed in 1837, they took until 1856 to be passed. Differences in caste practices do make an entry: One of the reasons for initial opposition was that “such a law would lead the Hindus of upper castes and classes to be confused with the inferior castes and tribes among whom remarriage was common” (Nair: 60). Others have pointed out that this law, for all its positive intentions, had unintended negative effects on precisely those castes and communities for whom remarriage had not been an issue. This is because the new law introduced certain provisions that effectively curtailed the more open remarriage practices among these non-elite castes (Chowdhry 1993; Carroll 2007). In retrospect, it might appear odd that the very practice of child marriage 18

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achieved some measure of acknowledgement first via its tragic outcome in the significant presence of child widows. But on further reflection, this is quite understandable, given that child marriage per se had yet to attain the status of a problem. Since the widow had lost her patriarchally sanctioned source of protection, she could be viewed as an abjected figure, isolated and deprived for no fault of her own. The child widow thus invited considerable sympathy if not intervention, and the younger she was, the greater the identification with her plight. It took almost a century of social reform for child marriage itself to enter the fray of legislative action. A much larger preoccupation that spanned several regions in colonial India, more so in the south, is that modern childhood is most closely entwined with ideas of education and schooling. Of course, this is not at all confined to India, as Chapter 2 will attest. But what may be unique to the Indian situation is that colonial education introduced what became one of the most important aspects regulating a girl or woman’s subsequent marriage, including her age at marriage. In the Indian context, it was education that was decisive for affecting when a marriage takes place; in other parts of the world, it was work. More attention needs to be paid to the realm of education and its ramifications for thinking about changes in the institution of marriage. Matters relating to girls’ education were for a long time as controversial as the more publicly fought over issues of marriage and widowhood. Because this is much less systematically explored, I am suggesting that further research is needed on the changing relationship between education and marriage both in the colonial context and thereafter. In his study of Western education in colonial India, Sanjay Seth has asked why the subject of female education was a matter of constant discussion when the actual numbers of girls and women in education were so miniscule, “in staggering disproportion to the number of girls affected” (Seth 2007: 129). As late as 1882, there were just six girls in college, over 2000 in secondary schools, and 124,000 in mixed primary schools, mainly in the Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay. He goes on to say that by the end of the nineteenth century there was in fact widespread agreement in favour of the idea of women’s education but this did not result in a significant increase in numbers since women were burdened with being the bearers of Indian culture for the incipient nation (Chatterjee 1989) and a Western education was inappropriate for such women. These so-called obstacles, however, run considerably deeper, once the links with marriage are brought into the picture. In the early years of social reform in the nineteenth century, the education of girls was not on the British colonial agenda. The British were concerned with using Western education as a training ground for Indians who could be incorporated into the lower rungs of the administrative system, and English-educated Indians were preferred for government appointments. Such Indians – it should be obvious – were entirely men. Wealthy Indians themselves took the first steps before the government stepped in, beginning 19

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with the establishment of the Hindu College in Calcutta in 1816. The first teachers to explicitly approach girls in their homes were missionaries or, more commonly, the wives of missionaries. Geraldine Forbes has discussed the specific interest in teaching women and girls, which led to their opening the first girls’ schools where native Christian women were also brought in as school teachers (Forbes 1986, 1996). Thus was established the Calcutta Education Society for the promotion of girls’ education, although families were initially hesitant to send their girls. Even the patronage of Indian gentlemen and the presence of Brahmin pandits on the staff did not suffice. Other regions of the country under colonial rule, notably western and southern India, fared much better. The extensive documentation undertaken by S.S. Bhattacharya and his colleagues provides a more differential picture – it would be wrong to think that it was mainly colonial educators who took upon themselves the burden of women’s education since increasing initiatives came from indigenous intellectuals, “local notables” and “monied people” (Bhattacharya and others 2001: xxvii). Rekha Pappu has shown how social reformers emerged among both Muslims and Hindus, each addressing their own communities, privileging the education of their respective elites, looking for sanction in religious texts, and ultimately finding justification for regeneration through women’s reform (Pappu 2015; see also Chakravarti 1998; Minault 1998). Among the most interesting consequences of education was the emergence of a new genre of writing by middle-class women in the form of autobiographies. These offer truly remarkable accounts of their marriages as children and the often extraordinary lengths to which they went to acquire another life in the “inner quarters” (Karlekar 1991; Sarkar 2001; Chatterjee 1993).

A different framing in western India There has been as much scholarship if not more on western India than the better-known Bengal example when it comes to social history more broadly and questions relating to women’s reform more specifically. However, for reasons that probably have to do with Calcutta being the seat of colonial power, Bengal has retained its dominance in histories of social reform. One of the interesting aspects of scholarship on the region that now falls broadly within the state of Maharashtra is that accounts of reform foreground structures of caste as much as those of gender when discussing what ails Indian society. It is instructive to contrast otherwise very similar themes pertaining to women’s status – the home and gender segregation, purdah and seclusion, the public/private dichotomy, marriage and bearing children and so on – in works dealing with Maharashtra (Kosambi 2007; O’Hanlon 1994; O’Hanlon 2014; Deshpande 2002; Chakravarti 1998) with those on Bengal (e.g., Chatterjee 1993; Sinha 1994; Sarkar 2001; Sarkar and Sarkar 2007). It is immediately clear that the problems of women in a region like Bengal are discussed in largely gendered terms (at least when it comes to its 20

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bhadramahila middle-class upper-caste woman) but that in Maharashtra the story can only be told through the working of gender and caste together and for all women, whether “high” or “low”. One early sign of this difference can be vividly seen in the belated discovery of the pioneering efforts of Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai. There is now a burgeoning literature on Phule, including some translations of his writings, although equal attention has yet to be paid to the extraordinary life and work of Savitribai, who is unfortunately folded in as a “wife” into accounts of the man who was the first to be called a Mahatma. Unlike Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Pandit Vidyasagar, who came from upper-class and caste backgrounds, Phule was born into an agricultural caste, a shudra. Thanks to having a father who was a building contractor, he was able to complete a school education. Phule’s translator G.P. Deshpande makes the interesting comment in his introduction that whereas other reformers were influenced by “the rather weak English branch of European liberalism” (Deshpande 2002: 3), Phule had read Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Phule established a school for shudr-atishudra (shudra and dalit) girls in 1848, the first of its kind anywhere in India. His father was shocked and, fearing a backlash from upper castes, threw both him and his new wife out of the house. Phule continued undeterred with other sources of support, from missionaries and the British state. Another school was opened in 1851 for girls from all castes. Many of his other actions, such as throwing open the family well to untouchables, were equally revolutionary, and not just for his time. Interesting, too, is that the terminology used by him and his followers was not that of social reform but rather of social justice. Phule’s agenda in establishing the Satyashodak Samaj (truth-seeking society) was to promote a society that was egalitarian when it came to labour, gender and caste by resisting Brahmin hegemony and abolishing shudra and dalit slavery. Other scholarship on Maharashtra focusses on social reformers in cities like Pune and Bombay who appeared much closer to their Bengal counterparts and were quite conscious of caste conventions under Brahman leaders like M.G. Ranade, R.G. Bhandarkar and others. Meera Kosambi has described the views of someone like Bhandarkar, who sought to placate opponents to women’s education by portraying it as a kind of “patriarchal convergence”. Education was “a window in the prison house” that would not disturb her place in the home or the discharging of household duties, a very limited modernizing position (Kosambi 2007: 151). This is a harsher rendering of Partha Chatterjee’s “nationalist resolution of the women’s question”, whereby social reform was successfully contained by making the educated woman the bearer of Indian tradition in the cultural battle against colonial rule (Chatterjee 1989). For all his conservatism, Bhandarkar was an interesting nineteenth-century figure since he was a reformer, a Sanskritist and a historian rolled into one. He was one of those on the constant lookout for determining just when practices like child marriage 21

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(i.e., pre-pubertal marriage) first emerged or found sanction in ancient scriptural texts (Bhandarkar 1924). His tendency was to find fluidity in practices in these texts – so the same father who invited severe censure for not marrying his daughter before puberty was also allowed to keep an unmarried daughter in his home. She could also decide later to choose a husband of her own. Meera Kosambi describes how in the nineteenth century the education of women had been strongly proscribed under Brahmanical norms – it was frequently said that to gain an education was to invite the worst fate of widowhood. Literate women (even daughters of pandits) were seen as potentially subversive by evading household control to engage in immoral relations with non-domestic men. Social reformers therefore went to great lengths to show that education lent itself to being contained within an evolving family structure for upwardly mobile newly educated men who needed literate wives. Kosambi quotes B.G. Tilak, the conservative and revivalist who, while sharply opposed to the liberal reformers on many issues, including that of child marriage, gave his sanction to a certain form of female education – training to become good wives and mothers, which allowed for primary schooling. She neglects to add that in his view, primary education was but a beginning – education is fulfilled only in the marital home, which he likened to a workshop where the actual training takes place. “By the age of 15 or 16 years a woman should be well trained at housework and this training will never be available in a school as much as at home. The marital home is the ‘workshop’ of female education” (cited in Kosambi: 157; emphasis added). Only when they were assured that schools would pose no threat to the primary socialization of the reproductive family form did they participate in promoting a limited form of education for women.

The Rakhmabai case What then of the institution of marriage and the question of child marriage? The first major case relating to child marriage that became a matter of national and international controversy, inviting even the intervention of Queen Victoria herself, was the Rakhmabai case that unfolded in the 1880s. Much has been written about this case and from several perspectives (Heimsath 1964; Masselos 1992; Chandra 1998; Chakravarti 1998; Kosambi 2007). The Rakhmabai case is truly remarkable for several reasons. It pitted the colonial state and its British laws against the complex and multi-layered realm of so-called Hindu law, which encompassed both codified laws and caste-based systems of adjudication. Rakhmabai herself was an unusual example of a woman who, though born into a shudra-caste family whose traditional occupation was carpentry, had witnessed urbanization, upward mobility and the benefits of Western education, thanks to the combination of financial security and liberal reformist ideas that 22

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characterized her larger familial context in Bombay. Yet, as was customary in those times (possibly also as a mark of taking on Brahmanical practices as an aspect of rising social status), she had been married in 1875 at the age of 11 to one Dadaji Thakur, who, while staying with his maternal uncle, was expected to be groomed by way of education until the time was right for them to live together. However, this did not happen, as Rakhmabai in subsequent meetings found him incompatible and would not live with him. In 1884, after various unsuccessful efforts, Dadaji, rather than resort to caste adjudication, issued a legal notice for restitution of conjugal rights under British law; this was the year which saw the initiation of reform in the realm of child marriage. Rakhmabai refused to yield even when the judgement went against her; the matter went on appeal, and various aspects of Hindu law, British law and caste practice were drawn upon by opposing sides until by 1888 a financial settlement was proposed whereby Dadaji relinquished his rights over her. During the court case, Rakhmabai even took it upon herself to write two letters in English about her condition to the Times of India, from which it is worth quoting: My English readers can hardly conceive the hard lot entailed upon Hindu women by the custom of early marriage…The treatment which even servants receive from their European masters is far better than falls to the share of us Hindu women. We are treated worse than beasts…”. (cited in Kosambi: 266) Here was a case in which identifiably feminist protest was articulated using the most powerful analogies of colonial domestic servitude and animal cruelty to evoke maximum sympathy. While detractors could see in Rakhmabai only the baneful consequences of Westernized education, hers was a case of a bad marriage to an undesirable man lower in status, yet sanctified by both Hindu and British law. It took until 1891 for the underlying question of child marriage in Hindu law to be subjected to some reform. But that moment belonged to yet another case, one that shook the public world of Calcutta.

The age of consent controversy This section deals with what could, in retrospect, be described as the processes that made possible the first major legislation concerning child marriage, namely the Age of Consent Bill of 1891, under conditions of colonial rule. The story is a remarkably complex one, bringing in players from different regions of the country. It involved considerable controversy precisely because it pitted those who were prepared to approach the colonial state for change in matters of social reform, here having to do with consent to sexual intercourse (whether inside or outside of marriage), against those who believed 23

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that nationalist strivings demanded a break from this kind of petitioning to an alien state. This moment has been approached from different perspectives by scholars and continues to be a matter of ongoing investigation.

The Age of Consent Act By the 1880s, as a consequence of widespread public debate, writing and networking across the subcontinent, reformers in the Bombay Presidency took up in earnest the issue of child marriage. It was not a Hindu but a Parsi – Behramji Malabari – who began the actual process of petitioning the imperial state with his “Note on Infant Marriage in India”, written in 1884, along with another note on enforced widowhood. Notice therefore the use of the term “infant”, not even that of “child”. His Note draws on the common perception that traditional upper-caste Hindu marriages could be performed much before puberty (indeed even in infancy) through an alliance between families in which no notion of consent was even conceivable (which could also include the groom). However, such marriages were consummated upon reaching puberty through a second ritual – the garbhadhan or impregnation ceremony – after which it was common for the bride to move to the groom’s house and begin her new life with all its attendant sexual, reproductive and household duties as wife and daughter-in-law. Malabari’s Note in 1884 referred to infant marriage as an evil worse than infanticide since it entailed lifelong misery and – for both the wife and husband – ill health and disease, loss of studies for the husband, sickly children, “a wreck of two lives grown almost old in youth” (cited in Kosambi 2007: 278). These arguments were used by many others in the subsequent campaign, ranging from Jotirao Phule to Pandita Ramabai (in her treatise the High Caste Hindu Woman, Sarasvati Ramabai 1887), and also by a small number of the very first feminists of Maharashtra (Anagol 2007). Phule forwarded two Notes of his own, written in English. Interestingly, in his “Note on Infant Marriage”, Phule emphatically questioned the false universalism of the “enlightened Hindu of Bengal” whose suggestions are “not universal and [not] applicable” to the “ignorant shudra-atishudras”, “downtrodden aborigines” where a young wife could be worked harder “than an American slave”, a bridegroom’s family ruined by indebtedness, or conjugal incompatibility due to early marriage end with the girl’s suicide. Although this certainly called for higher ages of marriage for both boys and girls, it also required change through a non-Brahmin education (Deshpande 2002: 193–194). On the other hand, Phule went on to say, Brahmin women suffer from the degeneracy of the Brahmanical institution of marriage, where a man is allowed every excess of polygamy and lust, but after his death, the wife must endure the severest strictures of widowhood, including being forced into prostitution to survive. Widows and widowers should both be allowed to remarry or both be prevented from doing so. Phule thus put forward a differential picture constituted by caste/gender/labour which 24

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was responsible for the direct victimization not only of the Brahmin widow but also of uneducated oppressed shudra-atishudra people with their own equally disastrous marriage practices. His views should also be seen as a corrective to those who believed that child marriage was only an upper-caste custom. He asked that the girl be at least 11 and the boy 19. In spite of his radicalism, this age gap would indicate how differently childhood was perceived even in his own thinking when it came to boys and girls. Malabari’s Note demanded that the age of the girl be raised from 10 to 12 years. Scholars like Tanika Sarkar and Meera Kosambi have described at some length the enormous opposition this move invited – first in the western region by nationalists like Tilak and subsequently in Bengal. Opponents to raising the age saw this as a direct affront to shastric injunctions as well as to local caste practices and castigated reformers for painting a grossly exaggerated picture of the evils of the Hindu custom of infant marriage. Indeed, their articulation went to considerable lengths to describe infant marriage as a marvellous Indian institution, the core of our culture, for which no apologies were required, least of all the intervention of an alien colonial state. The scriptures, it was said, made it clear that menstruation implied the death of the embryo and hence a marriage which took place after puberty would bring dishonour to the ancestors and family lineage. Puberty itself signalled the birth of a woman’s sexual desire, which – it was also said – would be out of control if not already contained within the institution of a legitimate marriage. These undeniably caste-based sanctions could be redescribed such that ideas of female sexuality operated as a hinge between norms of culture in the form of religious sanction and biology represented by the female body at its first menarche. Sexual intercourse and the birth of children (especially sons) were mandatory duties that were entailed by marriage. These were the descriptions of the institution of Hindu marriage at the heart of the controversy – which reformers were prepared (to a certain degree) to question but which had to be defended by those in opposition. Sarkar has described how the Bengal Presidency was thrown into a frenzy of support for the anti-reformers, for whom the Age of Consent controversy crystallized into the birth of militant nationalism. Large numbers gathered in mass protest in public places, the first of its kind in colonial India. Alternate scriptural views that mentioned higher ages of cohabitation after puberty, newly evolving scientific conceptions of the female body, and eugenic notions of breeding a stronger race of children (i.e., other views of “culture”, “nature” and moral entreaties) were variously drawn upon by those in favour of reform. According to Sarkar, it was only the Phulmonee case of 1891 that dramatically ended the stalemate. Phulmonee was a girl married at the age of 11 by most accounts to a man around 30 years of age – sexual intercourse was so violent that she suffered from severe bleeding, leading to her death (Sarkar 2001). Some contemporary observers have anachronistically called it a fatal case of marital rape. (Given that the Indian Penal Code of 1860 25

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stipulated age ten as the minimum age for sexual intercourse, the husband was finally let off.) Change happened at a different level. As Sarkar has gone on to elaborate, the dead body of Phulmonee caused the carefully crafted and aestheticized image of the doll-like infant wife celebrated by Hindu revivalists to collapse. After the Phulmonee case, several other cases involving injury or the death of child brides came to receive more attention, including news reports from different parts of the country. In 1891, the Age of Consent Bill was passed, raising the age of consent for sexual activity on the part of a girl whether within marriage or outside of it from 10 to 12 years. Geraldine Forbes has commented that this was a compromise since it did not prevent families from forming a marriage alliance at an earlier age and then wait for its consummation when the girl was 12 (Forbes 1979: 410). Himani Bannerji, in her careful analysis of the judgement, has made the further observation regarding what consent actually amounted to here: Consent had little to do with notions of a girl’s right to choose; this was rather about the right of legal guardians to alienate a woman’s body to a man, whether as husband or client (Bannerji 2001). Indian Penal Code makes all sexual intercourse below 10 years criminalisable as rape.

Addressing age at marriage in the 1800s

Behramji Malabari's Rakhmabai case Notes on Infant Marriages and Enforced Widowhood in India




Age of Consent Act raised consent for sexual intercourse from 10 to 12 Phulmonee case years



Figure 1.1  Timeline for age at marriage in the 1800s.

Both the details of the Phulmonee case and the battles surrounding the passing of the Age of Consent Bill would imply that it is quite unclear what place, if any, can be accorded to notions of consent understood as women’s agency in the passing of this Act. I would like to suggest that the Age of Consent Bill achieved something else – it should be seen as the first critical moment in the invention of girlhood in India, in which the question of caste that was so central in western India could be dissolved into that of a battle over national culture.

Age and girlhood in the wake of the Age of Consent Bill Radhika Singha has offered a number of insights into how the Age of Consent Bill came to be focussed on age itself, when the colonial 26

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government had steered away from such a mode of approaching marriage until then. Much of the debate between officials, reformers and their many opponents rested on bringing together sexual intercourse within and outside marriage (i.e., the child wife and the prostitute) within the same law and on the use of a puberty test or the onset of menstruation as a better “fact” to assess readiness for sexual relations than age. Interestingly, however, the very “facticity” of puberty suffered on two counts: First, medical officials believed that India’s hot climate led to earlier manifestations of puberty than in Europe. Second, reformers added that puberty itself could be manipulated, so to speak, through an unnaturally early onset of sexual relations. Radhika Singha cites Dagmar Engels to show that ultimately the British were only keen to prove the “superiority” of their race against the “degeneracy” of the subject Indian population. (In 1885, Britain had raised the age of consent for prostitution to 16.) Singha makes the more significant point that it was precisely in the longer-term interests of the reformers to make age alone their criterion: A uniform and higher age would detach the state of female minority both from the physical changes of puberty and from the life-cycle event of marriage, and put it more definitively within the grasp of legislative enactment. The orthodox accurately perceived the threat. (Singha 2003: 24) In other words, neither “culture” (marriage rituals and scriptural injunctions) nor “nature” (puberty and menstruation) was to determine girlhood. Rather, the more arbitrary question of age (which need not bear any relation to social consciousness or community practice) should be the basis because it could lend itself to further legal reform. This in turn called for setting up a state apparatus to record dates of birth rather than a more medicalized mode of regulation, as Janaki Nair has argued in her study of Princely Mysore. Ishita Pande is another scholar to have explored the question of age in the history of social reform, if from a more critical perspective. In her work on the child wife (e.g., Pande 2012, 2013a, 2013b), Pande argues that the status of the child has been largely taken for granted in Indian historiography. The critical category that circumscribed age in the colonial Indian context, she suggests, was that of sexuality, and she even speaks of an age-stratified sexual system. This was exemplified in the Age of Consent Bill, where even though the controversy was always being discussed in terms of infant and child marriage, the form that the Bill took was consent to sexual intercourse. In her essay on the Age of Consent controversy, Pande makes the same argument as that of Radhika Singha but comes to a different conclusion. Deliberating on how it is neither biomedicine nor religious scripture but age (a statistical artefact and not a reality) that becomes the basis for deciding the break between the girl and 27

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the adult woman (Pande 2012), she articulates her critique of this dependence on age: the presumed universality and incontrovertibility of the “child” defined exclusively with reference to chronological age, continues to obfuscate the use of age-categories and concepts of childhood…what, specifically, are the problems being tackled, above and beyond an assumed consensus on the need for the sexual protection of the digitally defined child?” (2012: 223) Sexual protection was certainly at the heart of the Age of Consent Act. At this moment then, girlhood came to be defined as the age prior to the onset of sexual relations (from which the girl child had to be protected by the force of criminal law) and by 1891 such age was identical, whether it be for the consummation of marriage or for prostitution. However, it is unclear whether what was therefore set into law was a rigid age/sex system. Girlhood did not remain some kind of fixed category, precisely because questions of age not only changed but also diversified. Debates over marital and non-marital sex for girls (and, to a lesser extent, for boys) in the changed contexts of the first decades of the twentieth century rendered notions of girlhood unstable, subjected as they were to complex and contradictory forces that were international as much as local. A further word about the consequences of the passing of the Age of Consent Act would be relevant. Tanika Sarkar has made the extremely important observation that for the generation of nationalists who had seen the failure of their efforts to anchor an emergent nationalism with the cultural symbol of non-consensual infant marriage, their subsequent move was to shift focus to a seemingly safer figure, that of the mother (Sarkar 2001). It is this symbol that becomes so central in subsequent debates and writings from the turn of the century all the way to its contemporary revival as Bharat Mata (Mother India). This chapter has opened up some of the challenges in thinking about child marriage in India historically. While I have been particularly critical of those who have attempted to provide a pre-colonial history of child marriage, there is considerable evidence that child marriage becomes nameable during the colonial era when it turns into one of the most controversial issues for reformers and nationalists alike. In providing a regionally differentiated account, I have also attempted to deconstruct the ways in which caste appears and disappears in existing histories of social reform and folds into battles over women as placeholders for an embattled national culture. A figure like Phule brought to life a different language of social justice and viewed caste as a kind of double structure, one with disastrous consequences for both Brahmin and shudra/atishudra women (and men). Phule’s legacy unfortunately was largely lost after his death. Influential accounts of 28

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“women” in the battle over national culture at the turn of the nineteenth century do not refer to this strand of political and social struggle. (It required the twentieth-century leader Babasaheb Ambedkar to revisit Phule’s binary view of caste and introduce a new frame, that of graded inequalities.) By the time the first women’s organizations are formed in the early twentieth century, child marriage has fully arrived in the public eye and indeed comes to acquire an enormous international reach. This marks a new moment in the history of child marriage in India.

The “second social reform” A recent exploration of the wave of social reform initiated in the early decades of the twentieth century by newly formed women’s organizations has been aptly called the “second social reform” by Bhaswati Chatterjee (2016). The time is that of the 1920s when India saw momentous transformations – the ravages of the First World War and its fallout for colonial subjects within the British Empire, the rise of political nationalism and the entry of Gandhi, growing Hindu–Muslim communal strife, a new phase in anti-caste movements and the role of Ambedkar, the beginnings of communism on Indian soil with labour and peasant movements. The so-called “women’s question” and social reform efforts appeared to have beaten a retreat from the end of the nineteenth century. However, the 1920s also saw the growth of the first major women’s organizations in India, ranging from the All-India Muslim Ladies Conference based in Lahore (1914), the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) based in Madras in 1917 and the subsequent network-based All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1926 with branches across the country. These were women who were the direct heirs of nineteenth-century social reform – and who had access to education, fathers or husbands with reformist ideals, and often professions of their own, such as teachers or doctors. A major defining feature for those who wished to be active in public life was the contrast and conflict between the “social” and “political” (i.e., between activities that focussed on social inequities that required petitioning the imperial British state and participation in anti-colonial struggles and political non-cooperation against this very state). This context has been sketched out in order to better grasp the significance of a new phase of organizing by women who now registered their presence both as individual leaders (women like Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur) and as a collective force. Their political affiliations could be Gandhian, liberal or communist in orientation and their backgrounds ranged from wealthy cosmopolitan and the occasional royal household to more modest middle-class families. The WIA included non-Indians like Margaret Cousins. Not everyone came from conventional upper-caste backgrounds – Muthulakshmi Reddy was the 29

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daughter of a devadasi. She trained to be a medical doctor, going on to become the Madras Presidency’s first woman legislator (Forbes 1996; John 2000). The issues before them continued to be mainly those of girls’ education and marriage reform, and the internationally linked demands of women’s suffrage and political representation on the new councils were now also on their agendas, all of which were in tension with nationalist campaigns of non-cooperation with the imperial state. By the 1920s, primary schooling had become more widespread, taking different forms in different regions of the country, from zenana schools in Bengal to co-educational possibilities in Madras, although even here girls were withdrawn from boys’ schools when they reached puberty (Chanana 2001). The lack of female teachers was often a major constraint in many regions. By this time, the idea of female education had been reframed as necessary for the advancement of the modernizing middle-class family. Educated husbands needed literate wives – indeed, in some accounts, this would prevent such men from preferring the companionship of courtesans (Chanana 2001). However, it remains quite unclear from these accounts as to when and how education affected norms of marriage and its timing, given the ongoing convergence between ideas of female sexual purity and chastity and the claim that education’s purpose was to create better wives and mothers. This was the situation within which women’s groups renewed the campaign against child marriage to bring it above the age of 12 for girls. Child marriage had once again been in the air during the 1920s and was also influenced by ongoing debates over the right age of consent and questions of trafficking that were being raised by the League of Nations (Ramusack 1981). Ashwini Tambe has shown that a focus on child marriage reform alone would yield a distorted account of the interlocking workings of the age/sex system that shaped notions of childhood and more specifically of girlhood in the colonial context. She also mentions in passing that other criteria for thinking about childhood, such as the Factory Acts of the 1890s that dealt with child labour, or matters of property ownership would have been less central for girls. Samita Sen (forthcoming), however, has suggested that the parallel reform of child labour and of marriage needs more exploration for their possible linkages. The importance of Tambe’s intervention lies in opening up the comparatively neglected sphere of non-marital sex (in a historical context where prostitution was legal and highly regulated by the British colonial state). She presents a puzzle in that the age of consent for non-marital sex for girls from the turn of the twentieth century became higher than that for marriage, reaching the age of 16 in 1929 when the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed. In Britain, the opposite tended to be the case: sexual activity for girls deemed “unchaste” tended to be lower than for those who were “chaste”. Tambe’s answer is to show the range of factors at play: international pressures over anti-trafficking were as much at work as were persisting references among nationalists to Hindu tradition 30

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and scriptural injunctions regarding marriage. First, there was greater repugnance to the idea of sex outside marriage (often conflating “immoral” sex – a code term for prostitution – with pre-, extra- or non-marital sex). Second, in a context where marriage was meant to be arranged by the family, raising the age of consent for non-marital sex made it easier for families to criminalize acts of choice on the part of daughters (Tambe 2009). On their part, staunch nationalists could continue to press for the acceptability of low ages of marriage. My only caveat regarding this very significant analysis (which I believe continues to be relevant for periods well beyond the colonial) is that it is not clear how such a complex mix of standards “solidified girlhood” (Tambe 2009: 396). The different treatment of marital and non-marital sex rendered girlhood more fuzzy across age, given such significant contrasts between the idea of sexual activity for girls within and outside marriage. Indeed, it stretches the figure of the child-woman in such a way that in conservative discourses the “child” could be married under parental consent but only “women” engage in non-marital sex. Curiously, we will discover a very similar logic in a remarkably different erstwhile British colony in Chapter 2: nineteenth-century America. According to Mrinalini Sinha’s magisterial and densely hatched study Spectres of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Sinha 2007), the fortunes of women’s organizations’ ongoing concerns over child marriage were fundamentally recast by as innocuous a matter as the publication of a book. In 1927, the American journalist Katherine Mayo – with assistance and backing from British officials – wrote Mother India, which was something of a diatribe against the degenerate social and sexual practices sanctioned by Hinduism, especially child marriage. A mix of opinions, reportage and citations from hospital records was used to bolster claims about the extremely unhealthy condition of women and children at the hands of Hindu men. Its aim was to prove that Indians were unfit for selfrule and required the ongoing civilizing mission of the British. The book became a sensation, sold millions of copies across the globe and spawned massive debates and counterattacks. Gandhi famously referred to it as a “drain inspector’s report”. Whereas most Indians reacted predictably and condemned the book, women’s organizations, according to Sinha, did something quite interestingly different. They agreed to the “facts” – indeed, they themselves had been pushing for reform in the lives of women and girls – but turned Mayo’s conclusions on their head. When told that raising the age of marriage went against the precepts of sacred texts, women leaders retorted, “we want new shastras”. The fault for the poor condition in the lives of women and so many in India should not be simply laid at the door of our evil customs but demonstrated the incapacity of the British who were unwilling to heed the demands for change by their subject people. The British themselves were the ones failing India and its women.


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Before 1927, various efforts at further legal reform in child marriage were invariably defeated. But this changed in 1927 when a new Bill was tabled to raise the Age of Marriage for girls from 12 to 14 years (originally proposed by Rai Sahib Harbilas Sarda). The Sarda Bill saw a much more positive reception in the wake of the storm created by the publication of Mother India a few months later. The Bill was passed in 1929 as the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA, also known as the Sarda Act), which set the age of marriage at 14 for girls and 18 for boys. Geraldine Forbes has referred to women’s organizations’ role in the passing of this Act, their formulation of the issues, door-to-door campaigns, coordinating across all kinds of groups from different regions of the country, and their tireless petitioning of the government as a “rite of passage into a world where every act had a political meaning” (Forbes 1996: 83). Sinha has emphasized that women’s organizations made it a point to take everyone along in their agenda, including Muslim organizations. This made women under the CMRA genuinely universal subjects, thus transcending the hard realities of separate personal laws based on religion (Sinha 2007). Anti-caste organizations, especially from the anti-Brahmin movement in South India who had led unique campaigns for gender equality such as Periyar’s (E.V. Ramasamy Naikar) call for Self-Respect marriages, pledged full support (cited in Sinha 2001). The uniqueness of this collective achievement of solidarity across castes and communities lay in the absence of anything similar within the nationalist movement, especially in the run up to the creation of separate electorates in 1932. Muslim women members of the AIWC presented their petition in support for the Sarda Act against the views of certain Muslim leaders, stating: We, speaking also on behalf of the Muslim women of India, assert that it is only a small section of Mussalman men who have been … demanding exemption from the Act. This Act affects girls and women far more than it affects men and we deny their right to speak on our behalf”. (cited in Forbes 1996: 89) This is a major moment when the question of Muslim girls is brought into the women’s movement of the time, such that Muslim women were able to represent themselves. Notice how readily women were now resorting to the language of rights in their demands. Forbes goes on to say that women’s organizations did not stop with the passing of the Act and petitioned for registration of all births and marriages so that it would not be a dead letter. However, it cannot be said unequivocally as to whether the new law improved the situation on the ground, at least not immediately – there was rather a sharp rise in child marriages (including among some of those who had joined the petition in its favour) when it became known that the Bill would soon be passed into law.


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Before concluding this section, a word or two about the significant fact that the CMRA was not just about girls but also raised the marriage age of boys to 18 years. Ishita Pande has argued that this bill was therefore more genuinely about the childhood of both genders and departed from a prior focus on the girl-child alone. (However, going by the Notes on Infant Marriage of the 1880s, especially those of Malabari and Phule, the problem of child marriage for both girls and boys did receive some attention, even if not in the final Age of Consent legislation.) Pande believes that considerations of the health and education of sons, with some references to the ostensible golden age of brahmacharya thrown in (and not only to the more widely cited complaint against the oppression and exploitation of girls), played their part in the further development of the age/sex system through the passing of the CMRA (Pande 2013b). An updated patriarchy within the modernizing joint family with its systems of inheritance did need to “sort boys from men”.

The modernizing impulse: the case of the princely state of Mysore Yet another glimpse into the multifaceted career of child marriage has been made available in a state that was outside direct British colonial rule: the southern state of Mysore. Thanks to the scholarship of Janaki Nair, another frame is discernible, where, unlikely though it may seem, it is under Princely rule that an “enlightened modernity” with a strong legal machinery and an efficient bureaucracy took centre stage, including in the realm of social reform (Nair 2012: 13). One of the issues where this was played out, though with limited success, was that of child marriage in the region. The backdrop was constituted by the developments that have just been discussed, from Malabari’s Note of 1884 to the Sarda Act of 1929. Nair’s carefully reconstructed history begins with the 1894 Regulation to Prevent Infant Marriages among Hindus, promulgated by the Dewan of the Princely State. According to this new law, no marriages could be conducted with girls below the age of 8, which was now a criminal offense, inviting imprisonment of up to 6 months and a fine. The Dewan cited the high prevalence of child widows in the official statistics of 1881 and 1891 (whose roots, he said, lay in the practice of child marriage) for seeing the legislation through, in spite of considerable opposition on both religious and caste grounds, and a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the Princely State’s legislators. However, rather than take the route of civil law and declare such marriages void, it was brought under the purview of criminal punitive action – hence the child marriage of a girl less than eight years old was now in the strange situation of being licit but criminal. Notice that it was marriage itself and not age of consent to sexual intercourse that was at issue here. Moreover, the strictures included marriage with men above the age of 50 years, so that age difference also found its way into legislation. Nair describes the lengths to which local officials went 33

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about their duty on this matter. The chapter in her book on the history of Mysore dealing with child marriage begins with an account of emissaries of the law, along with the local village headman, landing up at the door of a very poor Madiga family in Bangalore district and submitting an order that the marriage of their daughter be stopped. When the Madiga father (having no idea about the law or any interest in it) refused, the matter was brought to the notice of the local magistrate to prove how seriously the state machinery took this new legislation, and the family was fined. In the next few decades, the regime in Mysore went to considerable lengths to prosecute cases, in ways quite unheard of in regions under direct colonial rule. Nair, however, is quick to note that intentions here had less to do with women’s rights than with maintaining the patriarchal family with the right kind of age difference between husband and wife, in order to be in tune with modernity and its social and economic requirements. Matters changed at the time of the passing of the Sarda Act of 1929 which, as we saw, raised the age of girls from 12 to 14 years and of boys to 18 years. Even though a similar bill was introduced in Mysore and was narrowly passed, the new Dewan Mirza Ismail pronounced that, according to public opinion, “more harm than good” would ensue if such a bill were made into law (Nair 2012: 238). Finally, a revised formulation was enacted which focussed on age of consummation for girls at 14 rather than actual marriage, which could be earlier. Nair suggests that this retreat had less to do with a weakening of the Mysore state in the 1930s or the Muslim identity of the Dewan. This was not a decision in favour of some unadulterated “tradition”, much less a decisive stance against social reform through legislation. It was instead a recognition that the molecular changes first inaugurated in the 1890s were adequate, and further transformations would warrant social changes on a scale that the government was unprepared to undertake. (Nair 2012: 142) The story of the child wife in Princely Mysore was therefore one of modest but actionable legislation, in line with its larger modernizing drives, and not one of constructing autonomous rights-bearing subjects. Interestingly, several other Princely States enacted similar laws during this period. The Princely State of Baroda stipulated the age of 12 as the minimum age of marriage for girls in 1904, and Indore came up with 14 for boys and 12 for girls in 1918 (Goode 1965). What happens from the 1930s in the larger colonial context to the question of child marriage as an end to colonial rule begins to appear on the horizon?


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Child marriage in the imagined nation to be The 1930s in colonial India were tumultuous years of political mobilization when independence appeared to be more and more a reality. As several scholars have explored, Hindu–Muslim tensions and rivalries also played on a situation where Muslim personal law came much closer to British law and offered more rights to women by virtue of its contractual nature, spanning matters of consent, property rights, divorce and maintenance. Hindu laws (as we have already seen in the above discussions) were indeed far worse for women, offering little to no legal status to wives as individuals or to daughters as heirs, except under matrilineal practices in regions like Kerala. The less virulent face of Hindu–Muslim conflict in a climate of growing communalization was “to press for law reform within their respective personal laws ostensibly to elevate the status of women” (Flavia Agnes 2001: 68). Thus, during the 1930s, changes in Muslim laws were passed on issues of maintenance and divorce; changes in Hindu laws were made on issues of property, whose purpose may have been to bring greater uniformity within their respective disparate community domains rather than any genuine regard for women’s rights. One place to look for the subsequent focus on child marriage is in a forward-looking document produced by women leaders on the eve of independence, namely the Report by the Sub-Committee under the Congress leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, known as Women’s Role in a Planned Economy (WRPE), prepared in 1938 by one of 22 sub-committees planning the future nation state (Shah ed. 1956; Chaudhuri 1995). A decisive shift in perspective and orientation is visible in the very structure of the report, where the first chapter is on the political rights of the future woman citizen followed by a long chapter on economic rights and property rights and then a chapter on education. The chapter on marriage and family comes close to the end. It is clear that economic rights – rights to employment, even the recognition of housework as work – have gained in centrality, thanks to a strongly visible socialist bent. Education, it is said, has been too narrowly linked with earnings so that only men have been encouraged to gain access beyond primary schooling, thus perhaps marking a new link between education and marriage. Figures in the WRPE on education that looked at the period between 1931 and 1937 indicated two things: large gaps in enrolment between boys and girls, which got worse from primary education onwards but, on the other hand, a much greater rate of increase in schooling for girls than boys over the years. Child marriage, in the context of education, was called one of Indian society’s “evils” holding its women back and was also discussed briefly in the chapter on marriage and family. Age of marriage must, they recommended, be gradually raised to 18 for both parties and any marriage below 12 declared void and a cognisable offence. The mood of the report, looked at as a whole, was buoyant about what a planned economy would grant its women citizens – with economic


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and political rights in place, “backward customs” like child marriage were expected to no longer pose a major challenge and would be dealt with via punitive legal measures. It is unclear, in the terminology and frames employed by this report, whether an age/sex system was centrally at work in the desire to raise the age of marriage to 18 years for both boys and girls. It could well be that the idea of such a system may not be adequate for thinking about further developments in the construction of childhood and adulthood and even less so in the time following independence.

What is the story with independence? Against this rich tapestry of the colonial era when child marriage was all too often a major flashpoint and took over the public sphere more than any other issue, we now enter a different time of nation building and development. This period suffers in a review of this nature because secondary literature is far more uneven compared with the work of historical scholarship. There are significant decades of India’s post-independence history such as the 1950s and ’60s that exist in a kind of epistemological vacuum. From the perspective of movements such as the women’s movement, this has led to the somewhat misleading notion of a “silent period” (Neera Desai 1986), as the nationalist generation acquiesced to the new vision of development and progress and accommodated themselves in anticipation of better times. There is sufficient scholarship on the fate of the Hindu Code Bill passed in several fragmented parts in 1955 and 1956, which brought in monogamy, maintenance, divorce and certain rights of inheritance to Hindu women. Anticipated by the Law Minister B.R. Ambedkar as a ratification of the gender and caste equality needed to provide a solid basis for the new nation, the fragmented version that finally emerged upset him so deeply that he referred to the Constitution as having been built “on a dung heap” and he resigned from his position in the new government (Ambedkar 1995). However, I would suggest that, taking a long view from the time when the status of Hindu women was seen by leaders like himself to have been a matter of so much iniquity (with child marriage amongst the most shameful (Ambedkar 1979)), one cannot only be disappointed with the form that the Hindu Code Bill took, as commentators like Archana Parashar also have been. Parashar raised the question as to how a generation of legislators inheriting a British legal apparatus acquired the capacity to take over the sphere of “sacrosanct religious laws”, making them more modern and uniform, while “compromising on the achievement of complete sex equality” (Parashar 1992: 143). I would make the opposite point: The very recognition of the incomplete equality – or the inequality – of women in the final form of the Hindu Code Bill inaugurated a process of secularization by having located Hindu women within the frames of liberal rights rather than those of religious 36

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injunction. It took over one and a half centuries for such a momentous shift in frameworks to achieve some legal sanction, in this case from a fledgling nation state, even if the journey was hardly complete or a simple linear one. In 1949, minor legislative change was introduced into the CMRA, raising the age of girls to 15 years. Under the Special Marriages Act of 1954 where marriage required no religious affiliation, minimal ages at marriage were set at 18 for girls and 21 for boys. None of these has attracted the attention of scholars or commentators.

Towards Equality and the Marriage Act of 1978 In the absence of other secondary literature, it is necessary to move forward to 1974. This is the year that saw the publication of Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India by the Department of Social Welfare of the Indian Government. Envisaged by the state as a prosaic duty to the UN Year for Women of 1975, a report destined to gather dust on some departmental book shelf, Towards Equality – while fully sticking to the terms of reference given to it and maintaining the style and format of a government report – was nonetheless explosive in its contents. It was certainly deeply transformative for its authors, who considered themselves nationalists and “the beneficiaries of the equality clauses of the Constitution” (Mazumdar 1979). As many are now aware, this text was replete with shocking findings that completely disoriented a new generation of activists and social scientists who had assumed that Nehruvian development would have yielded some progress for women too. However, barring improvements in literacy and educational attainments, on most other counts – from overall sex ratios to employment and political participation – the jolt was that trends were declining and that such declines continued into the 1950s and ’60s. Were women effectively turning into a minority in the new nation, they asked (Sharma and Sujaya ed. 2012 (1974))? And yet, in the midst of discussions on culture, family and law, population and fertility (some of which displayed quite conventional positions), child marriage – or, it should rather be said, age at marriage – did not occupy a significant place for the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI). In the demographic chapter, there were two small tables on child marriage, where the authors do mention that the 1971 Census was the first census to directly ask ever-married women their age at marriage (although the results were not available in time for the Report). Commenting on trends from 1901 to 1971 for both men and women (based on estimations computed from age distribution and marital status), they noted that while average age at marriage for men remained higher, the rate of increase for women had been considerably greater: male ages rose from 20.2 to 22.2 years while women’s rise was from 13.2 to 17.2 years (Sharma and Sujaya ed. 2012: 16). 37

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Barely two pages were devoted to “age at marriage” in the 50-page chapter “On the Socio-cultural Setting of Women’s Status” in Towards Equality, which offered an interesting mix of opinions, analysis and recommendations. Notice that the CSWI nowhere suggests that child marriage was a problem of the past, one that had been successfully resolved. Acknowledging that it was a serious issue, especially in rural areas where their data showed 13.8% of women were married in the 10- to 14-year age group, they went on to say that a “redeeming” feature of child marriage in India was that customarily consummation takes place only after puberty. Particularly noteworthy was their comment that low age of marriage was related to the near-universality of marriage in India, making this a matter “to be entertained from their birth or early childhood. Early marriage is accompanied by seemingly easy solutions for a number of problems” (Sharma and Sujaya 2012: 60). In this list, they included rules of caste endogamy and the dangers of girls’ choosing otherwise if they were older; preserving women’s purity in the face of the impossibility of repudiating motherhood; scarce familial resources in a situation where girls are not financially supporting the family, resulting in an early transfer of the girl to the in-laws; the need for more time for girls to adjust to the new home; and the ongoing low ages of marriage among Scheduled Castes who move and work outside their homes, leading to “helplessness in protecting their women from the lust of men from upper castes who have economic power over them” (Sharma and Sujaya: 61). The Report briefly noted that low age of marriage was responsible for population growth, low standards of health for women and high mortality in the child-bearing age. (In the absence of any supporting source of evidence, it is likely that this information came from international bodies.) By way of looking for improvements, they proposed the following: education for girls in rural areas and for the “lower strata” in urban areas (they mentioned in passing that, among the urban middle classes, the need for employment for boys had raised their age at marriage and so in turn raised those of prospective wives). In the chapter on law, they said that they would not recommend rendering early marriages void as this would create more problems than it would solve. Rather, they supported the right for girls to repudiate a marriage on attaining majority, whether or not it had been consummated, and recommended that courts not provide any relief if a marriage had been made in violation of age requirements. Registration of marriages was another effective check (including for bigamous marriages), although failure to do so cannot invalidate a marriage (Sharma and Sujaya: 86). Compared with the unambiguous if not strident tone that the CSWI adopted in other chapters on employment, political rights and education and even their unilateral stance on the absolute need for a uniform civil code, the discussion on child marriage in Towards Equality displayed a mix of views, where a sympathetic rendering of the reasons for the persistence of child marriage, especially among the rural poor and Scheduled Castes, 38

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predominated. What a major shift, then, from the campaigns of the colonial period! In October 1978, the legal reform measure that had already been formulated in the Special Marriages Act of 1954 became the law of the land for all marriages – 18 for girls and 21 for boys – and this has not changed since then. According to Geraldine Forbes (Forbes 1979), whereas the 1891 Age of Consent controversy had more to do with whether the British government had a right to interfere in Hindu social customs, and the CMRA of 1929 was used as proof that Indians and women’s organizations more specifically were deeply concerned with changing certain social practices, the 1978 law was related to population policies. In one of the few studies to have looked more closely at the circumstances surrounding the 1978 Act, Rajani Bhatia and Ashwini Tambe examined the 1978 legal reform measure, an issue that, as they put it, “barely created a ripple”. In their view, what propelled this action on the part of the Indian state was an interplay of forces whose dominant contenders were international and local population control experts. As they put it quite sharply, by contrasting this moment to all the campaigning for the CMRA Act of 1929, [w]hereas the violence of forced sex and forced household responsibilities at an early age was what the 1920s reformers sought to prevent, in the 1970s it was the spectre of fertile girls contributing to booming population counts that occupied demographers’ minds. (Bhatia and Tambe 2014: 2) If indeed the earlier legislations of the colonial period were instrumental in putting in place a certain kind of age/sex system, what kind of updated version might the new 1978 Act have inaugurated? Bhatia and Tambe track with some care the setting up of various organizations such as the Miliband Foundation, the Population Council in the US, and the UN divisions concerned with population policies, all of which promoted research during the 1960s which sought to demonstrate correlations between higher ages of marriage and reduced fertility. (They note in passing how different such arguments were from those made during the colonial period, where it was maternal morbidity, high infant mortality and weak progeny that were reasons for raising the age of marriage.) In India, S.N. Agarwala in 1965 made a projection that an increase in age of marriage to 20 years for women would reduce fertility by 30%, and many others added to the research with estimates of their own. The only dissenting voices, it would appear, came from women demographers like Malini Karkal and Kumudini Dandekar, who argued that merely raising the legal age of marriage to reduce births was unlikely to yield results – it was rather women’s educational and occupational status that needed to be improved (in Bhatia and Tambe 2014: 5). By 1974, raising the age of marriage to 18 for girls and 21 for boys had made its way into ministerial discussions and was announced in 1976 as part of 39

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the new National Population Policy, midway during the National Emergency of 1975–77. (See also Sagade 2005.) It was precisely after the lifting of the Emergency in 1977, when the backlash of the forced sterilization measures of those years contributed to the fall of the Congress government under Indira Gandhi, that age at marriage appeared as a particularly safe instrument for population control, leading to its passage in 1978 with hardly any public discussion and little negative fallout. Bhatia and Tambe have certainly put their finger on one aspect of the new constellations within the world of development and ideas of modernization (especially during the Cold War years) that connected young married girls to Third World population explosion and that highlighted fertility and child bearing rather than sexual activity as the problem that needed attention. Indeed, one might be tempted to posit the suppression of the kind of age/ sex system suggested by scholars of colonial India, like Ishita Pande, in defining girlhood which was now replaced by a population-centric framing of Third World women/girls whose fertility rates were now what most needed examination and regulation. At the same time (and certainly from the Indian side), there is more that needs to be understood about why age at marriage did not figure as it did in the colonial period or why it figured quite differently for a new generation of feminists. First of all, it is necessary to recall who was at the heart of the social reform measures from the nineteenth century onwards. This was overwhelmingly the child wife and widow, vividly described by Pandita Ramabai in her High Caste Hindu Woman and by B.R. Ambedkar in his 1916 essay on caste, as the Brahmin girl who suffered the worst iniquities and whose practices castes lower in the hierarchy sought to imitate (Ambedkar 1979). We have seen how the age/sex system of the colonial period was constitutively if differentially marked by caste and class, as discussed in regions like Bengal and Maharashtra. This still implied that upper-caste girls (whether marked or unmarked) were the quintessential subjects of social reform. In ways that have not been sufficiently taken note of, the intervening century, especially after independence, wrought fundamental changes in the life of this now modernizing girl, especially if she was urban and middle class, whose very modernity ensured that her upper-caste status became increasingly invisible. The Towards Equality report recorded not just improvements in literacy rates and educational access but a narrowing of gender gaps in higher education for this class of women/girls. Whereas their mothers may well have been married off early and grandmothers even before puberty, urban middle-class girls in the 1970s would, in all likelihood, complete high school as part of contemporary social norms and a significant proportion go to college after graduating. In the decades to follow, these proportions rose steadily. A silent social transformation in conceptions of childhood and girlhood was therefore being achieved in upper-caste middle-class society, emblematic of their distinct class location, one that awaits further exploration from the world of scholarship. For this class, puberty did not mean 40

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being taken out of school to be married off. There appears to be a hiatus in several accounts of girls’ education that see only continuities between the early twentieth-century ideologies of sexual control when primary schooling was the upper limit for the majority and contemporary educational trends, which have expanded and diversified enormously. We will have occasion to return to this in Chapter 3 (Chanana 2001; Kumar 2010). Furthermore – and signs of this were already visible in the WRPE and in Towards Equality – the very framework for thinking about the status of women had undergone a profound shift. It was not so much tradition and culture (undergirded by regimes of sexuality) that was at the root of women’s inequalities but the failures of development, especially for the rural poor, who constituted the majority (see also John 2014). The strongest correlations in the minds of this generation of feminists and social scientists for persisting low ages at marriage were therefore poverty and backwardness. From having been the colonial subject of reform par excellence, child marriage transmuted quietly into the problem of the“Other”. Once again, the age/sex system is pushed into the background. The discriminated young girl child found a different frame in the newly emerging field of women and development in the 1970s, when economists and demographers became acutely concerned about deep gender biases in Indian households and families, especially among the rural poor. These were visible in the newly discovered declining sex ratio and excess female mortality, and deficits in nutrition and health care rendered girls into an endangered sex from their very first years of life (Bardhan 1974; Mitra 1979; Sen and Sengupta 1983; among others). These are, of course, large themes that this study will return to in Chapter 3. A new phase of the women’s movement asserted itself with campaigns against dowry deaths and custodial rape in the late 1970s and early ’80s (Kumar 1993; Gandhi and Shah 1992; Kannabiran and Menon 2007). Further issues came to the fore as the women’s movement grew. These included the lack of value accorded to women’s work in the context of widespread poverty and related questions of development; political participation at local and national levels; legal reform with violence and the conflicted status of religious personal laws occupying a critical place; educational access and discrimination; health, nutrition and the declining child sex ratio. Before long the movement was facing the challenges of caste, religion, minority status, sexuality, disability, militarism and so on. With some regional exceptions, early marriage did not occupy a prominent place on this long list, even while the movement expanded, diversified and was transformed as an increasingly institutional phenomenon, whether in higher education or in non-governmental organizations. This is not to say that child marriage was never an issue in succeeding decades. Child marriage did on occasion become a public matter as the twentieth century wound to a close, in a time when countries like India were embarking on a new economic ideology marked by changing priorities of the state in development, expanding global markets and what is now 41

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being referred to simply as “neoliberalism” in the twenty-first century. During the 1990s, as the following two instances amply demonstrate, child marriage gained in national publicity in highly localized ways but always as the problem of “others”. The first could be put down to the problems of impoverished Muslim families in Hyderabad, and the second to rural backwardness in the arid state of Rajasthan. One of the more well-known public campaigns was the Ameena case (1991), which involved a young Muslim girl (possibly not more than 11). Ameena lived in the old part of Hyderabad city and was married off by her parents to a much older West Asian Sheikh and sought to be saved from her plight through the custody of the state (Sunder Rajan 2003). In a long closely argued essay on this particular case, Rajeswari Sundar Rajan highlights how it came to assume the proportions of a national crisis. Another commentator, Abida Samiuddin, has described how Ameena’s father was an extremely poor auto-rickshaw driver with eight children, including six daughters, who could not resist a marriage proposal from Saudi Arabian citizen Sheikh Yahya al Sagish, who was all of 60. The marriage was solemnized in two days, and as Samiuddin puts it “the child was forced to leave behind her home, her country and more than that her incomplete childhood” (Samiuddin 1995: 131). Ameena’s story unfolded during the flight from Hyderabad to Delhi since her sobbing, which the older man sitting next to her was unable to quell, attracted the attention of fellow passengers and then that of the flight attendant Amrita Ahluwalia. After landing in Delhi, the Sheikh was taken into police custody, and Ameena was brought to a Nari Niketan (women’s shelter home) and then shifted to a children’s home after protests by women’s organizations. According to Jameela Nishat, whose organization Shaheen Resource Centre has been active in the old city of Hyderabad since the 1990s, it should be understood that the practice of marrying local Muslim girls from poor families to cash-rich men from the Middle East was a well-known one, harking back to the 1970s oil boom and subsequent labour migration from Indian shores to “Gulf” countries. Nishat saw these marriages as running in parallel along with men’s search for employment, often enabling further migration by family members of the bride. Not all of them were povertystricken child brides feeding the depredations of old men (personal communication, February 2018). It is not necessary to dwell in any detail on the development of the case, which was studded with high drama, as the state, the flight attendant herself, and Ameena’s parents sought custody over her in a critical situation involving a foreign national, and in which women’s organizations like the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Delhi played a very important role. In the end, Ameena showed no interest in pursuing her case, the Sheikh jumped bail and fled the country, and the child bride went back to her parents to live in Hyderabad. At one level, this was a clear case of a child marriage (although her documents made her out to be older), well within the jurisdiction of the new 42

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CMRA that stipulated 18 years for a girl. But Muslim voices were quick to claim that the CMRA did not apply to them since it contravened the autonomous realm of Muslim personal law according to which child marriage is permissible under the Sharia. Abida Samiuddin has provided her own refutation of such a defence, quoting Quranic verses to show that, even in situations where a daughter is a minor, this case violated the role of the father as guardian. She also argued against the claim that personal law has precedence over the Indian Penal Code and said that this case would be best understood in its socioeconomic context whereby Arabs are happy to obtain docile Muslim wives from poor Indian families while the parents get to receive mehr and promises of jobs for their sons in the Gulf (Samiuddin 134–137). Rajeswari Sunder Rajan makes the interesting point that for all the differences between the child bride Ameena and the old woman Shah Bano (an older woman divorced by her husband who sought maintenance through the courts), the route taken in the Ameena case contained very similar ingredients to the much larger crisis of the mid 1980s that surrounded Shah Bano – namely a beleaguered Muslim identity caught in the crosshairs of religious personal law, gender justice and the nation state’s investment in uniform laws, in the face of which the Muslim woman/girl herself can only retreat from the situation and drop her initial claim. Therefore, the Ameena case too suffered from overdetermination, as what began as a case of child marriage transmuted into the communalization of gender. Yet another major incident during the 1990s had an even more complex if not oblique relationship to child marriage. The state of Rajasthan in the year 1984 set up an innovative Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in several districts, where village level sathins or women animators were trained to organize rural women on a range of issues. The WDP was held up as a model in the development world and achieved considerable publicity and appreciation, including from the World Bank. One of its distinctive features was the training in skills of communication and consciousness raising received by the sathins, invariably from poor low caste and often illiterate backgrounds, who became local leaders in their respective villages over the years. Even so, by the early 1990s, the programme was in severe danger of losing its special élan as it suffered appropriation by the state and exploitation of its “voluntary” workers for carrying out all its schemes and programmes, from health and education to social issues (Saheli and others1991). Rajasthan is a state known for having very high rates of child marriage and at very young ages, often including both bride and groom. According to Dipta Bhog, who worked with the WDP in the district of Jaipur in the late 1980s, child marriage was common among several agricultural castes and Scheduled Castes (Dipta Bhog, personal communication, February 2020). She recalls that child marriage was understood at the time as an economic issue (rather than a matter of women’s rights, much less one of sexual honour) and not as something to be dealt with legalistically. They were particularly opposed to the sensationalist media coverage of mass child marriages during festivals like 43

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Akha Teej, considered an auspicious time for conducting weddings. Instead, child marriage was approached occasionally and strategically, especially in situations where more urbanized boys (and on occasion girls) did not wish to go ahead with a betrothal conducted many years ago. WDP activists then assisted in the subsequent negotiations or annulments. Several sathins were in fact “single” women from a broken child marriage. But in no way did all these efforts to keep the needs and interests of such girl/women in mind lead the WDP to initiate campaigns against child marriage as such. It was the Rajasthan government that changed the face of the programme into one where stopping child marriage figured among a long list of sathins’ duties as “voluntary” state functionaries. Kanchan Mathur, from the Institute of Development Studies at Jaipur, has provided a much-needed context for what came to be the well-known struggle of the sathin Bhanwari Devi. Mathur refers to the many issues around “extreme violence” – rapes, domestic violence, dowry murders, labelling women as witches, discrimination towards girls and so on – that featured in the training of the sathins (Mathur 2019). It is telling, I think, that child marriage does not feature in the list of issues treated as violence against women. Mathur reports about a meeting held by one of the sathins Bhanwari Devi as early as 1986 in her own village. Women like herself, who had married their children before puberty, agreed to postpone the gauna – the time when the girl went to her in-law’s home, commonly undertaken right after the girl menstruated for the first time – and wait until later for the boy and girl to begin living together as husband and wife (2019: 62). In 1992, the government called for a campaign against child marriage shortly before the festival of Akha Teej. Sathins were asked to prevent such marriages by convincing villagers against the practice. When Bhanwari Devi came to hear of a case in her own village of Bhateri by Ram Karan Gujjar, whose daughter was just one year old, she reported it to the local authorities in spite of a lack of local support, including none from the local state legislator (a Member of the Legislative Assembly). On the day of Akha Teej, both the Sub Divisional Officer and Deputy Superintendent of Police arrived at the village to stop the marriage, which nonetheless took place clandestinely the following night at 2 a.m. Bhanwari suffered boycotts and then was punished for her action in a horrifying way. She was gang-raped by five men, including the father of the infant bride, in the presence of her husband, who had first been severely beaten up. As we have seen, child marriage had certainly figured in certain strategic ways in the work of the sathins, many of whom had themselves been married before puberty or had conducted such marriages for their daughters. This was true for Bhanwari herself, who was someone who had established herself over the years as an activist on a range of issues, including the most personal ones. According to Kalpana Kannabiran, her gang rape was “punishment” not for her feminist organizing but for carrying out her job as a sathin working for the government, one that invited police action. Drawing 44

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on fact-finding reports conducted by women’s organizations after the rape, Kannabiran believes that for Bhanwari, the problem of child marriage was not one of dichotomised conflict, but a predicament fraught with contradictions and multiple perspectives, something she could recognize because of her own belated awareness of the problem… To intervene in this situation with the brutal might of the state and attempt to handle it with police action, disintegrates and disables a carefully crafted political programme…. (in Kannabiran and Menon 2007: 142–143) Notice therefore the strong caution over bringing police action and criminal liability into the politics of addressing child marriage, a warning that is as relevant as ever in the twenty-first-century reliance on the punitive powers of the law. Bhanwari’s rape case became a major rallying point for the women’s movement, especially by organizations and feminists based in Delhi – but what the campaign centred on was the absence of justice for the sathin. Bhanwari Devi became not just nationally but internationally known. Child marriage was the mere context and largely forgotten – all the reports have focussed mainly on the rape and its aftermath. The perpetrators were acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court in 1995 with the shocking verdict that such a rape could never have happened: She belonged to a caste lower than the accused and it could not have occurred in her husband’s presence. She and her husband were thus branded as liars, leading to their further alienation from the village. Her case is remembered to this very day because it was in its wake that sexual harassment and violence at the workplace received the attention of the state and the women’s movement. Local activists in Jaipur also recall that Bhanwari Devi was by no means the only sathin to be “punished” for her actions with rape – this had happened before, when local women activists confronted existing power structures, such as the mining lobby in Rajasthan. In other words, Bhanwari Devi was another victim of a backlash, even though in this instance she was actually acting in the service of the government (Bharat, Vishakha, personal communication, May 2018). Hence, the very organization Vishakha that had played a key role in the training of the sathins also gave its name to feminist legal efforts to put in place what came to be known as the Vishakha guidelines for sexual harassment and violence at the workplace, the first of their kind in India. Bhanwari became a renowned name, a poor rural woman from a marginalized caste, whose protracted struggle against a casteist and patriarchal judiciary gave India its nationally and internationally acclaimed guidelines for fighting workplace sexual harassment. It is another matter that, as Jenny Rowena has pointed out (Rowena 2017), the Vishakha guidelines have so far been used only for setting up complaints committees and 45

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redressal mechanisms in formal spaces of employment and higher education, quite remote from the world of informal labour and voluntary service that governed Bhanwari Devi’s life. This chapter effectively began as a story of the “self” – through representations of upper-caste child/women and the rare voice speaking for the so-called lower castes and untouchables – a story that, on several occasions, rocked imperial power and interrupted an emergent nationalism with the demand to raise her age at marriage. Many accounts today render the history of social reform in somewhat tepid tones, as a very narrowly conceived agenda of social change. I do not think this is quite borne out by the range of scholarship available on this period, one that is constantly in a state of further revision and expansion, especially in light of having recast the subject of this period as the child/woman. In any case, why should one expect a whole lot more from a time that became so dominated by the battles between imperialism and nationalism? What needs much more attention, it seems to me, is to note how highly truncated the story of gender transformation has been and how much remains to be said about the period following independence. The upper-caste subject of social reform became invisible within the new nation, and one of the dimensions of this invisibility is that child marriage turned into “history” for this caste-class of modern womanhood. Stalwarts of the women’s movement of the 1970s, like Vina Mazumdar, have frequently spoken about how as “daughters of independence” they took the equality clauses of the Constitution for granted (Mazumdar 1979). This generation effortlessly conceived of themselves as adult daughters of the new India, certainly no longer as child victims of traditional customs. Alongside, as we saw, the newly developing nation and a reborn women’s movement resignified and marginalized child marriage as the problem of the “other”, contained within agendas to address poverty, fitfully recognized as an ongoing practice in “backward” regions and groups. As will become clearer in Chapter 4, the compulsory structures of marriage for upper castes and lower castes alike have dropped out altogether. Something has changed with the new millennium. Suddenly, or so it would appear, child marriage – or, as some would rather call it, early and child marriage – has made a nationwide comeback among organizations in India. Chapters 3 and 4 will discuss this new interest in order to explore what kind of contemporary research exists on the problem of early marriage that everyone would like to see come to an end. By way of a provocation, this opening chapter on the long and chequered nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of child marriage in India concludes with the following doubt, raised by one of the most well-known historians of women in modern India: What none of these proponents of marriage reform has ever questioned is whether or not raising the age of marriage can improve the status of 46

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women and begin the social change thought necessary for modernisation. Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has been assumed that a later age of marriage would guarantee an improved social status, but there has been little evidence of this simple formula. (Forbes 1979: 417)

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This chapter locates the question of child marriage in modern India within a global historical and sociocultural context. Such an exercise in contextualization is designed to pre-empt the disabling presumption that “early and child marriage” is a peculiarly non-Western or developing country phenomenon absent elsewhere in the world. I use the terrain of other contexts – whether Western or Third World, historical or contemporary – to ask the same prior questions that need to be asked wherever “child marriage” is found: What is a child? What is marriage? When and why does child marriage come to be seen as morally repugnant and/or made illegal? And finally: How has adolescence become the most significant category for understanding early and child marriage today? There are two additional reasons for undertaking this kind of overview. First, as the previous chapter amply attests, child marriage is first named as such – as the problem of marriage in India – in the colonial context, which means that it was shaped not just by the specific agendas of British imperialism but also by a much broader set of international influences spanning many locations and institutions. A second equally important reason is to understand the historical circumstances in which the frames of interpretation and vocabularies being deployed to address child marriage have emerged. Despite their diverse origins and ideological orientations, these frameworks are drawn from a body of scholarship that is mainly European and AngloAmerican. The best way to evaluate these ideas and frames is to see what this scholarship has had to offer on the subject of child marriage in its own contexts. Otherwise, there is a real danger of falsely isolating child marriage as a peculiarly Indian or Oriental or Third World problem. On the other hand, it is not as though there is nothing distinctive about the Indian story – but its specificities can be identified precisely through a comparative approach.

Notions of marriage I begin with a synoptic overview of the global history of marriage. Numerous studies attest that marriage is among the most varied institutions across cultures. For a very long time, age was of little relevance because marriage 51


was a matter of community or familial strategy driven by the need for economic or political alliances and networks. Christianity brought the idea of monogamy but this did not necessarily lead to uniformity of marriage practices. One critical point in this history is that the (relatively) late age at marriage that emerged in the specific local conditions of northwestern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was actually the exception to the much more common rule of early marriage in most parts of the world, including in other regions of Europe. These unusual trends in marriage stand out even more sharply in contrast to the legal context of a country like England, where from the mid eighteenth century permissible ages were codified as 12 years for girls and 14 for boys. Anthropological discussions on marriage have been fundamental in their accounts about how to define different cultures, past and present. Whether or not it is possible to come up with a universal definition of marriage was a topic of protracted anthropological debate from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Often, it was so-called primitive groups – the Native American tribes, peoples within the African continent, the island cultures of the Pacific South Seas, and of course the many matrilineal groups in India – that were used to prove just how diverse marriage patterns could be (Evans-Pritchard 1951; Schneider and Gough 1961; Leach 1961; Fortes 1983; Leacock’s introduction to Engels 1973). Whatever definition was on offer ran into problems, such as the idea that marriage involved the living together of a man and a woman – who had sexual relations and engaged in some cooperative economic activity. In many contexts, husbands and wives did not form a common household where resources were shared, but stayed with their respective natal families. Indeed, marriage itself is not universal – the Na in China lived together as siblings in a small society without any institutionalization of the couple. Sex hardly mattered; what counted were sibling and mother–child bonds (Geertz 2001). Edmund Leach looked for a more inclusive definition of marriage from the perspective of property and its passing on from generation to generation via marriage and the children born from it, but here too there were difficulties since in several contexts no strong distinctions were drawn between legitimate and illegitimate children. The historian of modern American families Stephanie Coontz has provided a book-length account of the history of marriage, drawing from material across the globe, whose subtitle is “How Love Conquered Marriage” (Coontz 2005). Her book is very useful to think with critically, precisely because it provides a historical account for modern Western notions of marriage, and therefore I will be referring to it frequently. She adopts the perspective of twenty-first-century Americans who believe that getting married is about love, to show how wrong one would be to imagine that it was love between husband and wife that created and sustained marriages in the past. I believe that in the constant juxtaposition of “love” and “arranged” marriage in India, many Indians today share much of the world view of their American counterparts. I have read Coontz’s book “against the grain” so to 52


speak – being especially interested to see if and how child marriage figured at all in her historical account. Coontz’s arguments expose something of a double error on the part of contemporary Western common-sense beliefs: First of all, love finds little place in the long histories of marriage and its many meanings over time and space until it is discovered in seventeenthcentury Europe and given social standing. Second, Coontz claims that just as love began to supplant other reasons for getting married, it also paved the way for the end of the institution of marriage as it had hitherto existed.

Marriage in history What, then, has marriage been in human history? Coontz provides the following broad account, drawing from a host of scholarly sources: The earliest and simplest gatherer-hunter societies have often been described in an almost utopian language evoking an egalitarian and harmonious division of labour between men and women. Notice therefore that heterosexuality is assumed at the very outset in her account, as indeed it has been in so many. For all its variety, marriage involves some kind of relationship between a man and a woman, whether through matrilineal or patrilineal alliances, allowing for more than one wife or, more rarely, more than one husband. Marriage in her view would have been enormously significant as a network of cooperation, a means to expand families and clans beyond one’s own circle, and is visible in surviving groups of this kind. (As an interesting aside, Eleanor Leacock, in her introduction to Frederick Engels’s classic text The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, quotes the startled response of one of Margaret Mead’s Arapesh respondents in answer to her question about why he would not consider marriage with his sister – “What is the matter with you? Sleep with your sister? But wouldn’t you want a brother-in-law? With whom will you garden, with whom will you hunt, with whom will you visit?” cited in Leacock 1973: 27.) Coontz provides two contrasting examples of marriage alliances: Among the Australian Aborigines, who had to survive in a harsh habitat with chronic scarcity of food, marriages were very strictly arranged by elders when girls were still children. But in the case of the northeastern Native Americans, where the environment was kinder, it was left to individuals to make their own marriage choices, including deciding to part ways. But she goes on to state that after the arrival of Europeans on American shores everything changed for these “Indians”, including the number of wives a hunter could now have, and age of marriage dropped to preadolescence (Coontz 2005: 41–43). Greater economic differentiation in many parts of the world with the invention of agriculture and the subsequent possibilities for the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few also had its repercussions for the rules of marriage. The upper strata in the earliest so-called civilizations in Central America, Africa, West Asia, China and India adopted various practices of restriction for their women, away from a public life of labour, along with 53


elaborate ideologies of sexual purity to ensure that property passed on to legitimate heirs. Early marriage was widespread and hardly a matter for comment. Marriage among the wealthy and ruling classes evolved further into becoming primarily a full-fledged political institution, according to Coontz, a means to expand one’s influence, seal alliances, or make treaties. This mode of marriage persisted for thousands of years, well into fifteenth-century Europe. The era of marriage as a political institution was not one that paid much attention to the desires or ages of daughters in families that sought to improve their position through such alliances. For women this often meant both danger and vulnerability. Coontz has much less to say of the non-elite working people and their marriages in the ancient period, which were dictated by economic necessity and practical calculations. When there was little by way of property in the picture; what counted most was finding a work partner. The next major event in several historical accounts such as that of Coontz is the coming of Christianity, which brought in its wake the new idea of marriage as (heterosexual) monogamy. (Unfortunately, her work entirely overlooks the influence of Islam and its critical view of marriage as contract.) Coontz’s book moves onto European soil and more narrowly into the regions of northwestern Europe. Some information is available about marriage outside the world of the small numbers of the economic and political elite during the European middle ages. It is among the common people in countries like England that the complexities of enforcing Christian rules of marriage as a holy and therefore unbreakable bond between two consenting persons played themselves out in contexts characterized by feudal peasant economies with their networks of interdependency. (In urban contexts, marriage could more easily take the form of a business transaction.) Interestingly, marriage in peasant society was able to overturn common-law rules regarding illegitimacy by making marriage, and not childbearing, the marker of adulthood (Coontz 2005: 119). There are many accounts of marriages being solemnized well after the birth of children, who gathered behind the couple to obtain legitimacy when vows were exchanged in church. In most European languages, men and women were called the equivalent of “maids” and “lads” (i.e., were not deemed to be adult) so long as they remained unmarried, however old they might be. Men married when they could become economically independent, whereas women needed marriage for economic security since they had very few rights outside marriage. For all the Christian talk of consent, parents continued to play a central if not controlling role, and dowries for the girl only added to her dependence on the will of the father. From the perspective of my central concern with early and child marriage, northwestern Europe from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries (until the modern period) displayed certain unique characteristics that first came to the notice of demographers. John Hajnal is widely cited to have been the one who noted the much later ages of marriage that characterized these regions of Europe compared with southern and eastern Europe, quite 54


apart from China, Japan and India (Hajnal 1965). While countries like England shared with Italy and Serbia the broad effects of the authority of the Church in matters relating to marriage (including prohibitions on polygamy and divorce), a particularly distinctive feature in northwestern Europe was that the married couple set up a separate household of their own – “marriage marked a sharper transition for men as well as women than in societies where the extended family or its patriarch determined the couple’s residence and work rules” (Coontz 2005: 124). Other demographers like Peter Laslett (Laslett 1972) and anthropologists like Jack Goody have drawn upon demographic variables relating to household size to bolster a debate on the stable nature of the nuclear family as an independent household unit in northern Europe “as a concomitant of industrialisation, whether cause or effect” (Goody 1972).

Median ages of marriage in Northwestern Europe and the Blackstone laws In societies where the married couple is incorporated within a larger family and household unit, marriage and childbearing could take place at a young age since there is no requirement on such a couple to be economically independent and they are rather part of the larger household’s trade, business or farm. Coontz offers this description of the pattern in countries like England or Germany on the eve of modernity: Because a couple was expected to support the partners and their children, marriage had to wait until they had accumulated or inherited enough to sustain a separate household. Many guilds required journeymen and apprentices to remain single until they had passed the examination to become a master and could be assured of a steady livelihood. As a result people in northwestern Europe generally married later than elsewhere in the world. In England between 1500 and 1700 the median age of first marriage for women was twenty-six, which is higher than the median age of marriage for American women at any point during the twentieth century. (Coontz 2005: 125) The significant presence of such a marriage and family structure in countries like England seems to have had several consequences for the rest of the world as well. For instance, it might help explain why William Shakespeare chose to set his great tragic love story Romeo and Juliet in Italy and not among the English nobility (which is, after all, where he had set so many of his plays). Romeo and Juliet were young teenagers by today’s standards (although Romeo’s age was never explicitly mentioned and Juliet was definitely just 13 years old), perfectly good ages for marriage among the Italian nobility of that time (at least for girls), when it was parents who did all the 55


deciding. Furthermore, the unusual marriage patterns of northwestern Europe affected the world of comparative demography by repeatedly emphasizing their uniqueness yet effectively setting these higher ages as a kind of standard against which to measure other regional variations. In the Laslett study already referred to (which examined household size and composition in England, Western Europe, Serbia, Japan and North America from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries), age at marriage in Belgrade in Serbia in 1733–34 was such that 33% of men were married by the age of 20–24 years while 77% of women were married in the age group of 15–19 years. Not even Japan had such early rates of marriage. (See Table 1.5 in Laslett 1972: 75.) Some of the marriage and household patterns in England and Western Europe were particularly rare. For instance, both women and men left home to work for many years when they would have been teenagers in order to save up for the time of marriage. Women had far fewer options, the most common one being to work as a live-in servant in a betteroff household, an occupation that was by no means confined to the poor. As the purpose of marriage was a productive partnership rather than procreation, age at marriage could be strikingly high, above 30 years for women, and in a few cases women were older than their husbands. Just as significant is the fact that some never married at all. It was setting up a household rather than starting a family that became a norm for the peasantry and working classes, and it was among sections of the wealthier classes and the nobility that earlier patterns of younger ages at marriage persisted to a greater extent. Notice, therefore, that younger ages of marriage were associated with wealth rather than, as is the case today, with poverty. These unusual trends in marriage stand out even more sharply in contrast to the legal context of the times, especially where England is concerned, as other commentators have drawn attention to. In England, from the medieval period, laws governing all domains, including marriage, were known as common laws, which were codified by the English legal figure William Blackstone around the middle of the eighteenth century. The Blackstone laws have been widely criticized for codifying the notion of coverture, which is the doctrine of husband and wife becoming one person upon marriage (i.e., the woman effectively losing her entire legal personhood to the man). (It took all of the nineteenth century for the women’s movement in countries like Britain to slowly win back some of their rights as wives.) However, an equally important aspect of the Blackstone laws is less remarked upon, namely when and how one was eligible to marry. The historian Holly Brewer has made a complex set of arguments about legal changes in early modern England and its American colony, where once age mattered little and status was decisive but later, in a host of ways, a completely new philosophical and political idea – “the capacity for reason” – turned into a disqualification for those below certain ages (Brewer 2005). Prior to this sea change, four-year-olds could make wills and eight-year-olds could be hanged for a felony. Until the seventeenth century, children over 56


seven were of “ripe age” to marry, thus implying that there was nothing uniquely Brahmanical about pre-pubertal marriage. The Blackstone laws changed this to 12 years for girls and 14 for boys in eighteenth-century England. In his study of marriage and age in America, Nicholas Syrett follows Brewer to suggest that lawmakers needed to fix certain ages in their doctrines, even in a time when there was no particular consciousness of age, in order to be able to deal with disputes that could arise, notably in relation to property and guardianship (Syrett 2016). In his treatise of 1686, another English legal figure, Henry Swinburne, had attempted to provide justifications for the ages of 12 and 14 for marriage – these turn out to be biological notions of puberty, which took place sooner for girls than for boys, along with parallel beliefs about the onset of sexual stirrings (likened to the rise of sap in plants), which had to be contained within marriage. Colonial India therefore was hardly alone in developing an age/sex system in relation to marriage laws. These ages in Britain and its American colony stand out even more starkly when combined with the fact that 21 became the new age of majority for entering contracts – minors therefore could legally marry even without parental consent, many years prior to becoming legal adults. Even though Holly Brewer has closely examined the many ways in which “children” as a category came to be created as a disqualification in order to protect them from the responsibilities of adulthood, we can see that the shift from the old patriarchy to the new one was far less decisive when it came to the marriageable ages of girls/women. We shall return to this later in this chapter. This means that the picture of marriage in countries like England at the onset of modernity and colonialism turns out to be truly complex in ways that have not been sufficiently examined in the secondary literature. Legal precepts allowed the very young to marry at ages when they could not enter into other kinds of contract, while economic compulsions among the peasantry had driven actual ages of marriage to unprecedentedly high levels between 1500 and 1700. Moreover, there were significant numbers who never married. It is only with subsequent industrialization and the rise of a working class receiving wages that ages at marriage fell among the poor, while early marriages continued to be common among the wealthy until well into the nineteenth century. It is this contradictory mix of law and practice that would have played itself out in Britain’s colonies across the globe. This must be kept in mind when considering how the very idea of child marriage was produced in the Indian colonial context over the course of the long nineteenth century (from which Indians had to saved), beginning with the child widow in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Rakhmabai case for restitution of conjugal rights and Phulmonee’s death in its closing decades. It must not be forgotten that the British were able to make their claims about the evils of child marriage in a time when their own laws were not fundamentally different and where it could even be 57


questioned as to whether the problem of the child wife had really taken root in many regions of the Western world. Without this comparative perspective, the historical account of Chapter 1 is in danger of lapsing into the worst form of Orientalism, where India is treated as a unique aberration. Before further discussions on marriage, especially during the modern era, it is necessary to discuss the other concept that has already been introduced, namely that of the child (which by the twentieth century is further split into that of the adolescent).

From Centuries of Childhood to the emergence of childhood studies This section offers a brief overview of the global history of childhood – drawing from the works of Western historians of childhood, Philippe Aries, John Sommerville and Hugh Cunningham – and concludes with the rise of the field of childhood studies at the end of the twentieth century. These histories unsettle taken-for-granted notions of the child that are today part and parcel of our concern over child marriage. Debates over childhood, beginning with the work of Aries, were especially tied to ideas of sexuality and questions of innocence and protection, but the field becomes much more diffuse as twentieth-century Western middle-class adults come to attach many meanings to children, who might be economically worthless but are all the more priceless, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes put it. The twentieth century turns out to be a particularly conflicted period for thinking about childhood, and it is not accidental that a self-consciously new field – sometimes called childhood studies and sometimes childhood and youth studies – announces its departure from prior approaches to the study of children as the twentieth century comes to a close. Any discussion of childhood as a concept has to begin with Philippe Aries’s work Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of the Family, written in French in 1960 and translated into English in 1962 (Aries 1962). This study has been as foundational as it is controversial in the academic world while nonetheless enjoying an enduring place in popular ideas regarding the invention of childhood. Reduced to its barest minimum, Aries appeared to be saying that childhood is a modern idea, one that was absent in medieval times, when children were rather treated as “mini adults” after the age of 7 or so. The evidence for his claims (Aries was not a historian but a demographer fascinated by the idea of the family) came overwhelmingly from the sphere of French art and transformations in the depiction of children in paintings over the centuries. Through changing references to and representations of dress, toys, sex, work and especially education, Aries finds evidence that something decisively new happens from the seventeenth century, when a much more distinct notion of childhood can be discerned in a range of institutions – through a greater consciousness of the actual age of a person, 58


through dress codes for children which were not those of adults, through the evolution of a system of schooling where children were segregated and graded by age, and through a new set of structures and emotions within the family which focussed increasingly on the place of the child within it. By way of sharp contrasts, medieval times did not appear to have a strong sense of the age of a person other than via stations of life, children mingled with adults in both the home and in public life, boys were sent to work as apprentices at a very young age, and what existed by way of schooling was a space where children were taught together regardless of age. Early in the book, Aries looks at various ancient and medieval conceptions of the “ages of man” (a common motif) which could be divided into five or more stages: infancy (until around the age of seven, when one was just beginning to be able to speak), puerility (until possibly 14, which, it should be added, was estimated to have been the average age of puberty in pre-modern times), adolescence (from puberty until anywhere to 21, 28 or until the thirties depending on various scholars, described as the time when one was big enough to have children), followed by youth, (the mature stage of life that could last into one’s fifties), which was followed by old age and senility (Aries 1962: 21–24). At either end of this spectrum – notions of infancy and old age – little appears to have shifted in their connotations over the centuries. But readers cannot help notice how much has changed in the meanings that have come to be attached to the intermediate stages – notably those of adolescence and youth, from the vantage point of the present. Versions of these stages of man, which refer to social functions and not age, lasted into the eighteenth century. It is not sure whether there are parallels with ancient Brahmanical textual references to the stages of life, from baby and young child, brahmacharya, householder to sanyas, mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 1. (Note that all of these stages refer to men and not to women, a matter which will be discussed shortly.) The more startling and much-cited descriptions from Aries’s book pertain to sexuality. There are quotations from texts with accounts of adults (whether noblemen or nurses) who played with a small boy’s penis and encouraged children to do so themselves, along with colloquial references to sexual organs and reproduction. It was all a matter of fun and great amusement. Even naked small boys and girls were put in bed together and encouraged to touch each other’s genitals in front of adults or engage in sexual banter. These accounts were taken as proof of the “immodesty” of the pre-modern era, compared with the idea of childhood innocence and therefore of the need for child protection that was to emerge so strongly with modernity. Thanks to a number of reviews, discussions and subsequent scholarship, some of which sought to prove how wrong Aries was in his basic assumptions and arguments, it is possible to gain a better perspective on what he may have been attempting for his time and what is relevant for us today 59


(Wilson 1980; Cunningham 1998; Orme 2001). First of all, Aries wrote his book in response to the times he was in (the mid twentieth century) when several Europeans were busy lamenting the negative consequences of the decline of the family. He wished to make the opposite point to his contemporaries, namely that the rise of the nuclear family and the child within it was a modern development with a very recent history. Second, at least in the English-speaking world, there appears to have been a mistranslation; the French word for sentiment was translated as idea or even concept in English. What Aries was mostly concerned with was a changing sentiment towards children from the seventeenth century, along with new notions of the innocence of childhood and the special need for “coddling” children in particular compared with more disinterested earlier attitudes (Cunningham 1998). Adrian Wilson, in his review, has seen in Aries’s account at least two methodological flaws, which he thought were fatal. The first is “presentism”, which happens when Aries reads backwards from a present-day childhood phenomenon to finding its absence in an earlier time and which then is treated as sufficient evidence for claiming that childhood itself was absent rather than having been different. The other is his literal use of sources, such that arguments about what was depicted in a painting seemed proof enough of its existence in social life, instead of merely indicating the emergence of new codes in the world of art itself (such as realism) (Wilson 1980). Some historians like Nicholas Orme (2001) (and several others) seemed intent to show that children have always been children, loved and mourned as children, and treated with special care as such (especially when infant and child mortality rates were so high and for so long) whether in the worlds of ancient, medieval or early modern times. In all of this attention, it is very telling that certain significant aspects (of particular concern to a study such as this one) have been overlooked, by both Aries and most of his detractors, or not adequately answered one way or another. The most significant would be that of gender. Where are girls and girlhood in these discussions, where are the women in or out of marriage, and where are the mothers and caretakers? Perhaps not unexpectedly, girls inhabit the shadows in all these books and commentaries; at most, they are occasionally visible spinning or playing with dolls while boys are playing at home or outside, going to school, or getting to work. The absolutely critical role of mothers, nurses and other caretakers in the first years of a child’s life are also taken for granted across this entire period, especially in times when so many died in their early years. (The lower rates of life expectancy – which, it should be remembered, is an average number – that characterized these societies until well into the eighteenth if not nineteenth centuries had more to do with these high child mortality rates than with much shorter lifespans overall. Older people did also live longer from the nineteenth century into the present, when improvements in nutrition, then sanitation and finally medical advances in the twentieth century made all these possible.) 60


It is also not unexpected that much of the descriptions of “immodesty” in sexual matters in pre-modern times is about little boys. Moreover, according to Aries, the reasons for this behaviour had nothing to do with the idea that young children were sexual beings, if anything the opposite. He goes on to discuss the openness with which even circumcision was treated in Jewish and Muslim societies, and he concludes as follows: Not only were children associated with an operation, admittedly of a religious nature, on the male sexual organ, but gestures and physical contacts were freely and publicly allowed which were forbidden as soon as the child reached the age of puberty, or in other words was practically adult. There were two reasons for this. In the first place the child under the age of puberty was believed to be unaware of or indifferent to sex. Thus gestures and allusions had no meaning for him; they became purely gratuitous and lost their sexual significance. Secondly, the idea did not yet exist that references to sexual matters, even when virtually devoid of dubious meanings, could soil childish innocence, either in fact or in the opinion people had of it: nobody thought that this innocence really existed. (Aries 106; emphasis added) What is therefore much less noticed (if not bypassed altogether in the exclusive focus on sexually explicit practices, talk and playfulness, or in Aries’s contrasts between the immodesty of the pre-moderns and the new idea of innocent children in modern times) is that Aries himself makes it clear that in any case such immodesty ended when a (boy) child was about seven and certainly by puberty. After this age, no such behaviours were supposed to continue, and it was elders who exercised control over their sons (and, of course, their daughters). Notice that this fits in very well with Holly Brewer’s deeply researched historical investigations into what constituted a ripe age for marriage in early modern England and what changed later. Aries gives the further example of the French monarch Louis XIII, who in the year 1608 by the age of 14 was put “almost by force into his wife’s bed” (Aries 1962: 104) to engage in sexual intercourse as a matter of apparently painful duty. He goes on to remark that such a young age for a King had become more rare by this time, but not so when it came to his wife the Queen, who was but 13 years old. Yet no further mention is made of her or of what such a marriage could have meant from her point of view. Curiously, even Michel Foucault (who is said to have been influenced by Philippe Aries’s ideas) slips up in his equally classic and enormously influential History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction (1978). This is the famous text that revolutionized approaches to sexuality by questioning the repressive hypothesis of the Victorian age vis-à-vis the apparent sexual freedoms of the age it supplanted. As he put it quite unambiguously, 61


The doubts I would like to oppose to the repressive hypothesis are aimed less at showing it to be mistaken than at putting it back within a general economy of discourses on sex in modern societies since the seventeenth century. …What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them? What knowledge (savoir) was formed as a result of this linkage? The object, in short, is to define the regime of power knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world. (Foucault 1978: 11) He goes on to state that while he is not making any claims that an earlier era was somehow free from sexual constraints, he is more concerned with what was new, namely the ways in which matters of sexuality hinged on a new rationality rather than religious morality. The sex of children, since the eighteenth century, was one of these areas of contention where numerous discursive strategies and institutional mechanisms were deployed in unprecedented ways. Foucault provides the very first concrete illustration of his arguments in an account of a poor mentally challenged farmhand in a French village. In 1867, this young man was reported to the authorities for engaging in a familiar game called “curdled milk” through obtaining “a few caresses from a little girl”. Foucault is utterly intent on showing how this “petty everyday occurrence in the life of village sexuality, these inconsequential bucolic pleasures” could become the object not just of intolerance but of detailed scientific examination (Foucault 1978: 31). The man was acquitted of any crime and instead consigned for the rest of his life to a hospital as a subject of intensive analysis, from which treatises were produced. My point is not to doubt the need to mark such a moment or to problematize this new “science of sexuality”. But why is it, that in order to do so, Foucault (writing in the late twentieth century) has to consign to complete insignificance the experiences of the young girl (whether or not it would be termed a case of child sexual abuse), who must provide sexual gratification in a way that no adult woman was prepared to do? This is no longer the medieval world evoked by Philippe Aries, in which childhood sexuality ostensibly meant nothing to children and could just be a source of amusement to adults. The text which so transformed our ideas of sexuality seems to have been strangely oblivious of the sexuality of all the persons, child or adult, in this account, and presumes to know what the “caresses of the little girl” might have involved from her point of view. These discussions of Aries and others make it clearer that there is not just a fundamental inattention to gender but also considerable confusion over how the very question of changing conceptions of childhood should be more productively tackled. There is more to be gleaned on both of these issues from another historian of childhood, C. John Sommerville, and his compendium The Rise and Fall of Childhood (Sommerville 1990 (1982)). Sommerville’s approach is 62


more fully historical in a conventional Western mode, moving from early history, the Greeks and Romans, the special place given to Christianity’s influence on notions of childhood, the medieval period, the renaissance, religious reformations, nationalism, modernity and subsequent developments, ending with late-twentieth-century US culture. From the perspective of gender, he is certainly more aware of the huge gaps in the historical record when it came to the lives of girls. A key term that emerges repeatedly in his writing is that of an ambivalence in attitudes towards children. For one reason or another, children have been a problem, which can be seen already in early times. He believes also that contemporary US society is deeply uncertain about children, even though more and more is being invested in them. According to Sommerville, “the high and the low in the history of childhood” came with industrialization and capitalism (Sommerville 1990: 188 ff.). Never, he says, were children more glorified and more exploited. Such exploitation included little girls, who for the first time were subjected to the harshest labour regimes for the maximization of profit. The early writings of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx on the terrible fate of the working-class family in early industrial Britain and the numerous writings on child labour during this period come to mind, as do the novels of Charles Dickens. In the hands of critics, this also made it possible to use the experiences of children to expose the ills of their societies and to create the most romantic images of childhood innocence in order to make their case. It is in the course of the nineteenth century, when the burden of innocence on the young child had reached its highest point, that a new figure emerges. This is that of the adolescent. As Sommerville points out, it is not that earlier centuries did not have notions of a preparation of adult life, but now childhood was extended into something called adolescence, when teenagers were … excused from participation in the larger society while they concentrated on personal growth. But almost from the beginning of the change, some of them could see that their new status involved a loss of rights as well. (Sommerville 1990: 212) Where the young child had a nursery, adolescents were increasingly segregated from the rest of society via extended years of schooling. Interestingly, this had a flattening effect on both class and gender in comparison with the past, as all manner of youth appeared to lose status and as adulthood appeared more distant and frightening. The power of the new nation state was “to provide a proper childhood for every citizen” (Sommerville: 229). Now it was the US that led the way, especially from the turn of the twentieth century, as far as class and gender democratization through schooling were concerned, although it is quite surprising that Sommerville says absolutely nothing about race and the legacy of slavery in this period. What he 63


does focus on is how the many years of suspension between the young child and the adult turned adolescence into an unprecedented biological and psychological problem, indeed into a “disease”. This is surely a remarkable development when we consider the prior discussion above of the situation in northwestern Europe in the early modern period, when young men and women spent many years working as apprentices or servants well into their late twenties if not thirties before attaining adulthood through marriage and establishing households of their own. This means that there is an obvious need to forge a perspective for this new problem phase, so to say, one that took on an increased prominence from the latter part of the nineteenth century. It must be recalled that this is the same period that Michel Foucault had identified as a profound moment in the history of sexuality, and indeed it would seem that the adolescent was uniquely identified with his (and subsequently her) problematic sexual awakening and sexual practices. In the context of this study, I would further like to suggest that adolescence is in the process of becoming a kind of master concept in the current concern over early and child marriage. The notion of adolescence will be taken up more fully later in the chapter. The present section concludes with one more male voice on the invention of childhood, that of British historian Hugh Cunningham. Whereas Aries set up his account as one of the discovery of childhood in early European modernity and Sommerville outlined a “rising and falling” narrative shot through with ambivalence, Cunningham believes that there have been many inventions of childhood (invariably by adults), even in the same time and place, and certainly no linear account of progress (or regress). This even though there is much that is indisputable about biological growth from babyhood onwards. In any case, the question “When does childhood end?” would have a range of answers depending on the issue at hand – criminal responsibility, voting rights, sexual activity, work and receiving payment, consuming alcohol, and starting a family – quite apart from the many meanings of childhood. (Recall the work of Holly Brewer discussed earlier.) Cunningham’s focus is on Britain, about which much has been said already. In his concluding chapter on the twentieth-century post-war period, he outlines the ingredients of what he calls the “modern invention of childhood”, whose critical turning point is as recent as the effects of the oil crisis of 1973 within British working-class families: “Modern childhood is the story of the relationship between dependency, contribution to the family welfare and rights” (Cunningham 2006: 220). Interesting too is that this moment has to do with how dependency is intrinsically connected to when one leaves home – in the seventeenth century, 14-year-olds left home to work as servants or apprentices elsewhere and then set up their own households at a later stage; during nineteenth-century industrialization, children might be working in the new mills and mines to add to family earnings while they stayed at home. During the 1950s and 1960s when standards of living rose in unprecedented ways, working-class children found jobs right 64


after school (or even as dropouts), leaving home when they were ready to get married, which could be when they were in their early twenties. But all this changed from the 1970s and the years of austerity that followed – childhood became more and more protracted as young people could not find jobs, their dependencies increased and the question of rights became more conflicted. The period from the 1970s is also the time when family structures underwent major transformations (and not just in Britain) in parallel with a growing and more diverse female work force – composed of married women and mothers, more single women who never married – and increasing rates of divorce. Cunningham tackles the three aspects of dependency, family welfare and rights in turn, and the results are confusing. Whatever the quality of compulsory schooling, time spent on education increased for all classes, as did more years of dependency. Homes could be places where children helped in housework or engaged in additional work before or after school; families also came to be seen as unsafe and sites of possible child abuse. On the other hand, new consumption patterns and media seem to have enhanced the relationship with the sphere of the home and were said to contribute to a greater disconnect with other institutional spaces in the world outside. The growing importance of rights for children has been the most complex of all. Although Cunningham does not formulate it this way, are these rights that are in opposition to adulthood (the right to dependency, to play, to protection, to education, and not to work) or about greater access to activities associated with adulthood, such as sexuality, money to spend, and greater autonomy vis-à-vis adult family members, regulated by the state or other agencies? Cunningham ends his book by making a very surprising observation: during the course of the twentieth century, when so much was changing one way or another around conceptions of childhood, the gendering of childhood appears to have been much more constant over recent centuries, except for only rare gaps when this was not so. Norms of masculinity and femininity are learned and imposed during childhood, even if the pink and blue that are nowadays taken for granted only came into use in the 1920s and marked a reversal of prior colour codes (Fausto-Sterling 2012). What remains invisible in the work of Aries becomes more pronounced with Cunningham – modern childhood’s association with disadvantage if not inequality. Holly Brewer, whose legal history was referred to earlier, makes this much clearer: In pre-modern England, children were folded into the status of their families, where corresponding privileges or hardships could take force at extremely young ages as a matter of birthright. A modern patriarchy then took shape on the basis of notions of who could exercise reason and give consent and at what age, compared with the sheer patriarchalism of authority that preceded it. Children now suffered an unprecedented form of inequality by virtue of being disqualified below certain ages and were relegated to being dependents and minors in relation to 65


adults under the state. Brewer does acknowledge that children were not alone in being so excluded – Blacks, slaves, labourers and women of all classes were also so treated by virtue of their presumed incapacity to make judgements. I would venture to say that the specific inequalities of women and transformations in gender over successive centuries might help in explaining the rather different trajectories taken by feminists when it comes to approaching childhood. But before looking at the role of feminism, there is the need to acknowledge the emergence in the late twentieth century of a new field of scholarship: childhood studies. Beginning in Britain and soon spreading elsewhere, located most extensively in disciplines such as sociology and geography, scholars such as Allison James, Chris Jenks and Alan Prout launched their writing by contrasting it to prior approaches to the study of children. They had particular problems with the following: standard theories of socialization in which children were largely passive, Western ideas masquerading as universal (including in international conventions on the Rights of the Child), and the developmentalist theories of psychology that focussed on stages of development to adulthood. Although they have kept the likes of Philippe Aries at arm’s length, the influence of his and other historical work on the rise of this new field of study is only too evident. In a volume ambitiously titled Theorizing Childhood, James, Jenks and Prout reflect on those aspects of life in the late-twentieth-century West that may have been particularly conducive to this new focus on childhood: “a structural re-adjustment to time and mortality…; a re-evaluation and a repositioning of personhood given the disassembly of traditional categories of identity and difference; a search for a moral centre…; and an age old desire to invest in futures now rendered increasingly urgent” (James, Jenks and Prout 1998: 5). Childhoods, they said, are socially constructed in definite sociohistorical and cultural contexts and hence are neither innate nor universal; children possess agency, if to varying degrees, such that there are no hard and fast distinctions in terms of stages of development. Even notions of adulthood should be disengaged from biological notions of maturity and rendered purely as contextual constructs with no essential core. Anthropology soon joined their ranks, and one comes across a special focus on labouring children in the countries of Latin America, in particular, that question First World views on the rights of the child (e.g., Liebel 2015; Hansen 2016). Numerous empirical studies and new journals devoted to the study of both childhood and youth have been expanding by leaps and bounds to show that children should be considered participants in the making of their lives and have a role to play in decisions regarding their welfare. Thick descriptions proliferate that are highly context-sensitive and present-oriented, and a few selfreflexive studies have shown up some of the dilemmas and ambiguities that follow from “adult” approaches to “children” (e.g., Leonard 2015; Komulainen 2007; Hart 2006; James and Prout 1997; Ansell 2009). Undoubtedly, such a field has thrown up problems of their own, such as a 66


somewhat naïve reliance on ideas of social construction, a simplistic relativism especially when it comes to “other” Third World contexts (as though non-Western spaces would not be equally interested in universal ideas), and what others have called a “mantra”-like investment in ideas of agency (Tindall and Punch 2012). Agency in particular, as we will see later in this chapter and in Chapter 4, has been especially popular in the discourses of international agencies and among global activists working on adolescence and child marriage across the world. It should now be more than apparent that there is no straightforward relationship between all these ideas of “childhood” and the agendas of feminism.

Where are feminist studies of childhood? It is vital to recognize that feminism has done considerably more than correct a male-biased record when it comes to histories, meanings and perspectives of childhood. Explicitly feminist engagements with childhood display a much greater level of complexity and challenge in comparison with what we have discussed so far. It is hardly acknowledged that a fundamental double bind characterizes women/girls in relation to age and childhood: Have women never been adults in the independent sense of the term, or should one say that they have never been allowed to have a childhood? Feminist perspectives have been particularly concerned about the politics of the relationship between women and children, most commonly seen in the figure of the mother and the institution of motherhood, especially in contexts where women were clubbed with children as a social category. Current scholarship is attempting to address the more multiple if not conflicted relationships between feminism and childhood in the wake of new discourses on childhood and childhood studies. This sets the stage for approaching contemporary studies of girlhood at the end of the chapter. Without a sense of the profound and prolonged entanglements of age and gender, we would not be able to appreciate the complex and multilayered quality of feminist engagements with childhood. At first glance, one could come to the mistaken conclusion that the only major scholars to have been concerned about childhood have been men. Barrie Thorne asked in 1987 “Where are the children?” in feminist accounts of social change (Thorne 1987). Certainly, there have been several feminist writings on the subject. We have already referred to the work of Holly Brewer. Carolyn Steedman’s remarkable historical study is unique in its approach while echoing many of the themes already discussed. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780–1930 dwells on the figure of Mignon, the girl child street acrobat made famous by the German writer Goethe and others after him. Steedman sees the invention of the nineteenth-century literary figure of the child as having centrally to do with a new sense of modern selfhood, one that was interior, inside oneself and little (Steedman 1995: 9). 67


This new social and cultural understanding of the self “within” modern persons was fuelled by adult imaginations of constructions of childhood – produced in accounts of child labour, of street children on stage and in factories, and in renditions of physiological bodies. Adults now came to identify, empathize with, and project their desires and feelings onto these figures of the child. Steedman believes that neither age nor gender was particularly significant in this process, even though Mignon was indeed a very young girl. I am sure there are other studies that could be listed. Consider Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays in Sex and Citizenship (1997) or Claudia Castaneda’s Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds (2002). A recent essay by Susan Ferguson holds particular promise (Ferguson 2017). Ferguson has approached modern-day children and childhood within the frame of social reproduction theory (i.e., by examining “capitalist childhoods” as a prolonged stage in the production of present and future labourers). As Ferguson points out, children are “the objects of the (feminized, gendered, and racialised) reproductive labor of others. But they are also agents of their own self-transformation into capitalist subjects…” (2017: 153). As we shall see, there has been considerable feminist attention to the first aspect of this claim. The question as to how far the distance between childhood and adulthood has been enabling for negotiation and resistance as children are schooled into gendered adulthoods has gained traction only in more recent writing. Let me put the matter more strongly. The challenge is considerably greater than correcting the historical record with its unmarked notions of childhood, which on further examination turn out to be invariably gendered male. So, undoubtedly, it was men who were the protagonists at the centre of ancient and medieval conceptions of the “ages of man”; with modernity, it was males who were most affected in the protracted separation of childhood from adulthood. Only rarely was this specifically described in gendered terms as a transition from boyhood to manhood. However, the answer to such bias is not simply one of coming up with comparable accounts of “girlhood”, of which more will be said later. Rather, we must recognize that we are up against what I have been calling a peculiar double bind: There has been a pervasive and ongoing effective equation of women with children. Women were too frequently never quite considered to be adults at any stage, given their systematic infantilization. Have they only ever been like children? Alternatively, have they almost never been allowed to be children in the course of their lives? After all, one might say with as much conviction that women have been historically infantilized (recall Ruby Lal’s remark [in Chapter 1] about colonial India, where women were seen to be dependents from birth to death) as make the opposite claim – that childhood meant little for women, beyond the first seven to ten years of life. I was happily surprised to discover a dramatic evocation of this double bind in the work of that founding figure of modern 68


feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman (third edition 1796) was written in the wake of the French revolution and the birth of capitalism in western Europe. Wollstonecraft describes, in one of her later chapters, what it is that makes women “defective” by nature, which is why changing this is so critical, so difficult and yet necessary. Females “are made women of when they are mere children, and brought back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart…”. It is this that makes them appear not to have “sufficient strength of mind”, succumb to “false notions of beauty and delicacy”, unable to know where to “find strength to recur to reason and rise superior to a system of oppression”… since being educated was “worse than Egyptian bondage” (Wollstonecraft 1796: 262–263). Wollstonecraft is vehemently arguing against the codes of an emergent bourgeoisie where child-women were to be schooled into infantilism and trained from the very start to become men’s playthings, and she has no qualms in using Orientalist imagery to press her point. In its place should be a rational education (recall Holly Brewer’s history of the exclusions created by new codes of rational judgement in the modern West), one that would lead to self-mastery with future marriages based on friendship. Notice therefore that Wollstonecraft doesn’t explicitly rail against child marriages – the critique is a more pervasive one. Yet another reason for why feminism’s relationship to childhood could not be straightforward needs to be placed on record. This takes us to the mid twentieth century and the birth of second-wave feminism. Activists and academics alike built on prior movements and scholarship to make a special case for what the lesbian feminist writer Adrienne Rich, in her popular book Of Woman Born (1976), called the experience and institution of mothering. Today this is such well-trodden ground that it might well seem obvious, but at the time it was absolutely vital for feminism to underscore to what extent children and childhood have to be seen as a relationship in which women as mothers and as principal caretakers were taken for granted but with such far-reaching consequences for the reproduction of society as a whole and the subordination of women within it. When the phrase “women and children” is unthinkingly used (almost as though it were one word), it should at the very least be substituted by women and their dependent children. Writing Of Woman Born when she was already an established poet and writer, Adrienne Rich recalls that it “is rooted in my own past, tangled with parts of my life which stayed buried even while I dug away at the strata of early childhood, adolescence, separation from parents, my vocation as a poet, the geographies of marriage, spiritual divorce and death…” (Rich 1976: xvii). The focus on mothering from a range of economic, sociological, psychological and literary perspectives has taken new form in the twenty-first century through a more recent field of scholarship focussed on the concept of care and care economies. (For a recent discussion, see Palriwala 2019.) Care, one might say, has become an umbrella term in at least two senses. On 69


the one hand, it has broadened the relationship to all caretakers and all institutions involved in the provision of care to children, beyond the figure of the mother and beyond families and households. On the other hand, while children continue to occupy the most significant place by virtue of their dependency on the adult world, studies on care have extended themselves to others in situations of dependency as well, such as the elderly, the disabled and the ill. Yet another layer regarding the relationship between feminism and childhood can be said to have been added in recent years. Given the widespread reduction of women to their mothering role and the infantilization of women more generally, feminists have come to “challenge women’s positions in relation to children, rather than [focussing] on feminist approaches to children and childhood per se” (Burman and Stacey 2010). Tensions and problems have crystallized in the wake of the emergence of fields like childhood studies and international discourses and covenants around the rights of the child. According to Erica Burman and Judith Stacey, in the introduction to a special issue of Feminist Theory devoted to childhood and feminism, “Within a rights-based framework, it has been all too easy to maintain the competition between women and children. The fact that the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was a piece of legislation, assembled and ratified in record time with a record number of signatories (only the US and Somalia failed to ratify the Convention) indicates as much about the imagined status of, and relationships to, children and the self-serving character of the desire to (be seen to) save children, as it does about the somewhat lesser interest in and command of equivalent Conventions around women (specially the Convention around the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women CEDAW). (Burman and Stacey 2010: 229) Childhood therefore could never be a subject for feminists in and of itself, waiting to be rescued from the oblivion of history or the marginalization of children in society. Burman and Stacey emphasized the new “urgency of focus” along with the “conceptual and political tensions and paradoxes in taking such a focus” (2010, 237). The rise of a more political relationship between feminism and ideas of childhood has furthermore been developing in the light of the internationalization of these very ideas. The desire on the part of feminists has been one of achieving better conceptions and relationships in a global context where all kinds of forces are at work. In spite of the provocative title of Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes? (published in 2018), the editors Rachel Rosen and Katherine Twamley are keen to emphasize that there is much more by way of dialogue between feminism and childhood studies and a “desire to strive for social and 70


economic justice for women and children particularly in contexts where their interests may (appear to) be in conflict” (Rosen and Twamley 2018: 2). This includes notions of girlhood and questions around early marriage. In fact, one of the essays in the volume is a critique of the “Too Young to Wed” exhibition of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which was held in New York in 2012. In her essay “‘Too Young to Wed’: Envisioning a ‘generous encounter’ between feminism and the politics of childhood”, Virginia Caputo finds the 2012 photo exhibition to be problematic because of the ways in which it isolates those (only in the South) who practice early marriages: Without an understanding of the contexts and structures within which girls marry, the effect of the photo exhibition is to construct these girls as individually and culturally failing since the only standards are those of the North, where clear conceptions of childhood, girlhood and adulthood are supposedly in place (Caputo 2018). As the next section will discuss in more detail, such assumptions about the North do not stand up to scrutiny. “Girlhood” as a popular idea emerges more fully in the course of the twentieth century in Western contexts while lacking clear definitions or boundaries. From the 1990s, a growing literature on ideas of girlhood can certainly be discerned; full-length books and edited volumes have been devoted to the subject. As we shall see at the end of this chapter, notions of being a girl are most strongly developed in relation to the twentieth-century figure of the adolescent, together with other changes in the institution of marriage. This means not only that considerable caution is required before attributing a well-formed and historically definable notion of girlhood prior to the twentieth century anywhere in the world, including Western contexts, but more fundamentally that the girl/woman may even today be hard to disentangle. Having looked, however selectively, at some of the critical literature on histories of marriage and ideas of childhood, the next section brings the two together in relation to child marriage in the histories of two nations, the US and China, not commonly associated with such practices.

Two case studies for situating early and child marriage globally China and the US are, respectively, the largest and the second largest economies in the world today. These are hardly nations associated with the evils of child marriage. Yet, as this section will show, there are good reasons to bring unexpected accounts of the persistence of child marriage – located in the margins of these superpowers – into our frame. Rather than focus only on the large numbers and proportions in countries like India (and other Third World nations), we ought to consider the present-day significance of early marriage among certain groups in countries like the US and China. I therefore wish to contribute to the task of providing a different “international frame” by taking up two examples that are not to be found in the contemporary literature on child marriage but that we could learn from 71


nonetheless. The US is for many the most advanced nation in the world today and still the most powerful geopolitically. This might seem like a strange country to choose, especially from an Indian standpoint, given that the US has become the dream destination of India’s aspiring citizenry. However, as very recent research has established, child marriage in the US does continue to exist within its “native” (i.e., old immigrant) white population and such a presence calls for better understanding. My second choice is China, economically resurgent, the largest country in Asia, and poised to becoming the world’s newest superpower. Comparisons in India are often made with China, sometimes in relation to its strongly patriarchal family traditions and more recently for having the world’s most adverse child sex ratios and consequent imbalances in the number of women relative to men. Little is heard about early marriage in China today. Instead, contemporary media coverage on gender in China seems to be dominated by the term “leftover”, as in leftover men who are unable to find wives because of the effects of the demographic gender imbalance but also – more unexpectedly perhaps – so-called leftover women (i.e., women in their late twenties or thirties who remain unmarried). Does this mean that Chinese society does not have the phenomenon of early marriage?

The US and the American child bride Stephanie Coontz’s history of marriage was explored at some length at the beginning of this chapter, and the discussion stopped with the special case of northwestern Europe and its unusually high ages of marriage for women in the early modern period. Parts 2 and 3 of her volume shift terrain to include the US as well as Europe in order to set the stage for what she calls the “love revolution” that led to the collapse of marriage as a universal and lifelong institution. It took over one and half centuries, beginning with the creation of the male breadwinner model in the course of industrialization, for a notion of marriage as a haven from the world of politics and work to chip away at its prior status and centrality in public political and economic life and across different classes. She is quick to show that it first crystallized as a highly unequal conception of love, a sexual contract with a new emphasis on female purity and chastity, through what Carole Pateman has called a modern conception of patriarchy (Pateman 1988). It is important to note that marriage in the nineteenth century took place earlier than before, and the post-war years of the 1950s and ’60s in the US saw most women marry in their late teens or very early twenties in what was considered the perfect model of middle-class suburban happiness. But the 1960s also heralded Betty Friedan’s feminist articulation of the “problem without a name” (Friedan 2001 (1963)). Coontz cautions against laying the reasons for what she calls the falling apart of the institution of marriage at the door of movements such as the new movement of women’s liberation, the parallel sexual revolution, or (I should add) the critiques of heteronormative marriage in 72


gay and lesbian politics. Not all the changes had radical causes, as several developments in women’s increasing access to education, employment and the invention of new reproductive technologies brought about fundamental transformations of their own. According to Coontz, that marriage happened at later ages from the 1970s in countries like the US was not the only fundamental development. Others were that not everyone got married in the first place since it was possible to have sex and live intimately without it (including in non-heterosexual relationships) and that divorce rates soared. She believes that what for so much of Western history had been a universal and enduring institution was in fact no longer an institution at all but rather a “relationship” (Coontz: 238; see also Giddens 1992). Coontz ends her treatise on a curious note: At the close of the twentieth century in countries like the US, it is successful people – men and women with high levels of education, good health, sound finances, emotional stability, and positive views on gender equality – who have successful marriages (more so than was the norm in the past) and who, according to studies, are happier than people in any other living arrangement. Given her critical stance throughout the book, it was strange that Coontz did not feel the need to problematize such a development not just for its profoundly undemocratic aspects but also for what this implies about her basic thesis regarding the love revolution’s ostensible destruction of the institution of marriage. Instead, she is ready to conclude with the comment “the very things that make marriage so potentially satisfying are for the most part inseparable from the things that make unsatisfying marriage less bearable. The same personal freedoms that allow people to expect more from their married lives also allow them to get more out of staying single and give them more choice than ever before in history about whether or not to remain together” (Coontz: 310). These developments require a closer look since commentators have been saying somewhat different things about the present conjuncture. There are those like David Popenoe, who mourned the decline of the family, claiming fatal effects on its function in society (Popenoe 1988), especially regarding childbearing, to which others like Judith Stacey responded by saying “good riddance to ‘the family’!” (Stacey 1993). A review of the literature on marriage during the first decade of the twenty-first century examines studies that have highlighted positive and negative processes (such as domestic conflict and violence but also the state-led promotion of “healthy marriage”) and its authors, Frank Fincham and Steve Beach, conclude that much depends on the specific context (Fincham and Beach 2010). A more noteworthy and carefully analysed contribution to the contemporary American situation has been provided by Andrew Cherlin. He is the one to have coined the notion of the “deinstitutionalisation of marriage”, by which he meant “a weakening of the social norms that define people’s behaviour in a social institution such as marriage” (Cherlin 2004: 848). The rise in live-in arrangements and having children outside marriage and the increasing rates 73


of divorce and remarriage, same-sex relationships and so on imply two kinds of de-institutionalization: a greater hesitation to enter marriage and a loosening of marriage (citing Louis Roussel in Cherlin). However, one might miss the most important point in Cherlin’s essay, which is not just that as many as 90% of Americans will eventually marry. He asks, what keeps marriage alive when the older reasons (so well described by Coontz) no longer apply and the newer ones are so shaky and individualist? His answer is clear. In the twenty-first-century US, marriage may no longer be dominant but has rather become distinctive and what was once a mark of conformity is now a badge of prestige. Weddings have evolved into status symbols, which the most well placed can achieve with greater assurance, but for those working-class, poorer women and women of colour who seek it, marriage turns into an elusive goal as they wait for that economically stable and emotionally reliable (male) partner who may never materialize. I believe this is a more careful formulation of contemporary US developments than the one provided by Coontz above. In the course of Coontz’s concluding thoughts, she also mentions that while the average age at marriage has been rising since the 1970s, it is “now a product of some very early ones, some very late ones, and several variations in between” (Coontz: 276). This sounds quite innocuous. However, a scattered but growing literature has made visible what a recent book-length study has quite decidedly called “the American child bride” (Syrett 2016). As Jeremy Uecker and Charles E. Stokes argue, it is important to focus not only on why people are avoiding marriage during young adulthood but also on why a significant minority of young adults continue to marry early at a time when cohabitation and premarital sex are increasingly normative and socially acceptable. (Uecker and Stokes 2008: 835) In their study of statistical trends in the US from 1850 to 1998, Catherine A. Fitch and Steven Ruggles have graphs which show that 10% of native-born white women have been marrying below the age of 18 years from the time when statistics were available (i.e., 1850) and this 10% turns 18 only after 1990. As much as 25% of the white female population was marrying at 19 years from 1850, dropping to 18 years in 1960 and then rising slowly to 20 years by 1998 (Fitch and Ruggles 2000). Among the Black population, 10% Black women were marrying at ages around 16 years and 25% at 18 years from 1850, which rises sharply to above 21 years around 1990. If these are surprising statistics, readers might be shocked to hear that over the course of the nineteenth century, when different states in America were ratifying their constitutions, American women were widely considered to be minors, never independents (Field 2001). What then is this remarkable history of the American child bride, so successfully hidden from view? The burden of the first book-length study of 74


child wives in the US from the eighteenth century to the present – by Nicholas Syrett (2016) – is to argue that for most of this history the “woman child” was not a contradiction in terms. Age for girls mattered little, early marriage was a norm, and when the first stirrings against such marriages were made, they had little to do with a concern over her age. There was far greater repugnance against, for instance, much older men for marrying young girls than the youth of the girl. It was parental control or the lack of it (especially if property was involved) that was often the source of dispute in such marriages; in any event, girls were supposed to marry at younger ages than boys. Syrett tracks changes in the laws of the different US states over time, many of which began with having Blackstone’s common-law ages of 12 for girls and 14 for boys in their statute books as a direct legacy of their prior colonial status. A frequent legal feature was a double age structure for marriage – the minimum age at which parental consent was required and a somewhat higher age above which girls and boys were free to choose. Overall ages were lower in several southern US states, the very states where significantly larger proportions were marrying at younger ages. However, girls found ways to circumvent parental consent when they married below statutory ages, and judges rarely annulled such marriages, even if parents took the matter to court. Marriage became a way to escape childhood in relation to both parents and the state. A child marriage reform movement, in which feminists were prominent, became more articulate in the early decades of the twentieth century, although it suffered from many ambivalences around what was the right young age and for whom (since opposition was greater to newly immigrant and non-white populations than to whites). As Syrett demonstrated, it was characterized by mixed motives – there was as much worry over what very young marriages by 14or 15-year-olds were doing to the sanctity of the institution of marriage as, say, over the roots of child marriage in poverty, the dangers of sexual exploitation or abandonment as mothers. One of Syrett’s chapters focussed on an international sensation in 1937 following news that a nine-year-old girl Eunice Winstead had married her 22-year-old neighbour Charlie Johns in a remote mountainous region of the state of Tennessee. (Though initially upset because the girl was far too young, the mothers of the couple [themselves married as teenagers] became reconciled when they realized that the two were not having sex and would grow into their marriage since Charles was a “good boy”.) The news was picked up locally and then quickly went global. Certainly, the age of nine was a rarity. But once noticed, America’s child marriages became the subject of further discussion and investigation. Comparisons were made with “dark” and “heathen” India, and even Katherine Mayo, the author of Mother India a decade earlier, explained in a front-page story for the Washington Post that “child marriage is an offense against society, cruel to the child, and physically and mentally debasing to any race that practiced it” (cited in Syrett 2016: 114). However, she was quick to distance these 75


remarks from her civilizational attack on India by adding that in America “it is a rarity, not a habit, resulting only from ignorance” (cited in Syrett 2016: 114). The welfare of the children of rural white America thus received some small share of public attention, however limited. A couple of decades later, in 1963, Betty Friedan gave her American audience (and the wider world) her extended analysis of “the problem with no name”. This was the feminine mystique at the heart of suburban white America, whereby college-educated competent women were being reduced to housewives, kept in a permanent state of “immaturity”, doing work that was more befitting the “mentally retarded” or perhaps “eight year old children” (Friedan 2001 (1963)). Here was yet another rendition of the childwoman, in this instance from America at a historic moment that was about to be revolutionized through “women’s liberation”. This sweeping attack included a kernel on early marriage and the “sex seekers” of the 1950s and 1960s. The million married before the age of nineteen, in earlier and earlier travesty of sex-seeking, betray an increased immaturity, emotional dependence, and passivity on the part of the newest victims of the feminine mystique. … What kind of sons and daughters are raised by girls who became mothers before they have ever faced [complex modern] reality, or sever their links to it by becoming mothers? (Friedan 2001 (1963): 300) Nicholas Syrett makes the excellent point that during these years of unprecedented economic boom, attention came to be focussed on the teenage marriages of the white urban middle classes (including from feminist critics like Friedan). This could be put down to the fact that it was amongst this unlikely group that there was a sudden increase in such marriages during the 1950s and ’60s, even though much higher rates persisted amongst the white rural poor, and more so among African-American and Latinx girls, all of whom were ignored. Once average ages of marriage for privileged white women rose from the 1970s onwards, public concern (including from feminists) waned. Syrett ends his long study with the following contradictory conclusions: On the one hand, he emphasizes that in the twentyfirst-century US early marriages are overwhelmingly confined to specific groups such as poor rural white youth and Latinx people, who might be more religious, such that having sex or being pregnant more often leads to the desire to legitimize the relationship, and who simply have few other choices. Lack of age consciousness is no longer the issue as in the past. Unwed motherhood is now most common among African-Americans. On the other hand, Syrett believes that early marriage must be questioned – it leads to depression and ill health and perpetuates poverty. Second, it is girls much more than boys who marry young and suffer the consequences. Third, the very belief that such marriages could be transformative and solve 76


the problems that led to it (such as the desire to legitimize sex or pregnancy) is doomed to failure. He also connects conservative negative attitudes to early marriage with the opposition to same-sex marriages in the US today. In an empathetic vein, Uecker and Stokes call for more understanding of such early marriages given the fact that they are, when located in their respective contexts, not insignificant: “The typical early married person is a White, rural southerner from a low-socio-economic family with a relatively low educational trajectory. This is not the disadvantaged American typically addressed in sociological and demographic research, but these persons are nevertheless a significant minority of the United States population” (Uecker and Stokes 2008: 845). Beyond empathy there is the further need to place the very institution of marriage itself in perspective. Recall the diagnosis of Andrew Cherlin above, whereby contemporary US society has turned marriage into a status symbol of prestige and success, even as its achievability outside the affluent and well educated has become increasingly elusive. I would suggest, therefore, that the persistence of early marriage among certain US minorities and poor rural whites not only should be seen as a vestige from the past but should be recognized as part of a larger evolving and remarkably complex socioeconomic and symbolic structure. It is not enough to proclaim, as Stephanie Coontz seems prepared to do, the end of the institution of marriage, when success today is being redefined by a well-endowed and trend-setting elite precisely in terms of this very institution, replete with big fat weddings, while others (mainly girls) at the low end of the social spectrum hope for happiness by marrying too young. It is such a structure that would be of considerable comparative value in contemporary India rather than ultimately misleading accounts of “how love conquered marriage”. Since 2016, there has been sporadic news of how child marriage in the US has indeed resurfaced as a public issue. What has come as a shock to most is the fact that many US states to this very day do not even have a minimum age of marriage on their statute books. Though without the benefit of statistical data regarding the actual number of such marriages, a campaign is now afoot to make 18 years the minimum age of marriage for girls in the form of a no-exception law, including removing provisions of parental consent at younger ages. Interestingly, there are a range of positions being taken – many state legislatures remain resistant to raising the age to 18, and some are ready for the age of 16 years. While there are young campaigners fighting for a no-exception law (so far, only two states have passed it: New Hampshire and New Jersey), others have questioned this unilateral move and not only from conservative or religious perspectives. These include some civil liberties groups as well as those who argue that in certain circumstances (such as in difficult family or oppressive foster situations) marriage at the age of 16 or 17 can be a step forward to a better life. No less than the BBC, in a podcast on America’s child brides in September 2019, has sought to give this controversial subject greater international publicity. 77


If the recent history of the US must give pause, what of the Asian giant China that until the nineteenth century was associated with the worst patriarchal practices, including early marriages without choice?

China, marriage and leftover women China presents numerous challenges for any account of its recent history of marriage and gender, especially so when it comes to the theme of early marriage. China’s history is amongst the most complex, given the contentious nature of its politics, especially over the course of the twentieth century. Some parts of this history are not well known or understood. This is also evident in the cumulative scholarship on Chinese women and issues relating to feminism, which itself is in a constant process of being revised and rethought. So why choose China when early marriage is not a significant topic of study and official statistics from the Chinese government to the UNICEF global database claim that underage marriage does not exist (United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 2014)? My reasons have to do with what we might stand to gain even from a very brief and patchy account. I am as interested in how the question of early marriage came to be tackled in its reformist and revolutionary history as in the kinds of approaches that scholars have come to adopt in order to understand the political and intellectual history of the women’s question in modern China itself. China is often paired with India, whether in terms of its status as an Asian economic power centre or on account of gender issues. In Chapter 1, we saw how the figure of the child wife in India became such a central motif of reform during the colonial period and became so controversial through nationalist and feminist ferment in relation to imperialist forces of various kinds. The Chinese situation was also deeply conditioned by its version of colonial modernity. The first feminists at the close of the nineteenth century were men who were responding to the widespread sense of crisis pervading Chinese society from the mid nineteenth century. Imperialism and capitalism made inroads following the Opium Wars in an intellectual climate criss-crossed by modern ideas of liberalism, anarchism, socialism and feminism through translations and adaptations of Western writing of all kinds, along with forms of argument and citation practices concerning Chinese texts and traditions of thought. These feminists turned “women” into the subject of their liberation and of the very freedom of the Chinese nation amidst fears of losing out to the more advanced nations of the West and Japan. Such writings, which became very popular among a new intellectual class of both women and men in the early decades of the twentieth century, set up the West as a kind of model. Europe or the US were often imagined as places where adult men and women could choose each other freely to form happy healthy families. By contrast, China had a long history of marriage by enslavement and was obsessed with bloodlines and lineages, bride price and dowry, and Chinese women suffered as 78


dependents and were not deemed worthy of education (Liang Qichao 1897 and Jin 1903 in Liu, Karl and Ko 2013). Race and eugenics through healthy mothers also played a role in these writings. Tani Barlow has provided an extended study on The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, which explores the trajectories of theorizing on women from the turn of the twentieth century and the rise of the Communist Party (the CCP) under Mao from the 1920s and focusses especially on the writings of a few publicly acclaimed Chinese feminists from the Mao era until the capitalist development agendas of the 1990s (Barlow 2004). It is during the 1930s that Barlow notes a decisive shift in terminology and orientation of the CCP by grafting local categories onto their international Marxist lexicon. Here what is most unprecedented is how attention turned from the earlier public figure of the “new woman” who came from an intellectual if not elite class to that hitherto-disregarded non-person – the peasant woman and worker. Woman was identified in the new Chinese Soviets as “a political subject who met the following criteria: she was over fourteen years of age, had been emancipated from the fetters of tonguangxi (child marriage), prostitution, and female slave systems; had recourse from family violence; her physical body did not bear the marks of ‘feudalism’ (no earrings or footbinding)… This subject existed inside a structured sphere of politics beyond a rural calendar of fieldwork and beyond rural social relations… A rudimentary bureaucracy concerned itself with her welfare and ensured her freedom of marriage” (Barlow 2004: 56). Child marriage, or rather infant marriage, was a reference to a particular form of marriage called “adopt the daughter-in-law” or “baby raised wife”, whereby families brought up baby girls from another family soon after they were born to become the future wives of their small sons. The ceremony was undertaken many years later (Wolf 1968). Such so-called “small marriages” may have been undertaken for reasons of poverty or the shortage of women and were socially looked down upon compared with the marriages of post-pubertal women. According to Arthur Wolf, this particular practice was not simply a means to cut down on marriage expenses (and had little to do with the age of the bride) but, by bringing up a compliant future bride in the in-laws’ own home, was to minimize the conflicts between mother-inlaw and daughter-in-law so common in mainstream arranged marriages. It is likely that such marriages declined after the 1960s. For what it is worth, one autobiographical account by a man born in 1966 from a very poor family whose own mother was a “baby raised wife” recalled that, while his mother did bring up a girl from another poor family as his future bride, he had no feelings for her since she was like a sister to him. When she got a job in a nearby brick factory, she married a fellow worker and his parents did not object (in Schneider 2014). What is significant is that age at marriage was not just an integral part of the larger agenda of the communist party around marriage but developed 79


into a new kind of family politics under the aegis of the state. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Marriage Law of 1950 ruled against arranged and forced marriages, allowed divorce at will, and stipulated 18 and 20 years as the minimum ages of marriage for women and men. Marriage reform played itself out in conjunction with major national economic drives and the promotion of women as workers on par with men, often at considerable cost to the personal relationships of these new revolutionary families themselves. There is a growing literature on what changed in successive years in different urban and rural regions of the country. The most challenging and contentious periods of China’s political history include its experiments in collectivization and the Cultural Revolution that brought the Mao era to an end in the 1970s (Croll 2002; Hershatter 2007; Li 1999). In a recent summary of existing scholarship, Gail Hershatter begins by saying that The story of Chinese marriage practices in the twentieth century has often been told as a transformation from family-based oppression to limited individual choice—or in another register, from feudalism to socialism—with the PRC’s 1950 Marriage Law marking an important, if ultimately incomplete, moment of progress. Every piece of this story has been called into question by recent scholarship. (Hershatter 2007: 7) And yet, for all of the many kinds of nuance that her rich synthesis brings out, much of this story is actually not fundamentally undermined. Certainly, rural areas have turned out to be much more opaque regarding the kind of changes that could and did take place, including resistances and unexpected consequences in attempting to implement the new marriage law. It is the era after Mao, the so-called market socialism of the 1980s and the further reforms and heightened patterns of capitalist development since then that have seen many more critical reflections from feminist perspectives, highlighting signs of growing gender inequality and even complex reversals regarding family structures in a context of undoubtedly unprecedented wealth creation and reductions in poverty (Berik, Dong and Summerfield 2007; Min 2013). There is hardly any discussion of changing patterns in age at marriage in the literature on marriage and family in China, and what little there is has reported positive developments. The 1980 revisions in the Marriage Law raised minimum ages of marriage to 22 for men and 20 years for women and made registration compulsory. Hershatter cites statistical studies to show that already by the 1930s only 10% of married women in urban areas were under 15. In rural China, although there were eight million new marriages of women under 15 in 1990, this dropped to half four years later (in Hershatter 2007: 18). Other studies demonstrated that there is now greater autonomy in mate selection (a big problem after the 1950s with parents 80


continuing to play a central role) and that the state enforcement of minimum ages of marriage has contributed to the greater acceptability of cohabiting before marriage, even if open talk of sex and pleasure may incur social disapproval (Hershatter 2007: 11). If there is one topic that cannot be avoided (even though the Chinese state took its time to acknowledge it), it is the gender imbalance in sex ratios at birth, widely seen to have been an unintended consequence of the one-child policy to curb population growth from 1979. This revealed son preference and missing girls in large proportions in several regions, significant enough to affect the child sex ratios of the country as a whole. Adverse sex ratios, including its social consequences, is a theme that has seen some comparison between India and China (Kaur ed. 2016). A strong marriage squeeze operates against men in China (more so than in India with the exception of states like Haryana and Punjab) and will only increase as more children from the one-child policy generation come of marriageable age. Some predictions suggest that while women will gain in the marriage market, by migrating to wealthier areas to maximize their chances of upward mobility through better employment and marriage prospects, significant numbers of men from poorer areas in particular will find themselves unable to find a spouse (Das Gupta and others 2016). These are China’s “leftover” men who are said to pose a policy challenge to the Chinese state, in both the short term and the long term. In such a situation, there have been a few quite critical news reports of an unexpected phenomenon – that of “leftover” women. Leftover women (a term with negative connotations, like leftover stale food) was coined by the Women’s Federation in 2007 to refer to women older than 27 years who are single. According to a study by Leta Hong Fincher, this has resulted in an aggressive and even sensationalist state-led media campaign against such women and increased social pressure for marriage. On the one hand, it is not clear why any special reasons need to be advocated as to why some women do not wish to marry. In any case, a highly segmented marriage market by class and education will work against even those women who do wish to marry according to conventional rules of hypergamy (marrying up) if they enjoy relatively better levels of economic and cultural capital than most men in their circle. On the other hand, analysts like Fincher believe that there is more to this phenomenon than what meets the eye: Women are losing out in China’s real estate market at the time of their marriage because, even when they have contributed substantially to buying a home, in most cases the home is registered only in the name of the husband. The most recent changes in the Marriage Law in 2011, however, stipulate that, upon divorce, property be divided according to what has been registered in each spouse’s name, unless the couple agrees otherwise. Fincher believes that women are, in fact, being goaded into marriage under hugely genderunequal circumstances in order to escape the fear and stigma of being “leftover” (Fincher 2016). 81


Whether or not Fincher’s specific arguments are valid, there may well be considerable social pressure on women towards marriage (and having a child) in contemporary China. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that little or no attention is being paid to present-day early marriages among young men and women. Only small tentative signs are to be found in the news. One is a photo essay with pictures of several teenage couples (one girl is just 13), each with their baby, living in villages in Yunnan province (Isabel Hunter and Muyi Xiao, Mail Online, 14 April 2018). The short commentary also quotes from (unnamed) sociologists to paint the following picture – underage marriages are quite common in rural China, and the family registers the marriage after they have come of age. Owing to the gender imbalance, there is a hurry to get married, especially among boys, who do not wish to wait for their parents to arrange one. In several villages where jobs are to be found only in distant locations and cities, there is little to do, and young teenagers in love drop out of school, especially when the girl gets pregnant. Such young people may be staying with parents on whom they are financially dependent, or grandparents look after the small children while the young couple migrates for work. Another short essay using statistics, “How serious is early marriage in China?” (Li Yuan, Beijing News New Media, 20 April 2018), shows significant numbers of married men who have married below the legal age of 22 years (16.6 % underage marriages among men out of all first time marriages in 2010) and women who married below the age of 20 (11%); most of these marriages happened just below their respective legal ages of marriage. (In rural areas, these figures are 25% for boys and 17% for girls.) Certain provinces stand apart with very high numbers. Statistics provided on younger ages are much lower – just over 1% of 17-year-old girls and less than 1% among 17-year-old boys are married, which is probably why it is easy to disregard such figures internationally, where 18 years is taken as the standard minimum age for considering marriage as legally viable. Even so, at least one government source on statistics of Men and Women in China (prepared with assistance from UNICEF in 2014) does acknowledge early marriage among adolescents in the age group of 15–19 years. Although their numbers are quite small, an interesting graph shows a doubling from 2000 to 2010 – from 1.2% to 2.1% for girls and from 0.3% to 0.6% for boys (Chart 2–2, National Bureau of Statistics for China n.d.: 27). In the absence of any academic discussion and follow-up, it is not possible to dwell too closely on this limited information, although it certainly cannot be discounted. If indeed most underage marriages are not registered until the couple has reached the legal age, then the statistical figures may be underestimates. The Chinese state is more concerned about other social matters of governance – it has become an aging population since 2000, is troubled by rising divorce rates, and has relaxed its one-child policy since 2016. As in the previous discussion on the US where also only small proportions are marrying as adolescents, the purpose of bringing China into the 82


larger discussion is to seek out appropriate comparative perspectives on marriage and early marriage. Superficially, the very large numbers of early marriages in India would seem to belie the meaningfulness of such comparisons. But we should keep in mind that in both the US and China their rural populations are in a minority whereas we continue to have the majority in our villages. Hence, local contexts might well raise interesting comparative questions. As already mentioned, China’s priorities appear to lie elsewhere: It is currently pushing to make marriage for women as compulsory as possible, including pressure to have a child, resulting in a policy of limited pronatalism as part of a strategy of population stabilization. On other counts, women appear to be discriminated at the work place and made to retire at earlier ages if not encouraged to become housewives and consumers more than producers. Feminist scholars in China and abroad are concerned about China’s care economy in this era. (A special issue of the well-known journal Feminist Economics is entirely devoted to this topic, Dong, Connelly, Jacobsen and Zhao, eds. 2018.) Here the emphasis is mainly on women’s unpaid care work, including greater burdens on rural grandmothers when migrant couples leave their children behind, and on the vulnerabilities and needs of the elderly themselves, a situation that is exacerbated for the onechild policy generation. Early marriage among adolescents in poor rural districts falls between the cracks. In sum, this section has attempted to place child marriage within the historical contexts of two global powers, which do not come to mind in relation to this problem. In both these nations (that share so little), early marriage was widespread and unremarkable until it became a matter of explicit reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not unlike countries such as India). Today, teenagers in these countries are marrying in local contexts and among social groups that are variously identified as poor, rural, disadvantaged, ethnic minorities, religious and with little by way of choices. Their numbers are statistically small on a national scale, although, at least in the case of China, under-reporting cannot be ruled out. Rather than dwell on the numbers, we ought to consider that the persistence of practices that push the very young to marry in contexts such as these can be of comparative value to Third World nations like India.

Adolescence: a master concept in the making? It is now time to outline the emergence of the undeniably contemporary notion of adolescence, a term that cropped up repeatedly in prior discussions. It is possible to think of adolescence as an event in the life cycle created by industrialization in the Western world. The need for this category arises because of the divergence between the age of puberty (pushed lower by improved nutritional and health standards) and the age of economic independence (pushed ever higher in neoliberal times when decent jobs are rare). Although this liminal stage was long thought of primarily as a 83


problem phase (from risky sexual behaviour and unmarried teenage pregnancy to other forms of “deviancy”), it is now being positively reconstructed and normalized as a time of the greatest potential in individual development, especially by psychologists. Adolescence effectively reduces the idea of the child to a pre-pubertal phase while garnering multiple forms of agency for itself. Meanwhile, a new international discourse has discovered the adolescent girl as the “solution” to the problems of poor developing nations to make a case for “putting girls first” in aid allocations. Very mixed ideas surrounding adolescence are arriving on Indian shores and have already found a foothold in evolving debates on early and child marriage. The concept of adolescence has cropped up in the course of this chapter on several occasions. Unlike the concept of childhood, which has ranged far and wide and was given new meanings with European modernity, adolescence is primarily an idea of the twentieth century and possibly gains full traction only in the late twentieth century. (The classic meanings of adolescence and youth that we came across in the discussion on “stages of man” bear little resemblance to its current use.) Corresponding broadly to the second decade of life, sometimes being divided into early and late adolescence and encompassing further notions of young or emerging adulthood extending into the twenties, this is a term that is now part of a new and ever expanding literature on human development. Adolescence therefore has also found its way into the literature on early and child marriage, although some quarters reject it in favour of remaining with the notion of the child to cover the entire span of life until legal adulthood. T.S. Saraswathi, in 1999, wrote an essay called “Adult-Child Continuity in India: Is Adolescence a Myth or an Emerging Reality?” (Saraswathi 1999), a question we will return at the end. Existing accounts of adolescence begin invariably with the two-volume work of Granville Stanley Hall on Adolescence written in 1904. Hall is described as the founding father of psychology in the US (Jackson and Goossens 2006: 13) and is more remembered for his phrase “storm and stress” (a translation of the German eighteenth-century notion of Sturm und Drang) to describe the extremes in the emotional life of adolescents than for his actual theories of human development. (His theory has been called phylogenetic, based on the idea that individual development recapitulates over the lifespan the historical stages in the development of the human species.) More relevant might be the theories of evolutionary biologists who have traced the historical emergence of adolescence to a “puberty mismatch” for which they provide reasons “why our world no longer fits our bodies” (Gluckman P. and M. Hanson 2006; see also Gluckman, Low, and Franko 2011, Hochberg and Belsky 2013, Patton 2014, Dorn and Biro 2011). It would appear, in a thoroughly heterosexual frame, that the evolutionary drive of reproductive survival and the demands of the present-day environment have resulted in a growing gap between the onset of puberty and the transition through adolescence to present norms of adulthood. 84


What is not always obvious in these accounts is that the greatest load here is being borne by girls/women. Their arguments can be broken down to the following elements: In the long history of human evolution, puberty (described as the completion of those biological processes that lead to the capacity for sexual reproduction/fertility) was at higher ages, possibly as high as 17 years. Matters changed with the onset of the industrial revolution in Western contexts, when puberty trends began to decline to reach average ages of around 12 years at present. (The decline has not yet halted.) This has been due to improvements in both maternal and child nutrition and health. In pre-industrial societies, ages around 17 years (or less) could be perfectly good for being considered adult and hence to enter the institutions of marriage, parenthood and work, thus making for a smooth transition from puberty to conventionally sanctioned (hetero)sexual activity and childbearing. Today, however, the combined effect of the decline in pubertal age and the rise in what is considered (by various yardsticks) to be the age of a mature adult (usually well into the third decade of life) has created not just a “gap” called adolescence but one that has been getting more and more prolonged. This is not all. Puberty in girls and in boys displays different patterns. It not only begins on average a year earlier for girls than in boys but, along with menstruation, involves parallel changes in physical appearance (the development of secondary sexual characteristics) that make girls look adult sooner, even if full reproductive capacity may take a few more years (averaging at 18). Boys, on the other hand, continue to grow after puberty and take longer to have the kind of bodies associated with manhood. Finally, recent research has shown that under certain circumstances puberty in girls can drop to ages such as 8 or 9, along with the end of their growth spurt. Reasons provided are diverse, ranging from a significant improvement during early childhood to a better standard of living (seen, for instance, in some cases of the adoption of children), forms of stress (e.g., single-parent families) and childhood obesity. Unfortunately, much of this literature treats these early pubertal developments as signs of morbidity, focussing only on the greater so-called “risk taking behaviour” on the part of such girls rather than their vulnerabilities (cited in Gluckman and others 2011: 24; Susman and Dorn 2009). To rephrase Gluckman and Hanson (2006), therefore, it is girls and women today who, based on an evolutionary way of thinking dominated by concerns of biological reproduction, have to experience the greatest “misfit” between their bodies and the changing norms and demands of their worlds. It is surely more than a little ironic that this appears to be due to the body’s physiological responses to modern improvements in health, on the one hand, and current considerations of adult maturity, on the other, from brain development to twentyfirst century precarious life. Much of this literature deals with regions such as the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand while allowing that developing countries would be latecomers to these processes.



One topic in particular that has been a staple when it comes to heterosexual biologically oriented discussions of the problems of adolescent girls in contemporary Western societies is teenage pregnancy. What until recently was a matter of considerable stigma for any woman – the birth of an illegitimate child outside of marriage – has, by the late twentieth century, become a social problem rooted primarily in the age of the mother. Illegitimacy is not as strongly an issue (when, say, in the UK half of all children are born to parents who are not married (Brown 2016)) – the stigma rather has shifted on to the mothers who are seen to be too young. This is heightened when average ages of marriage have been rising, and growing proportions of women in Western societies are now postponing childbearing to when they have passed 30. Interestingly, however, the literature on the subject reveals a degree of disagreement over where precisely the problem with teenage motherhood lies and even over the interpretation of medical data about the health status of mothers and their babies. Prominent approaches (usually strongly backed by state policy in countries like the US and UK) have viewed teenage mothers as a particular kind of burden on society and especially on the state. Even though it is acknowledged that rates of teenage pregnancy have been declining, they have not been declining fast enough, and the fact that some mothers would prefer to keep their babies rather than go in for abortions (where this is legal) or give up their children for adoption is viewed negatively by the state and its systems of welfare. Views differ as to whether the increased health risks have an intrinsic component that has to do with biological immaturity and how significant this is compared with other factors. There is little doubt that such risks are significantly higher for very young mothers in the age group of 10–15 years compared with older adolescents. What is unclear even in studies that correct for confounding factors – poverty, ethnicity and related social factors, marital status, schooling, inadequate ante-natal care and so on – is the relative weight to be accorded to age when compared with these other factors. I am raising this particular issue in this chapter because it will re-emerge even more strongly in what makes child marriage a “harmful practice” according to international conventions in Chapter 3. Even in studies whose intention is to prove the significance of age, its significance drops markedly among older adolescents, while factors such as inadequate prenatal care persist well into adulthood and carry higher risks. (See Table 2 in Fraser and others 1995; Chen and others 2007 for the US.) A study conducted in Finland, where health care is free and of high quality, argues two things – that there were no higher risk factors for births to adolescent mothers in their study and that risks of teenage pregnancy could be overcome by the presence of high-quality maternal care with complete coverage (Raatikainen and others 2005). A study in Nigeria showed that when obstetric complications among teenagers were compared with their older counterparts, there were significantly higher complication rates, especially anaemia, preterm delivery, and low birth weight. After utilization of antenatal care was 86


controlled for, significant differences were observed only in the incidence of lower-birth-weight babies, indicating that poor obstetric outcomes of teenage pregnancy are related to non-utilization of prenatal care rather than to biological age (Loto and others 2004). A rare ethnographic study of teenage mothers in Britain is particularly useful because it goes beyond the narrow focus on health to the lives of these women and their futures. Sally Brown’s study among English adolescents (whose mothers had also given birth to their children as teenagers) uses the notion of “rewriting the life script” when these young mothers (and some fathers) decide to have the baby that had not been planned. The arrival of the baby here becomes a critical event leading them to strive towards becoming adults as “good” mothers/parents, sometimes taking conventional forms where young fathers would look for work and mothers devote themselves to caring for the new child. The wider family network, in most instances, could be relied upon even when the young mothers moved out. Moreover, many of them used the image of maternity leave to plan for a return to education later on. The hardest aspects of their lives were employment prospects in a world and at a time when unemployment rates were high and job losses rampant (Brown 2016). Another review study (dealing with a very different population, that of poor Black teenagers in US inner cities) put it differently. There is considerable confusion over the correlation between adolescent childbearing and educational and vocational underachievement, which is not a simple matter of cause and effect. In conditions of urban poverty, what are the costs and benefits of postponing childbearing? Unless parenthood becomes the least attractive option in the lives of such young women, they may continue to consider becoming teen parents as an adaptive strategy to their socioeconomic disadvantage rather than to combat it (Stevens-Simon and Lowy 1995).

From invention to normalization and “putting girls first” Having touched upon one of the common problems besetting adolescence in the public eye (and with obvious significance for further discussions on early and child marriage), I find it interesting to note how the overall attitude towards adolescence has been evolving in the Western world. Some early work emphasized the historical invention of adolescence in countries like the US, recapitulating some of the discussion on the discovery of childhood which was explored earlier in this chapter. Writing in the 1960s, John Demos and Virginia Demos saw adolescence as the outcome of industrialization and urbanization far removed from farm economies where children very quickly became miniature adults. But now, a new generation of the young strove to find their identities among peer groups and in new youth cultures through a distancing from parents (Demos and Demos 1969). Schooling finds no mention in this account, whereas other writers have seen 87


new educational institutions to be at the core of adolescence – the phase from middle school to post-secondary education that was institutionalized from 1900 and became the norm over the course of the twentieth century. According to Frank Fasick, schooling itself emerged because of other demographic and economic transformations – the rise of the stable small family in a rapidly growing population in a context of affluence made possible by industrial productivity. Adolescence became the name for being out of the work force and dependent on parents while being in school as preparation for future occupations. Adolescence has also meant having to devote considerable resources to one’s growing children, not least of which has been the commercialization of youth cultures (Fasick 1994). In the last few decades, the literature on adolescence in the Western world, especially the US, has ballooned, led from the front by psychologists and followed by practitioners of the other social sciences. Earlier in this chapter, we saw how key ideas relating to childhood emerged with modernity, in which a particularly critical notion was that of innocence. Adolescence, on the other hand, began its life as a problem category – recall John Sommerville’s remark about adolescence as a “disease” and the “misfit” theories of evolutionary biology. Curiously, the last couple of decades, the very years that have seen such an explosion of work in countries like the US, seem to have normalized adolescence. The terminology used has shifted from notions of “deficits” to “positive youth development”. As the child settles into a pre-pubertal phase of dependency, protection and care, adolescence expands into this remarkable phase of life when, given the right resources, theories now inform us about the unique “plasticity” of this period of human development, through the combined and mutually interacting effects of both nature and nurture. Highly sophisticated longitudinal studies are being devised to track these processes. New theoretical work in cognitive development, while responding to how adolescent thinking differs from that of children or adults, adds that this may be the wrong question entirely. As Dianna Kuhn has put it, “An implication is that we should not use some measure of average adult performance as a standard against which to compare teens. Rather, the question we should be asking is how the maximum intellectual potential of adolescents can be realised” (Kuhn 2009: 180). Even the most problematic of them all, adolescent sexuality, the site of the twentieth century’s considerable intergenerational tensions, has been “reframed” in both the US and other Western contexts. Though approached almost entirely in a heterosexual setting, considerations of same-sex and other-sex friendships and different kinds of romantic or more casual sexual relationships are variously discussed from early into late adolescence in a somewhat linear fashion (as leading to a more steady dyadic pairing) but not necessarily exclusively. So there are longitudinal studies that indicate that “rather than being trivial or fleeting, adolescent romantic relationships are an integral part of the social scaffolding on which young adult romantic 88


relationships rest” (Meier and Allen 2009: 308). On the other hand, the notion of “emerging adulthood” (the early twenties) is now being added (see J. Arnett 2000) as a time when, in fact, young people are more likely to be experimenting the most, whether in their personal relationships or elsewhere. In some US studies, abstinence until marriage also makes an appearance (usually as an imposition from conservative parents and especially among young people of Asian American origin). Much of this literature is couched in gender-neutral terms. Indeed, some accounts of the contemporary lifespan from puberty (where biology rules) to adulthood (marking one’s full entry into society) believe that at least for present-day Western societies this is a time characterized by considerable gender equality when it comes to education, given women’s future entry into the work force and minimal age differences among couples. Other reviews of gender identity in adolescence acknowledge that there are fewer studies of gender in this phase of development compared with studies on childhood (Galambos, Berenbaum and McHale 2009). My question would be, how plastic is gender identity among adolescents, especially now when sexual experimentation, queer identities and transgender politics are growing worldwide? A particularly nuanced review of adolescent sexuality recognizes that it is one thing to promote a more positive view of adolescent sexual activity but that “even after decades of research on adolescent sexuality many fundamental questions about normative sexual development from prepubescence to young adulthood remain unanswered” (Diamond and Williams 2009: 479). Much more careful attention is required towards the newer sexual health approaches “that encourage and foster youth’s maturity, commitment and mutuality” (Diamond and Williams: 514) across class, race and gender while countering fears of maladjustment and deviancy or the older conventional “just say no” philosophy. If teenagers find themselves emotionally or cognitively unprepared for sex, this is in large part due to the failures of adults. Such conflicting views, in which girls invariably carry the greatest load, are becoming benchmarks in global studies of “youth”. This is the context that must not be lost sight of in the current discovery and promotion of adolescents and youth for the developing world. At least since the 1990s, international organizations had been pushing the advantages of investing in women rather than men in agendas to alleviate poverty. Women were the more efficient economic agents, it was widely said, even by the World Bank (World Bank 1991, John 1996). In a famous address to the World Bank in 1992, Lawrence Summers effectively shifted focus away from simply referring to “women”. He spoke as an economist about the solution to the problems of the developing world – investing in the education of girls to break the vicious cycle of deprivation (Summers 1992). Notice that adolescence is not named as such – he refers to women and girls, mothers and daughters. But 20 years later, adolescent girls have become the clearly articulated focus in the world of international aid. Using 89


the otherwise-identical language of Summers, the executive director of the UNFPA made a public statement in 2011 on “putting girls first”, and adolescent girls were held up as “the unexpected solution to many of the world’s most pressing problems, provided that we invest in them and promote their rights” (UNFPA 2011). These girls are part of the largest youth generation in history, and when they enter the workforce educated, skilled, and healthy – and especially if they are able to delay family formation until they are ready – they can put their countries on a path for greater prosperity, peace, and progress. (UNFPA 2011) Here, then, the adolescent girl becomes the means for a better tomorrow for everyone, an investment for the future. The critical period of adolescence must be capitalized on such that what would otherwise be a set of deficits and losses in Third World contexts can be prioritized to achieve nothing less than a turnaround in the fortunes of developing nations and, by extension, for the world as a whole, especially in neoliberal times. One can see these ideas in many present-day contexts and policy documents, to which we shall return in Chapter 3. The main point therefore is that notions of adolescence have – in very recent years – been undergoing major transformations in meaning and orientation in the Western contexts from which they arose. The newly constructed adolescent girl in particular is now at the heart of several international aid discourses and programmes, suffused with agency and potentiality through the right kinds of investments prior to her (suitably delayed) marriage. The interesting question would then be, what difference might such notions of adolescence make (as distinct from that of the child) in approaching early and child marriage? It is one thing to subject to critical scrutiny this promise of the transformed adolescent in the discourses of international aid, backed by current neoliberal agendas of the greater returns in investing in such girls. It is another to actually situate such a figure in her historical and cultural context. In spite of very definite shortcomings in global studies of adolescence in the developing world, such as a lack of reflexivity and gaps in understanding, the idea of adolescence cannot simply be dismissed as an alien imposition. One such study by Caldwell and others has at least the advantage of attempting to locate adolescence historically by using Nigeria, Sri Lanka and India as case studies (Caldwell, Caldwell and Caldwell 1998). Adolescence as a life phase is defined by them as the years that separate puberty from marriage, which emerged as a consequence of colonial or Western contact (and resultant changes in agrarian economies, schooling, urbanization and relations between generations), while being shaped by “traditional” sexual norms and transformations in family structures. This makes adolescence for young Yoruba girls in Nigeria 90


and girls in rural Karnataka (their examples) take on divergent trajectories with modernity, even though pubertal marriages characterized both. (Their article betrays gaps in their knowledge of child marriage and its reform in the Indian context.) The Yoruba adolescent is (hetero)sexually active, seeking to delay marriage in order to gain access to new opportunities of employment and city life, while her (upper caste, landed) Indian counterpart is enveloped by norms of seclusion and sexual purity thanks to the strictures of caste and an enduring system of arranged marriage (which remains unexplained). Other studies, such as by Cynthia Lloyd, draw on statistical sources to raise questions about the links between “growing up” and being married (Lloyd 2005). Ruth Dixon-Mueller approaches adolescence by asking “How young is too young?” for sexual relations, marriage and reproduction. Interestingly, she divides the age group of 10–19 years into three segments (10–14, 15–17, and 18–19) to argue against a simple synchronization of chronological age with a girl’s physical, sexual and cognitive growth processes under conditions of such diverse risks and opportunities. From the age of 15 onwards, she says not only that no certain claims can be made about what is or is not too young but that absolutist calls for the elimination of all marriages below the age of 18 as “child marriage” could be construed as a denial of their freedom (Dixon-Mueller 2008: 298). Here, then, adolescence as a time of transition is defined as a contextual question. We can thus see that multiple experiences as well as claims about adolescence are being made across the globe – east and west, north and south. What cannot be disputed is the massive imbalance in knowledge production involved, and far too little research is emerging from within non-Western contexts. T.S. Saraswathi’s question about whether adolescence is a myth or a reality in the Indian context is therefore not a genuine question – it is both and probably much else besides. Rather than shun such concepts, I have suggested that we must look into their own histories as a vital first step in order to see what kind of work they are being put to in other contexts.

Reframing girlhood The idea of “girlhood” and what should be called the rise of “girlhood studies” can be better understood in relation to all that has been happening in the name of adolescence rather than that of the child. At the same time, it is instructive that the new literature on girls and girlhood (which no doubt will be expanding in coming years) does not wish to be limited by strict notions of age, even though age cannot be quite avoided, as we shall see. One collective study has quite provocatively and ambitiously made claims about a truly global and simultaneously deployed notion of the “modern girl” in the 1920s and ’30s in a host of countries worldwide (Weinbaum, Thomas, Ramamurthy, Poiger, Dong and Barlow eds. 2008). They argue that thanks to the expansion in the manufacture and trade of commercial 91


products during this period that traversed the globe (accompanied by a proliferation of visual advertising in which young women figured hugely), colonial, semi-colonial, fascist, communist and capitalist states experienced shared connections in the various representations of the “modern girl”. This made possible a common research project by several scholars otherwise working on different regions and nations. Interestingly, the claim made by these authors is that this modern girl is not defined by her age or even her marital status. As they put it: ‘Girl’ signifies the contested state of young women, no longer children, and their unstable and sometimes subversive relationship to social norms relating to heterosexuality, marriage and motherhood… Indeed, our research suggests [that] the historical emergence of ‘girl’ as a modern social and representational category and as a style of self-expression was largely delinked from biological age. (Weinbaum and others 2008: 9, emphasis added) These tell-tale comments reveal that, even though the authors do not wish to be tied down to notions of age, the “girl” here is a figure that is no longer a child but also not a woman either, at least not a conventional one. Other twenty-first-century efforts have attempted to provide a “global history” of girlhood by bringing into a single volume different local accounts. Once again, it is noteworthy as to how the question of age is addressed. Editors Jennifer Helgren and Colleen A. Vasconcellos approach girlhood as a cultural and historical construct that changes over time: “The girls in our volume range in age from early childhood to their midtwenties, but most are in their teens” (Helgren and Vasconcellos eds. 2012: 3; emphasis added). So, once again, we see that in spite of distancing themselves from notions of chronological age and without any explicit references to adolescence, somewhere they do creep in. This is perhaps why, to press the point made earlier, we need to be alert as to how conceptions of adolescence are influencing new studies in a context where the child/woman could historically not be separated. There are other challenges for those who do wish to explicitly focus on girls as adolescents in a context where adolescence itself was for so long defined as a problem category. Catherine Driscoll’s Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory argues that feminism has been dominated by “a woman-subject defined in relation to norms of independence, agency and originality…” (Driscoll 2002: 9). Her project is therefore one of questioning the twentieth-century emergence of girlhood that emphasized her immaturity and failure of development. To the extent that feminism has been guilty of focussing unduly on the liberation of adult women, Driscoll sees her task of undoing “the lack of feminist interest in girls on their own terms” (Driscoll 2002: 9) within which the study of girl culture becomes critical. My final example: Julie Bettie’s ethnographic study of girls in their final year of high school in California has the title Women 92


without Class: Girls, Race and Identity. Here the challenges are compounded. Bettie demonstrates the dangers of adopting an approach that focusses primarily on gender and gender inferiority when it comes to girls and on the real difficulties of making class visible among working-class and ethnic minority students. Indeed, as she puts it, such students should be called girl-women. In her argument, most approaches to problems of youth failed to recognize that these girl-women’s lives were not so different from women’s lives, as they too had encountered race discrimination in the job market, low wages in sexsegregated jobs, life choices shaped by avoiding abusive partners, partners who refused to accept parenting responsibilities, a search for low-cost child care, and a struggle to combine parenthood with work and school. (Bettie 2003: 7) Such is the necessarily slippery terrain that characterizes some of the best work on young women. We seem to have come full circle in trying to pry open the girl-woman of yesteryear only to find her reappear in the twentyfirst century once more. Chapter 1 gave us the child-woman as though she were a unique character in the civilizing mission of colonial India. In the course of the present chapter, she has reappeared repeatedly and at some of the most critical junctures of Western modernity – in Mary Wollstonecraft’s founding arguments for women’s rights; in accounts of the ubiquity of child marriage in nineteenthcentury America; in Betty Friedan’s text heralding second-wave feminism; and now yet again in the new millennium where the marginalizations of gender in a high school in California are not intelligible without recognizing the oppressive workings of race and class. To be clear, these are not simply repeated instances of a predetermined theory about the nature of patriarchal subordination. I would rather that they be treated as unexpected discoveries of the persistent entanglements of age and gender, each with their own constellations of vulnerability if not disenfranchisement. At the very least, they should serve as a warning as much as a signpost in any imagination of a different telling of girlhood and the problems of marrying too young. This chapter has tried to discuss concepts and ideas coming out of Western histories for their meaningfulness in a review on early and child marriage which focusses more closely on the Indian context. Western accounts of marriage cannot end with the triumph of love and the pure relationship – a country like the US today has re-established marriage as a badge of prestige among the most successful and gender egalitarian sections of the population, including non-normative persons. Indeed, I might add that the kind of critiques of the institution of marriage and family that were so fundamental to secondwave feminism, sexuality and queer movements have lost much of their traction today. China is pressuring women not just to marry but to have children, 93


a far cry from its revolutionary history or even yesteryear’s one-child policy. Hidden for the most part in both these nations are relatively small numbers of very young people who are marrying in contexts with precious few choices. Most commentators believe that this only reinforces the vulnerabilities of age, gender, class and race that they already bear. Meanwhile, in discussions of early and child marriage, the idea of the child, about whom so much has been written, is being overtaken by less well-understood notions of adolescence – the former being largely a product of several centuries of Western modernity compared with the twentieth-century emergence of the latter. Normative discourses around childhood today allow no room for sexuality, let alone marriage, while the shift to adolescence is producing a more conflicted picture that needs much more attention. Older fears of risky adolescent sexual behaviours (whose burdens are especially heaped on girls and their teenage pregnancies) are being challenged by “positive” renditions of this phase of young life. While the years stretching from puberty to adulthood are now increasingly structured by precarious life and economic crises, ideas of sexual health are gaining ground in which some argue that girls in particular can become empowered and creative adults from having been sexually active, indeed unconventional teenagers. Whereas some believe that this generation is quite able to counter coercion, others continue to see their future destinies variously shaped by deviancy, violence and increased vulnerabilities. More nuanced discussions do not see these as necessarily mutually incompatible. The unspoken assumption shared by most of these views is that while such sexual activity may be casual or romantic, desired or unwanted, it should not – yet – be contained within the institution of marriage. This is where the child-woman of today finds herself. It should come as no surprise then, as Chapters 3 and 4 will attest, that we are both ill prepared and not quite in agreement with the way in which a mounting pressure has now arisen to eliminate early and child marriage. This chapter has tried to show that all the ideas that are relevant remain contested but also that we stand to benefit from comparative analyses in unlikely places.

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CHILD MARRIAGE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM Law, policy and the work of demography

This chapter dwells on the ways in which the theme of early and child marriage has re-emerged as a subject of research and intervention in very recent years in India. The first chapter provided a historical overview, beginning with the colonial period when child marriage became the new name for marriage itself and campaigns around age became major flashpoints of controversy. We saw further that, after Indian independence, the subject of child marriage retreated, including when the women’s movement entered a new phase from the late 1970s. No longer the focus of intense debate, much less conflict, it moved towards the margins in organizing and public life, and when it did emerge, it was the subject of the “other”. Early marriage was not highlighted in the Towards Equality Report that became something of a foundational text in the fields of social science research on women as well as in much activism and policy intervention. The 1978 Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) bringing 18 and 21 years as the minimum ages for marriage for girls and boys was passed with little attention being paid to this by feminists and no signs of opposition from anyone. Chapter 2 raised several comparative and conceptual questions and presented evidence that child marriage was ubiquitous globally and had entered agendas of social reform in several parts of the world in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That chapter also offered a broader perspective on the frameworks for approaching early and child marriage. It revealed, among other things, the ongoing force of the entangled disenfranchisements of age and gender, especially visible in the recursive figure of the child-woman in pioneering if not foundational feminist texts from the birth of modernity into the new millennium. The present chapter will be exploring how best to approach signs of a fresh interest in the subject of child marriage in twenty-first-century India, which has also spawned new research, much of which is as recent as the preparation for this study. The challenge facing this chapter is quite an odd one. At one level, we are dealing with an old, old problem that takes us back centuries to everything that used to come under the “social evils” of Hindu tradition and subsequently to Muslim practices. After independence, when 100

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agendas of development became the overarching frame for policy and action, child marriage found sparse mention as a direct consequence of poverty itself or as a custom among particular social groups or in certain backward regions. So, one might be tempted to wonder, is there really anything more that needs to be said on the subject? At another level, there is indeed much to be understood in this twentyfirst century about marriage as a basic institution of Indian society and the persistence of young ages of marriage among large sections of the population. Notice, for instance, that the Indian story recounted in Chapter 1 is overwhelmingly a history of legal reform and not a social history of marriage. One of the purposes of Chapter 2 was to dispel false assumptions of the uniqueness of child marriage in India by showing how widespread it has been. But a second reason was to indicate the kind of ingredients that would be needed for a better framing of the issues at stake, which will be more fully tackled in Chapter 4. To put it most provocatively, I would like to suggest that the problem in India has less to do with the ongoing presence of child marriage in our midst than with the extremely uneven resources available for engaging with it. When it comes to marriage in India, are we sufficiently well served with standard accounts of arranged versus love marriage? What, indeed, has been the changing significance of age and what rudiments exist for contemporary discoveries of childhood and adolescence in India? In Chapter 1, we stumbled upon the fact that what to this very day is called the social reform of women was, with the benefit of hindsight, largely about the child (the child widow, the infant wife, and the young girl overcoming all odds to attend school). When the subject of women became a focus from the late 1970s to the present day – and she has indeed seen a lot of public attention lately – when and how has her age been a matter of concern? Consider, for instance, the ways in which violence became a springboard for women’s groups in the late 1970s. The national campaign against rape in 1980 was built around the figure of a young Adivasi girl, Mathura. Mathura was raped by constables in the very police station to which she had been brought by her brother. In their Open Letter to the Supreme Court of India asking that the case acquitting the policemen be reopened, law professors Upendra Baxi, Vasudha Dhagamwar, Raghunath Kelkar and Lotika Sarkar presented the facts of the case as follows: Mathura, a young girl of the age of 14–16, was an orphan who lived with her brother Gama, both of them labourers. Mathura developed a relationship with Ashok, the cousin of Nushi at whose house she used to work, and they decided to get married. (Baxi and others 2008: 267) In fact, it was because the brother of Mathura disapproved of her relationship and sought to bring a case against Ashok that she was brought to the police station in the first place. However, nowhere does the Open Letter 101

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dwell on the age of Mathura (although it is mentioned more than once) and she is variously referred to as a woman or a girl but never as a child. This letter was written in 1979, after the CMRA of 1978 had raised the age of marriage to 18 for girls and to 21 for boys, although the case itself had taken place in Maharashtra some years earlier. In fact, the burden of the letter is that her sexual history had no bearing whatsoever on the rape by the policemen. Nor was the rape treated as more heinous because of her age, and there was no discussion as to whether she was a minor. Does this mean that women as the subjects of a new phase of organizing for rights were given the default identity of being adult? Could this be why it is only after a new interest in the rights of the child found a place (itself a complex recent phenomenon that has emerged through international and local processes) that this in turn devolved into the current focus on early and child marriage? Pressures appear to have been created between international bodies and the Indian state, and there were further effects in the field of research as well. When we look at different disciplines and fields in the social sciences, unevenness is at its peak. Demography – with its central focus on fertility and health – not only has taken the lead in current approaches to child marriage but is providing the most extensive coverage, as we shall soon see. Sociological studies on marriage and family, explorations in the fields of sexuality, scholarship on education, and approaches to women’s work and employment that ought to be as critical for any understanding of the persistence of child marriage in contemporary India are lacking in comparison. Thus, statistical analyses today have been providing most of the insights and this has been a mixed blessing, leaving something of a vacuum at other critical levels of interpretation. There are several organizations and groups – some older and some quite recent – that, in different regions of the country, appear to be addressing early and child marriage, though in diverse ways. This chapter will examine those areas where efforts to engage with child marriage in the new millennium have been most palpable so far – law reform, state policy, and, when it comes to research, the work of demography. These are undoubtedly distinct if not disparate domains. Yet, in each of these, we can see, directly if not more indirectly, the effects of state-led and international agendas working in increasing congruence. In order to guard against misunderstanding, this is not being said in a tone of dismissal but it is being said critically. What we know at this point of time and most of what has been achieved so far are due to these efforts and interventions, from the pressure of international covenants and the desire to give more teeth to the law, to the epistemologies of large numbers. Demographic scholarship is now mining India’s data sets to tell us what kind of problem we are dealing with (often in comparison with other regions) and why child marriage should be “eliminated” or “ended” (terms that invariably figure in the titles of reports). What can we learn from such studies and where does one encounter their limits? It is through such an exploration that the question 102

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of further directions of research, the subject of the next chapter, can be more adequately staged.

Law and the girl child The sphere of the law continues to occupy a prominent place in the twentyfirst-century context, which has seen a revival of interest in early and child marriage. Chapter 1 already showed the trajectory taken by the Indian state in the legal domain: the 1978 passing of the CMRA, which legislated 18 and 21 years as the minimum ages of marriage for girls and boys respectively. The first scholarly book-length study on child marriage in contemporary India, published in 2005 by Jaya Sagade, was the outcome of her PhD research some years earlier. In a workshop on child marriage conducted in Kolkata in early 2018, Sagade recalled that when she chose this topic for her PhD there was little interest among legal scholars or feminists. The book revisits the history of legislation from the colonial period before explicitly referring to the rationale that historians like Geraldine Forbes had already remarked upon regarding the 1978 amendment. Sagade quotes from the objects and reasons of the 1978 Act as follows: The question of increasing the minimum age of marriage for males and females has been considered in the present context when there is an urgent need to check the growth of population in our country. Such an increase in the minimum age of marriage will result in lowering the total fertility rate on account of later span of married life. It will also result in more responsible parenthood and in better health of the mother and child. (cited in Sagade 2005: 46) Sagade believed that these were sufficiently important grounds (unlike the critique offered by Bhatia and Tambe discussed in Chapter 1). Sagade’s book was published just before further amendments were made to the CMRA (leading to the amended Prohibition of Child Marriage Act [PCMA] of 2006, which will be discussed shortly), and she anticipated many of the new provisions. Her main criticisms of the CMRA focussed on the mildness in its provisions for punishment, which, she contended, betrayed the lack of seriousness on the part of the state in actually tackling child marriage. Under the CMRA, punishment took the form of simple imprisonment for up to three months for bridegrooms above the age of 21 years and for guardians and those involved in conducting the marriage. The offence became cognisable for a period of one year in case anyone wished to conduct a police investigation (this came in response to reports of suicides among child brides in Gujarat) even while the marriage nonetheless remained valid. Sagade went on to ask why, after all this time, it is not 103

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possible to take what she thinks ought to be the next step, namely to declare such marriages void, if not voidable. This is not a simple question and, as we shall come to see, has been at the heart of much subsequent debate in recent years. Where Sagade’s study is particularly useful is in the chapters that address various dimensions of personal law in relation to the complex legal scenario regarding child marriage in India. According to her, the CMRA should be universally binding, such that personal laws are amended to be in consonance with it, but this has not been consistently applied in all cases. There are discrepancies in the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) when it comes to grounds for divorce, which in 1976 had been set to below the age of 15 years and hence needed to be revised to under 18. As was seen in the Ameena case in Chapter 1, Muslim personal law (MPL) has been particularly complex terrain, made more intractable by the fact that it is not codified, and is even more challenging in a growing climate of communalism. Sagade, however, adds that, unlike HMA, MPL is clear about the notion of consent since marriage is a contract and, at least from the time of puberty, would be illegal and void if performed without the consent of both parties. It has been possible to make claims that, under the MPL, puberty (sometimes said to be around 15 years) is the age at which a girl is competent to marry of her own consent without requiring the permission of parents. Below this age, a marriage might be valid but could be declared void on attaining puberty if the marriage had been contracted by a guardian other than her father or father’s father (Sagade 2005: 79). As critics are quick to point out, the age of 18 years does not find mention in the MPL, unlike in the HMA. Interestingly, in the HMA, consent is not defined positively but rather negatively – if one is of unsound mind, the marriage is voidable at the option of the other party; also, if the consent of either party to a marriage was obtained by force or fraud, the marriage would be voidable (Sagade: 77). Nowhere in the HMA has the consent of the parties to a marriage been made an essential condition. Her study points to various other lacunae in related laws, all of which add up to a lack of resolve on the part of the state to take the issue of child marriage seriously. While Sagade’s book has been called a sociolegal study of child marriage, it is not an accident that the greatest emphasis throughout is on the law. In 2006, the Indian state came out with the PCMA, which was meant to overcome constraints in the CMRA. It offered a new kind of architecture with provisions dealing with prevention, protection and the prosecution of offenders. Child marriage became both cognizable and non-bailable, and Child Marriage Prohibition Officers were to be appointed in every state to ensure protection of victims and the prosecution of offenders and to sensitize and create awareness in the community. Punishments were enhanced to up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees. A new step was to make child marriage voidable (i.e., to allow “children in the marriage to seek annulment of marriage”). The Act enables child marriage 104

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to be voidable at the option of the contracting party who was a child at the time of the marriage. If the petitioner is a minor at the time of filing the petition, it can be filed by a guardian on behalf of the minor. Such children were to be provided support, aid and rehabilitation, and children born of such marriages were considered legal and to be provided for. Anyone can report a child marriage whether before or after it has been solemnized. It has been said that knowledge about the law is largely weak or not perceived as a threat (Nanda and others 2016; Kannabiran and others 2017; Ghosh 2011a). Some commentators see a limitation in the PCMA (e.g., NCPCR and Young Lives 2017; MV Foundation 2018) because it fails to declare child marriages invalid outright. The State of Karnataka in 2017 went ahead on its own to make the PCMA void ab initio, and Haryana followed in February 2020. This issue has been a matter of dispute for some time and requires much more careful and nuanced discussion. Many believe that it is in fact better that it be left to the girl or her guardian to go in for an annulment or not, which is what the PCMA allows for. Such a position would look rather to the agency of the girl herself and her capacity to say no to child marriage. For example, Partners for Law and Development (PLD) has raised concerns about the call for criminalization and no-exception laws in relation to underage marriages, especially in cases where young people marry by choice, contending that such a move (criminalization and no-exception) will be especially harmful for girls and boys in contexts of inter-religious and inter-caste alliances (PLD n.d.).

Criminal law amendments and child marriage One indication of the kind of legal thickets that surround marriage in India is the vexed matter of whether the Indian government should have a law that makes the registration of a marriage compulsory. It is not sufficiently known that beyond the many diverse forms of authority (lay, civic and religious) which play their part in governing marriage in our context, registering a marriage itself takes quite different forms, when it happens at all. (Muslim and Christian personal law have registration built into their wedding ceremonies, but Hindu personal law does not.) In 2006, the Supreme Court directed all state governments to enact laws for the compulsory registration of marriage. Among the several reasons propounded, one was gender justice, including that such registration would be a protection from child marriage, forced marriage, trafficking in the guise of marriage, bigamy and so on. In a perceptive study, Gayatri Solanki has shown that compulsory marriage registration “remains an inadequate tool to ensure administrative uniformity, increase women’s access to legal rights, reform conjugality and secularise marriage” (Solanki 2015: 220). In particular, taking the example of the Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriage Bill 2009 (and a similar enactment in Kerala), contradictions between the law on 105

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child marriage and compulsory registration became amply evident. How, indeed, can a child marriage that is considered illegal be registered in the first place? Although Rajasthan in the end allowed that such a registration would have evidentiary value (even to enable it to be declared null and void later), Kerala, after going back and forth, decided to retain the ruling that parties have to be at least 18 and 21 years for state registration. According to Solanki, “the issue of how to successfully balance the prevention of child marriage in law with protecting the economic and legal rights of parties to child marriage remains unresolved” (Solanki 2015: 233). Recent years have seen considerable legal amendments being made, often in quick succession on a range of issues relating to child rights, child marriage, the legal age of consent for sex/sexual activity, and the criminalization of child sexual abuse. Curiously, it is whenever such laws have been amended or new ones brought into existence that different views relating to child marriage have come to the fore. In 2012, the legal age of consent for sexual activity for girls was raised from 16 to 18 years in the context of the newly created Prevention of Child Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, among whose most problematic provisions was the mandatory reporting of any sexual activity by anyone below the age of 18, regardless of whether it was consensual or not. Many groups were surprised by this particular clause. It brought out dissension between some child rights groups and several women’s groups, the latter not wishing to see consensual sex between adolescents criminalized. The much debated and publicized 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act concerning rape retained the marital rape exception clause: to not treat sexual intercourse by a man with his wife as rape unless the wife was below 15 years of age. This created a contradictory situation for women, based on their marital status. For an unmarried girl below 18 years of age, any sexual activity would be considered an assault, even if the sex was consensual. On the other hand, for a married girl aged between 15 and 18 years, non-consensual sex would not be considered a crime. Such a situation seemed to propel India right back to the colonial and nationalist views discussed in Chapter 1, where conservatives were only too ready to retain lower ages of marriage together with higher ages for non-marital sex in the years preceding the passing of the Sarda Act in 1929. In October 2017, ongoing discrepancies between different laws were addressed by the Supreme Court such that “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being 18 years, is rape” (cited by Pratiksha Baxi 2017). From a legal perspective, these amendments were seen to “harmonize” the age of consent with laws on child marriage, child sexual abuse and juvenile justice. A flurry of articles appeared in the press after the October 2017 judgement (Baxi 2017, Kumar 2017; Agnes 2017; Mehra 2017). Many of them harked back to the colonial period of legal reform, recalling the contexts of the Phulmonee case and the Sarda Act. Pratiksha Baxi saw the situation where a wife below 16 could not prosecute her husband for rape as an injustice reminiscent of the colonial period, 106

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made worse by the fact that aggravated forms of marital rape had also been excluded. She argued not only that the prevalence of child marriage today be seen as a failure of governance but that all child marriage be considered forced marriage. Krishna Kumar, in his newspaper article “Gone Girl”, concurred (Kumar 2017). Flavia Agnes, however, argued that there was considerable confusion over the role of the law in relation to child marriage and that a large part of the confusion lies precisely in the transformed context of the present time compared with the colonial period. Persisting low ages of marriage in her view were not because of “tradition” but were rather the consequence of poverty and would see an improvement with better standards of living. Agnes cited elopement cases of underage girls as well as the views of several activists who saw a class and caste bias in the way that the law was being used against child marriage (Agnes 2017). Madhu Mehra also weighed in, acknowledging the need to harmonize discrepancies in criminal law regarding non-consensual sex with a wife below the age of 18 without having to change the 2006 Prevention of Child Marriage Act discussed earlier. According to her, the 2017 Amendment should not affect the PCMA of 2006 by making any marriage below 18 illegal or, in criminal language, make all underage marriages amount to statutory rape. “The judgment, if interpreted in light of the child marriage law, would only strike at non-consensual sex with an underage wife as rape” (Mehra 2017). Mehra goes on to refer to the current “socioeconomic realities”, which, however, have hardly been subjected to any serious exploration. According to Saumya Uma, the judiciary used to adopt a flexible approach in the case of choice marriages of minor girls. Where girls are between 15 and 18 years of age, the notion of “age of discretion” (which has an older colonial history in relation to guardianship and the custody of minors) has been deployed by the courts where a case of kidnapping and abduction has been brought against the boy by the parents of the girl. Uma cites several cases involving girls under 18 who had been sent to a remand home under protective custody and where parents demanded that she be returned to them. The courts determined the wishes of the girl, granting her the agency and right to be with the husband of her choice (Uma 2012: 196–199). In one particular case in 2012 that she cites, the Delhi High Court upheld the marriage of a 15-year-old Muslim girl against the wishes of the parents and in her favour. Interestingly, this invited different responses from feminists. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan opposed the ruling, calling for the codification of MPL and arguing that it be brought in consonance with the PCMA. Indira Jaising said that such cases should be considered under constitutional provisions and not personal laws. Flavia Agnes supported the judgment and agreed with the idea of “age of discretion” against the powers of parental control (in Uma 2012: 199–200). But as Uma goes on to say, it is not as though the courts have been consistent – other cases have been dismissed outright or no allowance made for the age of the girl such that any marriage below 18 is treated as “child marriage” and hence an offence. 107

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More recently, Latika Vashist has argued that the more liberal approach towards age of discretion has not been the dominant view in Indian law courts. In particular, she notes the effects of the Amendments to the Rape law of 2013, before which age of consent was 16 years but more importantly prior to which judges had discretion in matters relating to rape sentencing. She argues that, after 2013, the changed statutory requirement leaves little room for judicial discretion in cases involving consensual sexual relations where the girl is below the age of 18. In the name of protecting young girls, the amendment has tightened the noose of sexual governance by family, community, the police, the law and the state, stripping minor girls off all sexual agency and turning young boys in consensual sexual relationships with minor girls into rapists who deserve no mercy. (Vashist 2019: 82) Drawing on nationwide consultations with organizations engaging with the PCMA in their interventions on child marriage, PLD has noted how infrequently young girls themselves have used the law in order to exit an unwanted marriage conducted against their wishes before they were of age. Indeed, the PCMA has been a tool in the hands of family members more than any other group, usually to bring back a daughter who has entered into a marriage of her consent while not yet 18 years. PLD has gone on to question the extremely counterproductive consequences of having raised the age of consent for sexual activity among young people to 18 years. In their words: The capacities for marital obligations in society and in law entail far more responsibility and are very different in nature compared to what is involved in sexual activity and exploration. The age of sexual consent is currently the same as the minimum age of marriage for girls, exposing young couples to the dangers of punitive carceral responses. This is not what the PCMA envisaged. The first and most urgent step in relation to early marriage is to reduce the age of sexual consent from 18 years. (PLD 2019: 27) We will have occasion to look into vexed questions of sexuality in Chapter 4. At this stage, I would like to say that there is something misguided in seeking stronger forms of criminalization through the law when there does not exist the necessary understanding of what is undergirding early marriages at the present time, and we are even less well informed about the actual conditions under which the situation would improve for the girls themselves. What can be said without much ambiguity is that recent 108

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amendments to the law across the board have had the effect of making equivalent sexual consent and marriage in relation to a girl’s age and that too in the twenty-first century of the Indian nation. Far too few researchers are engaging with how the PCMA is actually working in different regional contexts, especially in relation to other laws such as POCSO, where all underage sexual relations require mandatory reporting. Anecdotally, organizations that are locally active indicate quite contrasting situations, say in a state like Rajasthan with much more rigid social structures compared with West Bengal, where caste endogamy appears more flexible. What role can, for instance, the Child Protection Officers be expected to play when rumours of an underage marriage come their way? What is the future of those in the state of Karnataka who, after 2017, suddenly discover that their marriage is now invalid, thus leaving them with no recourse to any legal protections? What assurance can be given that when the law makes an underage marriage invalid, the children born of such a marriage, in a country like India, will somehow retain full legal rights? In what contexts does an awareness of the law actually make a difference?

State policy Beyond the legal sphere (which has clearly received some attention from the women’s movement, child rights activists and others), the state has been quite active in the arena of policy (but with much less public visibility or discussion). I do not know whether any direct links can be drawn between the invention of a new governmental figure that appeared in the final decade of the twentieth century and heightened concern for early marriage. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations declared 1990 to be the Year of the Girl Child. Not unlike what transpired with the International Year of Women in 1975, SAARC then went on to extend the time frame and to pledge the period up to 2000 as the decade of the girl child. One way of gauging the agendas of this period is through the kinds of researches that came to be sponsored. The then–Department of Women and Child Development under the Ministry of Human Resource Development set up a central coordination committee across 22 women’s studies centres in the country in the mode of a national project that hoped to provide a common picture about the condition of the girl child in India. This larger project did not materialize in published form. However, the West Bengal study did get published (Bagchi, Guha and Sengupta 1997). Based on a survey and case studies, the book Loved and Unloved: The Girl Child in the Family concentrated on the socioeconomic status of girl children and their mothers in both rural and urban contexts along a range of parameters – health, education, work and so on. Children from the age group of six to 18 years from 600 households were surveyed. What is extremely telling is that in all the data presented, their marital status is not 109

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a topic of discussion, even though there are indications (when menstruation is being explored, for instance) that some of the girls were already married. (It should be noted that West Bengal is among those states with the highest rates of early marriage.) The overarching findings focussed on the kinds of biases mothers and frequently the girls themselves evinced, often cutting across class and caste, even though many mothers at the same time wanted their daughters to have better futures. Early marriage is not absent but is more in the nature of an unaddressed element in this West Bengal story of the girl child “pre-conditioned to see herself as a sojourner in her parents’ home. She is told from childhood that her husband’s house is her true home and that she will be married as soon as she grows up” (Bagchi and others 1997: 206). One issue in particular did take precedence as the decade of the girl child wound to a close, but it was not child marriage. Against the backdrop of prior studies about “the endangered sex” came startling discoveries of practices of female infanticide in certain districts within the states of Tamil Nadu and Bihar in the 1980s and soon thereafter the rise of what was first called female foeticide and later gender-biased sex selection. Already in 1990 Amartya Sen made headlines with his essay “One hundred million women are missing” (Sen 1990). The figure of the woman decidedly gave way to that of the little girl, pre-pubertal, invariably depicted and iconized with pig tails and in school uniform. Indeed, the girl child has become most closely identified with efforts to address “missing women”, now uniformly referred to as missing girls, whether due to excess female child mortality or pre-birth sex selection. Other policy interventions may have more actively focussed on child marriage, whether in the realm of population, women, children and youth. In one study on child marriage, as many as 96 policies and schemes were identified across the country which have some bearing on early marriage (Srinivasan and others 2015). The better-known ones include the National Population Policy 2000, the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women 2001, the National Youth Policy 2003 and its more recent version in 2014, the National Plan of Action for Children 2005, the National Policy for Children 2013, and the National Plan of Action for Children (NPAC) 2016. In several of them, the elimination or abolition of child marriage is listed as an aim. The NPAC 2016 said that it would reduce the prevalence of child marriage to 15 % by 2021. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Women and Child Development drafted a National Strategy Document on the Prevention of Child Marriage in 2013. It provides broad guidance to state and district governments to help them shape their interventions to end child marriage. It adopts a holistic and ecological model and envisions a comprehensive approach to child marriage involving partnerships within and between the Centre, State, voluntary organizations, families and children/adolescents themselves. 110

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This document outlines strategic directions to prevent child marriage under each thematic area including law enforcement, access to quality education and other opportunities, changing mind-sets and social norms, empowerment of adolescents, knowledge and data management and development of indicators that can be monitored. These need to be implemented by various stake holders including the central government, state governments, local self-governments, civil society and nongovernmental organizations using convergent and multi-dimensional approaches. (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2013 cited in NCPCR and Young Lives 2017) However, for reasons not mentioned but which in all likelihood have to do with the change in government with the 2014 national elections, the policy has yet to be finalized and enter the public domain. Among the many schemes that have been launched both at the central and state level, some of which address the needs of adolescent girls, are conditional cash transfer (CCT) schemes for the girl child. These are basically variations of the Girl Child Protection Scheme first launched in 1992 by the Tamil Nadu government under the Chief Ministership of Jayalalitha in the face of the re-emergence of female infanticide during the 1980s. In these schemes, at various stages in the life of a daughter, beginning with her birth registration, certain amounts of money are put into a state fund in her name. If she completes school and remains unmarried at the age of 18, a lump sum would be received by the girl. With names such as Apni Beti Apni Dhan, Dhanalaxmi, Ladli, and so on, such schemes were invariably burdened with various conditionalities and eligibility criteria and came to be popularly known as dahej or dowry schemes. Many were begun only to be dropped some years down the line; there was the possibility of a new one being brought in both at the central and state levels. Curiously, reviews have shown a scrambling in the very purpose of these schemes (Sekher 2012, Nanda and others 2016). Initially envisaged as an intervention to prevent child marriage or delay marriage until 18, they became known as schemes meant to address the missing girl child and to encourage families not to go in for sex-selective abortions. Various state governments – such as Kanyashree and Rajshree in West Bengal, Kalyan Lakshmi and Shaadi Mubarak in Telengana, Chandranna Pelli Kanuka in Andhra Pradesh and Rajashree in Rajasthan – have started yet another slew of fresh CCT schemes with a clear and explicit focus to delay the age of marriage to 18 years for girls. Notice that the very names of these schemes connote marriage rather than the “daughter” more common before. In a perceptive study conducted in 2018 in select villages in Telengana and Andhra four years after the establishment of schemes in Telengana and only a few months into its beginning in Andhra, U. Vindhya, Nilanjana Ray and Ujithra Ponniah brought out various dimensions of CCTs that echo 111

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prior studies (Vindhya and others 2019). It should be noted that these schemes have very quickly become quite well known and even popular, especially in the case of Telengana, where a sum of Rs 100,000 would be paid to the girl’s mother (from financially poor families) upon demonstrating through documentary proof that the marriage had not taken place before the age of 18 years. (However, just how proof of age and age at marriage could be unambiguously determined where registration is so low or open to manipulation is another problem that this study acknowledged.) Vindhya and her co-researchers were in no doubt that the scheme has found beneficiaries. However, it was not so clear whether it is actually addressing child marriage and, even less, whether it is changing perceptions of gender. As they conclude: The perception that the CCT scheme is for rendering financial assistance for marriage expenditure to poor families seems to be more predominant and primary rather than it being viewed as a measure to curb child marriage. Furthermore, the promise of money appears on the surface to increase the value of women, but seems to be also associated with negative fallouts such as reinforcing dowry and marriage expenses being borne by the bride’s family. If early marriage of girls is considered as a gender disempowering phenomenon, then provision of financial assistance by the state seems to be primarily addressing poverty alleviation and not gender inequality. (Vindhya and others 2019: 63) The overall picture that emerges from this range of policy responses at the level of the state is therefore one that is fitful and at times somewhat confusing. A plethora of policies and attendant schemes can be identified, but they are often short-lived and have agendas that appear to slide in and out. In particular, what needs more exploration is how policies themselves are made to address rather different problems in the course of their creation and deployment, such as those related to the adverse sex ratio and early marriage. Even where reducing child marriage is the clear aim, there are few signs that the attitude towards the girl has changed. One might in fact be tempted to ask whether an unintended fallout of such schemes is to underscore that girls are indeed a burden, lacking in value, for whom therefore financial compensation is required. Least of all, I might add, has marriage as an institution come into the picture in any way. In fact, in the study by Vindhya and her colleagues just cited, young girls themselves were found to have developed a greater interest in their marriage, what with money now coming their way thanks to their very own “elder brother” (anna in Telugu) the Chief Minister! Policies that directly address child marriage have therefore had the effect of reinforcing the idea that girls lack value and equally that a girl’s future lies in her marriage. Notice therefore that both at the level of recent 112

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amendments to the law and in the directions taken by policy, it is marriage at 18 that is being reinforced and regulated. Indeed, there may be an even larger problem with the way in which CCT schemes emphasize 18 years as the “right” age at marriage, let alone “rewarding” the family at the time of marriage itself. Why should any scheme for the empowerment of girls be tied to her marriage? Why not shift attention to her education instead, fully subsidizing girls from secondary schooling to higher education without marriage being in the frame in the first place? There are indications that the government of Rajasthan is considering such a move (Shobhana Boyle, personal communication, June 2020). We have already seen how, in her study of child marriage, Jaya Sagade castigated the law machinery of the Indian state for not challenging the basic validity of child marriage below the age of 18. She argued that there are several international human rights instruments that are sufficient to do so and also that there is enough social science data to make a case. Her book relied largely on epidemiological research findings available to her at the time, which were overwhelmingly about the negative impact on a girl’s reproductive health if she were to have children below the age of 18. Sagade added that to the extent that such information is limited within India, the experience of other countries on the ill effects of child marriage could be brought to the notice of the court (Sagade 2005: 95). These kinds of arguments – that is, the strong focus on international covenants and furthermore to an international literature – appear to be quite characteristic of the twenty-first-century moment in India that has seen fresh attention being paid to early and child marriage.

Demography in an international frame The new visibility around early and child marriage in India today has much to do with international demands of various kinds, including United Nations (UN)-led conventions. October 2013 saw the first ever resolutions on child, early and forced marriage adopted at the UN Human Rights Council. A follow-up resolution at the UN General Assembly in 2014 called for the elimination of child, early and forced marriage as part of the post2015 development agenda. Interestingly, even though India rejected this resolution and refused to sign, different kinds of interventions have since emerged. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of 2016 have a section that deals with gender discrimination and inequality; section 5.3 is devoted to child marriage. (The other sub-sections being on domestic and sexual violence, female genital cutting, women’s unpaid care work, reproductive health, and women’s representation in parliaments and managerial positions.) India has agreed to the SDGs and they figure on certain governmental websites such as that of the Niti Aayog. The UN Secretary General now has to report on an annual basis as to what advances have been made


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in order that the goal of elimination be reached by 2030. This is what was reported in 2017: Child marriage is declining, but not fast enough. Around 2000, nearly 1 in 3 women between 20 and 24 years of age reported that they were married before 18 years of age. Around 2015, the ratio was just over 1 in 4. The decline is driven by an even steeper reduction in the marriage rate among girls under 15 years of age during that period. (Source: Report of the Secretary-General, “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals”, E/2017/66), Secretary General (2017) One of the early major documents to set the tone for subsequent reports was that produced by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2005, called Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice. (All subsequent documents by UNICEF have dropped early marriage and only use child marriage as their terminology.) It begins as follows: Marriage before the age of 18 is a reality for many young women. In many parts of the world parents encourage the marriage of their daughters while they are still children in hopes that the marriage will benefit them both financially and socially, while also relieving financial burdens on the family. In actuality, child marriage is a violation of human rights, compromising the development of girls and often resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. (UNICEF 2005: 1) The document went on to declare that since children are not able to provide free and full consent as per the understanding of the Declaration of Human Rights, child marriages cannot have legal effect. The main section of the report offered statistical analyses from across the globe to provide a picture of trends, including links with fertility, contraceptive use, spousal age difference, polygyny and violence. Maps, graphs and tables compared a range of countries; India invariably figured at the higher end, and only Bangladesh and several African nations (such as Chad, Niger, Mali etc.) had higher rates of child marriage. In 2012, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published their report Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage (2012). Like the UNICEF report just discussed, this too was a compendium drawn from health surveys from countries where such data were available, in a frame that saw child marriage as both a violation and a deterrent to development. Considerable focus was placed on the large numbers and to some extent on disparities and inequalities. The concluding chapter rang alarm bells by 114

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offering a forecast for the future based on population growth trends. In a section called “No Time to Lose”, the report concluded as follows: The majority of girls affected by child marriage are living in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. …Over a 20-year period (2010–2030), a total of 130 million girls in South Asia alone are likely to marry or enter into union as children. This analysis is based on trends in the population dynamics from the past 15 years and assumes no change in the prevalence of child marriage estimated for 2010 through to 2030. The implications are staggering, and demand swift action. First, strong commitment is needed from all parties to eliminate the practice of child marriage. Even at lower rates, the absolute number of girls likely to marry before age 18 will remain high as a result of population growth. Extra efforts will therefore be required to sustain the reduction in the total number of girls affected by child marriage. Second, even under the best possible scenario, it should be assumed that some girls will marry before age 18. This will demand action on an array of issues around sexual and reproductive health for which societies, governments and communities in particular, should be prepared. (UNFPA 2012: 45) In 2014, UNICEF brought out an eight-page document, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects, which has been frequently cited since (UNICEF 2014). A pie chart highlighted that almost half of all child brides worldwide reside in South Asia and one third in India (Southeast Asia and the Pacific contributing another 25%). Much smaller proportions reside in several African nations, South America and the Caribbean. India is the only country to find individual mention and contributes by far the most numbers of any country. It too concluded with prognoses for the future while offering different scenarios based on a range of possible rates of decline in child marriage in future years. According to its estimates right up to the year 2050, differential population growth and possible accelerated rates of decline could result in relative shifts from South Asia to a situation where sub-Saharan Africa has the largest proportion and numbers of child brides (UNICEF 2014: 7). Notice how these reports amalgamate what are actually quite distinct issues: Marrying below 18 is invariably first announced as a human rights violation and an absolute right that does not allow any room for consent below that age. This is usually followed by saying that while parents may think that an early marriage for their daughter is a good thing, their beliefs are wrong. Topping the list of what is wrong are fertility and health consequences in marrying below 18. Even these are quite different. A higher level of fertility is not in and of itself a harmful practice for a particular mother – rather it is part and parcel of “populationism”, the belief that the excessive number of people on the planet is the primary cause of a host of global ills. 115

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This belief, coupled with all kinds of dire predictions, has carried enormous power since Malthus and then Ehrlich’s “population bomb”, and the UN reports discussed above are clearly reviving this fear in a major way. Africa and South Asia are primary danger zones. (It is another matter that European and white populations are currently worried about the opposite phenomenon: too few births and the negative consequences of population decline.) Unlike the notion of an absolute right which must be equally honoured whether the child in question is an infant, ten years old, 15 or 17, the health implications of a pregnancy do not carry absolute consequences – these health implications not only vary by age but are equally affected by a host of other factors (as we saw in Chapter 2), notably how well nourished the mother is and the kind of ante-natal care available. Finally, the idea that an early marriage in and of itself robs the child of education and employment opportunities (as will be discussed at length in Chapter 4) does not automatically hold and depends on much else. What are the latest figures when it comes to early and child marriage? Table 3.1 draws from UNICEF’s global database as of February 2020, which is annually updated from sources around the world. I have focussed on India and its major neighbouring countries for which data are available (China reports no child marriage) and some regional summaries. The data for India are those of the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) of 2015–16 (which will be discussed in greater detail later). Notice the variation in Table 3.1 in rates for marriage below 18 years from Afghanistan in the West to Bangladesh and Myanmar in the East. Both Bangladesh and Nepal – going by the kind of data sets available – have higher rates than India, and Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly lower. Sri Lanka, a country which in any case has much better social and economic indicators than the rest of South Asia, has the lowest in the region. For all countries, marriages below age 15 years are minimal, as is marriage for boys below 18 years. A major collaborative study between the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW 2013) and the World Bank (with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) has ventured into estimating the “economic costs of child marriage”, which they openly say needs to be considered beyond standard concerns of gender inequality. (See, amongst several publications brought out by the World Bank, Quentin Wodon T. and Ali Yedan 2017, Quentin Wodon, Chata Male and others 2017.) The study covered 19 countries and included Nepal and Bangladesh but not India. These were their conclusions: By far, the greatest costs were due to greater fertility with lower ages at marriage. If “child marriage and early child bearing were eliminated completely, the benefits that would accrue by 2030, simply from the reduction in population growth, would exceed USD 5 trillion” (Wodon and Yedan 2017: 8). Much of this would come from budgetary savings with less pressure to provide a range of public services to fewer children and their mothers. Compare this with their findings in relation to 116

Table 3.1  Proportions in the age group of 20–24 years marrying below 15 and below 18 years, select countries, UNICEF Women Married before 15



Married before 18

Ref. year

Data source

Married before 18

Ref. year

Data source

Col. 4 2014 2016 2017 2016 2010 2018 2015 2016

Col. 5

Col. 6

Col. 8

DHS 2014 DHS 2016 ALCS 2016–17 NFHS 2015–16 MICS 2010 DHS 2017–18 DHS 2015 DHS 2016

4 10 7 4

Col. 7 2011 2016 2015 2016 2018 2015

DHS 2017–18 DHS 2015

Col. 1

Col. 2

Col. 3

Bangladesh Nepal Afghanistan India Bhutan Pakistan Myanmar Sri Lanka World Regions (arranged in order of Col. 3) West & Central Africa Least Developed Countries Sub-Saharan Africa Eastern & Southern Africa South Asia Middle East & North Africa East Asia & Pacific World

22 7 4 7 6 4 2 1

59 40 28 27 26 18 16 10

13 12 11 9 8 3 1 5

39 38 35 31 29 17 8 20

5 5 --

DHS 2011 DHS 2016 DHS 2015 NFHS 2015–16

4 6 4 5 4 − − −

Indicator definitions: Percentage of women ages 20–24 years who were first married or in union before ages 15 and 18. Percentage of men ages 20–24 years who were first married or in union before age 18. Percentage of women married before ages 15 and 18 and percentage of men married before age 18. Source: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) global databases, 2020, based on Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and other nationally representative surveys. ALCS, Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey; NFHS, National Family Health Survey.

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South Asian Countries (arranged in order of Col. 3)

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women’s decision-making power: Here they were unable “to make definitive conclusions about the impact of child marriage on women’s agency” (Wodon, Male and others 2017: 6). Nonetheless, this did not prevent them from adding that should a lack of decision making lead to higher fertility, the economic impact would indeed be substantial. This is the kind of international staging that appears to have set in motion several responses in India.

Measuring early and child marriage in India By virtue of the dominant role being played by demographic scholarship and statistical analyses in the present Indian context, this chapter pays detailed attention to the various requirements for such research. Unlike in countries such as the US and China, looked at in Chapter 2, here it is big numbers that are doing almost all the talking, so to speak. How should we look at this – as I asked earlier on, what is there to learn, and where do the limits lie? In the welter of statistical reports on early and child marriage that have been coming out in very recent years, it is imperative to begin by asking about the nature of the data and the data sources available. One of the first questions one would have expected to see explored in current studies is the issue of age itself, but curiously this is not much discussed. Chapters 1 and 2 provided a historical context for thinking about the emergence of age rather than stages of life as a guiding concept in modern societies, and the Indian colonial context has witnessed a protracted contest over the age of the child wife. How would conceptions of the significance of, say, knowing how old one is, when one was born and when one was married translate into reporting age to enumerators collecting data, and how much has changed in more contemporary times? This has been a subject of some reflection in relation to the history of the Indian census during the colonial period, where data on age threw up several peculiar patterns compared with “normal distributions”, which in turn led to conjectures of various kinds. Thomas Alborn has discussed a situation where many did not know their age and Brahmans in particular did not wish their age to be known and where there were implausible spikes among adolescents and the elderly (Alborn 1999). Consider how much more complex all this might become when one is dealing with reporting on age at marriage during the course of the twentieth century when legal ages of marriage underwent major transformations. Figure 3.1 prepared by Christophe Z. Guilmoto presents data on the absolute number of married women in India in the most recent census (2011) by reported ages. Notice the almost threefold jump in the reported number of married women from age 17 to 18 years. This could be interpreted in more than one way – families might well be waiting for their daughters to reach the legally permissible age of 18 before solemnizing a marriage, or there could be some degree of more deliberate misreporting as well. Notice also that ages like 20 and 25 118

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Figure 3.1  Absolute numbers of married women in India by age, census 2011.

(multiples of 5) show unusually high numbers, which is indicative of not knowing one’s exact age in the first place. According to R.B. Bhagat (Bhagat 2016), directly asking respondents about their age at marriage suffers from several shortcomings – there may be a recall lapse, especially in the absence of marriage registration as well as birth registration. In such situations, people have what are called digit preferences (such as 10, 20 or 30). Among older cohorts mortality may affect the count and among young cohorts there is what is called the truncation effect since, even if unmarried at the time of the survey, they may well marry soon thereafter. He has therefore followed a method attributed to the demographer John Hajnal, called the indirect method, whereby the proportion of single women at different ages is used to determine the singulate mean age at marriage (SMAM). (See Bhagat 2016: 4 for more details.) Other authors simply work with different measures of average, such as mean or median ages of marriage. Figure 3.2 (adapted from Bhagat 2016) depicts SMAMs over the course of more than a century based on the census. It shows a noteworthy dip in 119

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Figure 3.2  Trends in singulate mean age at marriage for women, census 1901–2011.

1931 attributed to the effect of the Sarda Act of 1929, which raised the age of marriage to 14 years for girls and led to a rush of early marriages before the law took effect. Otherwise, the picture appears to be one of a steady increase in the SMAM by over 7 years from 13.1 years in 1901 to 20.8 years in 2011. This is not explained further – one is left to surmise that this upward creep is due to what the literature likes to call the forces of modernization. Mean ages at marriage, however, are too broad to be of much use when it is the proportion of those who marry at very young ages that is at issue since we do not know how much dispersion there is. Age at marriage and patterns of child marriage are measured in different ways according to the possibilities and limitations of different data sources, on the one hand, and the pressure to conform to international standards of measurement, on the other. Some reports refer to the incidence of early or child marriage, whereas others speak of its prevalence. These terms actually derive from the medical study of epidemiology (disease), where incidence refers to the number of fresh cases in a given period whereas prevalence refers to all cases at a given point in time, whether old or new. One may wonder whether this terminology is the most apt for measuring rates of marriage. One report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Young Lives (NCPCR 2017) has taken the route of trying to use the incidence of child marriage, which they have defined as the number of ever-married persons who were married before attaining the legal age of marriage (18 years in the case of girls and 21 years in the case of boys) among the total population of that particular age group. Different age 120

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groups can be considered here. Their effort at capturing incidence boils down to a way of assessing more recent trends and does not conform to the epidemiological definition. In countries like India with an older history of very early marriage, one can argue that it is important to look at some kind of measure of child marriage across different age groups that are well below the legal age of marriage. Changing trends among different age groups might provide clues about how notions of childhood and adolescence are undergoing certain developments of their own. Most other reports, however, follow the nomenclature of prevalence, which also bears little relation to the epidemiological definition. The most widespread use of the term prevalence is the one calculated as the percentage of persons who are married before the age of 18 in the age group of 20–24 for girls and before the age of 21 years among the age group of 25–29 for boys (making allowances for the different legal ages of marriage for boys and girls in the Indian context). One of the much-cited advantages of this particular measure of prevalence is that it is retrospective. In other words, it is able to overcome the problem of truncation (mentioned earlier), where attempts to measure incidence among very young cohorts at a particular point in time could lead to significant levels of undercounting. It also has the advantage of dealing with age groups of men and women who are within the legal ages of marriage and who therefore do not have to admit to a currently illegal act. At the international level, the definition of child marriage follows the UN definition where a child is defined as “every human being below the age of 18 years”. The rate of prevalence of child marriage as per the UN definition is the proportion of those married before the age of 18 among women (or men) in the age group of 20–24 years. The numerator is therefore the number of women married below the age of 18 who are currently in the age group of 20–24, and the denominator would be the total number of women in the age group of 20–24. An alternative measure in India in relation to the census has been to look at the number of women married below the age of 18 years in the last four years prior to the census (Goli 2016; Sanjay Kumar 2016). Before venturing further into the pros and cons of alternate kinds of measurement, what needs to be brought into the picture are the kinds of data sets available in India. The situation is made more complicated because of differences in these sources of data, their modes of presentation and their sample size.

India’s data sets and their possibilities Population census Census data by their very nature give a picture drawn from every individual constituting the Indian population, so that they would be the first source for absolute numbers of all kinds, including for marriage and child marriage. 121

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(It would also be drawn upon when other data sets based on representative sampling would need to come up with population estimates of their own.) The census comes out at regular intervals of every ten years. This makes it possible to provide trend analyses on marriage over time and at disaggregated levels, down to the district level. In the household questionnaires of the census, four categories of data are collected for each individual which relate to age at marriage. These are: 1. Date of birth 2. Current age 3. Current marital status, which is available across the categories of never married; currently married; widowed; separated and/or divorced 4. Age at marriage (since the 1971 Census) Census data provide the possibility of looking at different age groups from very young ages and working out the proportion of those married before the legal age of marriage, apart from calculating the mean age at marriage across age groups. Since 2001 and 2011, the census has been providing much more detailed information on age at marriage at the district level in the C series. There are tables correlating age at marriage with education or category of economic activity. But the age groups are both large and of the order 10–19 years, which means that it is not possible to isolate those below 18 years. A very different issue is that since the census does not provide unit-level data (as a corollary of the constitutional mandate to protect the anonymity of individual members of the population), the possibility of analysis is limited by the data that it publishes at different levels of aggregation. So, for instance, while it is possible to get information on, say, sex ratios at village or ward levels, marriage data are available only from the district level and above. It is not possible to measure prevalence as defined internationally from census data. Nonetheless, as we shall see, some continue to argue in its favour and for obvious reasons given its coverage of the entire population of the country (NCPCR 2017; Kumar 2016). The ActionAid study conducted by Srinivas Goli (2016) used Census 2011 data to compile district-level maps (urban and rural) of those married by 15 years and below 18 years, in the last four years prior to the census. National Family Health Survey The NFHS is among the most important data sources on demographic and health-related issues and also collects detailed data on marriage variables. The NFHS has completed four survey rounds as of 2015–16 and has covered all existing states at the time of the survey. The NFHS is a representative sample survey that was carried out in the years 1992–93, 1998–99, 2005–06 and 2015–16 in the age group of 15–49 years. There have been modifications over successive rounds (e.g., in the first two rounds only 122

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ever-married women were eligible, and since NFHS 3 a sample of men has been included). In the most recent round of 2015–16, the sample size was expanded over fivefold (from 124,385 women in NFHS 3 to 699,686 women in NFHS 4) to enable district-level analysis. Detailed data are published at the state level, while raw data of all rounds can be used for further analysis and research. NFHS-4 included, in addition to the 29 states, all six union territories for the first time and also provided estimates of most indicators at the district level. The NFHS offers detailed information on age, marital status and age at marriage, which can be cross-classified by various social background characteristics such as religious group, caste and poverty/wealth indicators based on asset ownership, and education. (See Table 3.4 for the latest data.) Prevalence data of early marriage can be calculated using the raw data of the NFHS and hence they are commonly used in several studies both in India and internationally. The global standard of measuring prevalence in terms of all those who are currently 20–24 years old and who were married before the age of 18 is frequently drawn from the NFHS (e.g., Goli 2016; NCPCR and Young Lives 2018; the UNICEF global database drawn upon for Table 3.1). Two limitations have been identified in relation to NFHS: size of the sample when it comes to district-level information and the irregular intervals in conducting successive surveys. A further limitation should be added: not all its questions are posed to the entire sample. In the course of my own research using NFHS 4, I discovered that only 15% of the sample is drawn upon for questions relating to women’s occupational status. This is an indication of how relatively unimportant women’s work and employment are taken to be when it comes to women’s health and family-related data. Data on violence suffer from a similar shortcoming. Yet another issue – and this is not confined to NFHS but pertains to many data sources – concerns the capacity to make correlations between factors. Association between level of education and age at marriage, for instance, tells us absolutely nothing about the direction of causation. NFHS only asks about mean years of schooling and educational attainments from its respondents, so that no conclusions can be drawn about the relationship between the two. In a very recent special issue of Economic and Political Weekly devoted to NFHS 4, some concerns were raised regarding the increased number of questions in the survey and the growing resort to commercial agencies for data collection (Srinivasan and Mishra 2020). Be that as it may, the NFHS is set to become the standard source of health-related data for the country, and preparations began in 2019 for NFHS 5. District-Level Household Survey District-Level Household Surveys (DLHSs) were representative surveys conducted at the district level and measured demographics, health, and nutrition status. Four rounds of the survey have been carried out: 1998–99 123

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(DLHS-1), 2002–04 (DLHS-2), 2007–08 (DLHS-3) and 2011–12 (DLHS4). The DLHS has many similarities with the NFHS, although the detailed survey covers only women. Unlike the initial rounds of the NFHS, it was devised precisely for district-level analysis. The number of households and women covered in successive rounds of the survey has varied. Data are published at the state level (with rural/urban differentials), and raw data are available for further analysis and research. Although it has collected its data during a reference period which would allow for the calculation of incidence rates from one period to the next, the DLHS has been stopped as of its last round in 2011–12. A few studies on child marriage have drawn from these data (e.g., Srinivasan and others 2015). It is now the NFHS that will be the main source of analysis for health-related data, including at the district level. The Indian Human Development Survey The Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) is a multi-topic survey that collects statistics on current age, marriage status, and age at marriage of all the household members and is conducted by the National Centre of Applied Economic Research. The first round of the survey in 2004–05 covered 41,554 households in 1,503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods across India and has collected data on a wide range of themes. The second round of the IHDS re-interviewed most of these households in 2011–12. The large coverage of issues allows analysis of associations across a range of social and economic conditions, more so than with the NFHS, but not below the state level. Since most households were re-interviewed after a period, statistics on incidence of child marriage could be calculated after required standardization. The third round of the IHDS was initiated in 2019. State-level analyses such as those by Desai and Andrist (2010), Desai and Vanneman (2016) (discussed in Chapter 4) and Allendorf and Pandian (2016) have been based on this data set. National Sample Survey The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has been one of the most significant sources of national data other than the census in the Indian context. It has large sample rounds conducted every five years and smaller annual sample rounds, sometimes on special topics such as education, employment or migration. It is the data source for calculating India’s poverty line based on consumption expenditure data, and it has also been a common source for analysing work participation rates. Indeed, some of the most significant changing trends in female work participation rates have been determined using various NSS rounds. It is from the NSS that recent declines in such work participation rates have been foregrounded by scholars, including the Periodic Labour Survey of 2016–17 (initially suppressed by the government), which will be discussed in the next chapter. However, NSS is fairly limited 124

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when it comes to marriage data. Data on marital status are available from early rounds, where the marital status of each household member is recorded as never married, currently married, and widowed/divorced/separated. Unit data in NSSO also make it possible to get marital status across various age groups. Comparable data are available from the 38th round of the NSS which can be used to get the percentage of women/girls and men/boys who are married across their current age and for rural and urban areas, which can be further disaggregated by household and individual characteristics such as per-capita household expenditure, land ownership, household size, religion, caste/tribe, education, occupation and employment status. However, without any data on age at marriage (i.e., without knowing when the respondents got married), this kind of information is unfortunately of limited use. These kinds of data sets offer possibilities and also set limitations to what can be measured when it comes to child marriage. As already mentioned, collecting data on marriage and age at marriage is difficult to do. There can be misreporting, under-reporting and so on, although it is hard to surmise whether there would be more under-reporting at very young ages compared with ages closer to the legal age. The strength of the census is that it would be the most reliable source at the district level and for different age groups, even if it does not provide the measure of prevalence that has become the international standard. Neither can it provide incidence rates of early marriage if by that is meant a clear picture of new cases relative to the previous census. The NFHS has been coming out at irregular intervals, so that while it does provide prevalence data based on the international definition, we have to contend with the absence of regular data over time. The most recent NFHS 4 has massively expanded its sample size to make its district-level data more robust, but this is not the case for previous rounds. But even with NFHS 4, there may be a problem with the size of the sample when it comes to measuring something like child marriage, which would not be evenly distributed across households. On the other hand, the NFHS offers some variables for analysis, including at unit level, while highly prized census data, such as its occupational categories, come out very late. (Detailed occupational data have not even been published for Census 2001.)

Select statistical reports on child marriage Apart from UNICEF and UNFPA, a whole range of organizations have brought out or commissioned reports on child marriage in recent years: the Population Council, the ICRW, Plan Asia, the Planning Commission, the NCPCR, ActionAid, the World Bank, among others, along with a few individually authored studies (e.g., Bhagat 2016; Desai and Andrist 2010; Sanjay Kumar 2016, 2020). A small number of regional studies have also emerged (e.g., Chakravarty 2018; Kannabiran and others 2017). With very few exceptions (e.g., Nirantar Trust 2015; Ghosh 2011a, 2011b, 2011c; Sen and Ghosh forthcoming), the approach is demographic and statistical. 125

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National reports such as those by the ICRW, ActionAid, and the NCPCR tend to have similar overall structures even if they present their data and arguments differently. What can be confusing is that it is not obvious what exactly their statistical findings are or what inferences are being drawn from other studies. Some have discussed causes for early marriage (drawing from other studies, which are often micro-level studies or studies from other countries altogether) even before presenting their own findings. Others begin with statistical pictures of prevalence (or incidence) before moving on to correlations with different socioeconomic characteristics and then further to probable causes and consequences. Reports draw from different databases and quite often from more than one, depending on what was available at the time of its preparation. Thus, the ICRW report by Padmavathi Srinivasan, Nizamuddin Khan, Ravi Verma, and others titled District-level study on child marriage in India: What do we know about the prevalence, trends and patterns?, conducted in association with UNICEF (Srinivasan and others 2015), draws mainly from the DLHS 3 of 2007–08, supplemented by Census 2001 and 2011. This report worked with prevalence data measured in the standard way as the proportion of women in the 20- to 24-year age group who have married before 18 years. The ActionAid report Eliminating Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects by Srinivas Goli (2016) is based on the census, along with supplementary data from the IHDS and the NFHS. Some of its analysis is based on a simple measure of the proportion of all those married before age 18 years, while using the prevalence measure for other data sources where feasible. Another major study, by Young Lives and the NCPCR, undertaken in 2017, argued for the exclusive use of census data and came up with their concept of incidence of early marriage across different age groups. In November 2018, they brought out another much shorter study based on the initial unit-level data of NFHS 4 (NCPCR 2018). So the obvious question here would be, are there any significant differences in these reports, whether in terms of their data sources or their modes of analyses? There is, indeed, considerable overlap and convergence, even when not explicitly stated. Since several of these reports came out around the same time, they hardly refer to one another. Each one of them begins from the surmise that there has not been sufficient analysis of existing data sets, especially at the state and district levels. The ActionAid study used absolute numbers to show firstly that India is way ahead: According to Census 2011, India has a total of over 100 million persons who married below the age of 18 (regardless of their current age); Bangladesh is a distant second at under 30 million. Eighty-five percent are girls. One hundred million in India in the entire population as of 2011 would therefore be something of a stock figure. The same study also showed that seven states – Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – had the highest proportional shares (in that order), which is obviously affected by their respective population sizes. 126

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The ICRW report, the ActionAid study and the essay by Sanjay Kumar offer district-level maps of India based on their respective sources of data. The district map of the ICRW study was based on DLHS data 2007–08 and the prevalence of under 18 in the age group of 20–24 years among women. It displays considerable variation across the country, including significant contrasts within a particular state, and there is a high prevalence of clustering in the east, west and south. Such clustering is equally evident in the ActionAid study, which uses census data based on the number of those who have married under the age of 18 in the last four years since the time of the census (i.e., during the period 2007–11). A new map in Figure 3.3 has been prepared for the present chapter using the same district-level data, disaggregated by

Figure 3.3  District-wise Percentages of all Women Married below 18 years in the Period 2007–11, Census 2011(S. Goli and Md. Juel Rana).


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different class proportions for all girls (rural and urban) based on Census 2011. Notice that the variations as measured district-wise do not correspond neatly to state boundaries. The ActionAid study also gives other maps for those married by age 15, and all maps are disaggregated by urban and rural location. Although there is still some clustering in each of these maps, the proportions drop sharply for those who have married by 15 years (the average being just 3.1%) compared with the all-India average of 17.2% for those below the age of 18 years in Census 2011. Urban locations drop even further. The IHDS 2011–12 data set for those in the 20- to 24-year age group yields higher proportions, but here too the difference between those marrying by age 15 years (6.6%) and below 18 (36.2%) is huge (Desai and Vanneman 2016). What makes district-wise disaggregation important rather than simply remaining with state-level figures is that several districts become visible for their higher proportions of early marriage in states with overall low average prevalence (such as certain districts in Gujarat in the West, Arunachal Pradesh in the Northeast or Karnataka in the South). The authors of the ICRW report were particularly surprised to find southern districts being included, given the overall pattern of better social indicators among southern states, including those pertaining to gender. Sanjay Kumar (2016) has been particularly concerned in his article to measure the decline in child marriage, which has been very significant in recent decades – whether this be measured from Census 2001 to 2011 or the NFHS rounds 3 (2005–06) and round 4 (2015–16). The declines range from 21% to 50% over a decade across all states. But there are differences as well: in the Census 2011 estimate, Rajasthan has the highest rates; for NFHS 2015–16, the initial published results placed West Bengal in the highest position. (This has since been corrected with revised data to Bihar, closely followed by Bengal.) Sanjay Kumar’s main worry, however, has to do with limitations in the sample size in the NFHS at the district level and whether this has repercussions for actual differences in the shares of higherand lower-prevalence districts in both these data sets. The 2017 report on Child Marriage by Young Lives for the NCPCR stands apart from the rest because of the way it has chosen to use a certain notion of incidence of child marriage, based entirely on Census 2011. It is not clear how incidence is being defined, and probably the term should not have been used in the first place. For instance, incidence figures are initially introduced according to the following definition: percentage of ever-married girls currently below the age of 18 and of boys below the age of 21, which at the national level are 1.32% for girls and 1.9 % for boys. The reason for these small percentages is that the denominator is the entire population. So it could certainly be asked how useful such figures are. At the same time, one might compare the NCPCR absolute figure of 5 million married girls who were below the age of 18 years at the time of Census 2011 with the ActionAid report’s figure of over 85 million women married below the age of 18 in the entire population, taken from the same census. (The figure given by Sanjay Kumar of all those 128

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women who married below 18 years in the last four years prior to the Census 2011 is 6.5 million.) We could think of these three absolute figures as different snapshots for capturing early/child marriage in India. The NCPCR figure is clearly oriented towards current practices but would certainly suffer from truncation effects, whereas the ActionAid figure is heavily weighted by older women. More useful in the NCPCR report are the figures given for proportions of those married within very young age groups: namely 2.9% and 10% respectively in the age groups of 10–14 years and 15–17 years for girls and 1.6%, 3.3% and 11.2 % respectively in the age groups of 10–14 years, 15–17 years, and 18–20 years for boys for Census 2011 (NCPCR 2017: 38 ff.). Their district-level analysis pretty much corroborates Figure 3.3, where several districts from states such as Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh join the more well-known high-prevalence states like Rajasthan and Bihar. Rajasthan consistently has the highest rates of incidence for boys and girls and for all age groups, and several districts top the list repeatedly. But there is one important issue that the NCPCR study foregrounds by virtue of the way incidence is defined in the case of boys, which is to use the legal age of 21 years and not the international gender-neutral definition of 18 years to measure underage marriage. The fact that the incidence figures calculated on the basis of Census 2011 in this report are actually higher for boys than for girls on the basis of legal ages is striking, if hard to fathom, and calls for further verification. In the case of the NFHS, the prevalence figures based on male ages at marriage are not higher than for girls but are nonetheless significant. The NCPCR study discusses the higher male underage marriage rates as though this somehow indicated that boys are even worse off than girls. The point that needs to be made here is a rather different one: In a situation where there is an invariable age difference in conventional marriages between men and women (in the region of five to seven years), an argument can surely be made for looking at below-legal ages for men rather than the international figure of 18 years. The reason to do so is quite simply that efforts to raise the age of marriage for girls would be blocked if male ages of marriage remained much the same, especially those under the legal age. The issue of changing trends has already been brought up. Long-term trend analysis of the kind given in Figure 3.2 showed singulate mean ages of marriage rising from pubertal levels at the turn of the century to over 20 years in 2011. Given the limitations of the census, similar long-term trends are harder to compute for measuring child marriage, and survey data sets like DLHS and NHFS were first introduced during the 1990s. Prevalence figures of early marriage based on all four rounds of the NFHS also reveal declines (from 1992–93 to 2015–16). A definite shortcoming in almost all reports is that no explanations are provided for the declines, as though these are simply to be expected with the passage of time. To make things more complicated, trends are not always decreasing over the entire period at the state level as the ActionAid study points out, and rates of decline also vary. While, on the whole, states with very high levels of prevalence in 1992–93 show ongoing 129

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declines, a small number reveal a mixed pattern of increases and decreases, although in all cases there are overall declines from the 1990s to the most recent rounds of either the NFHS or the DLHS. The declines are particularly significant between NFHS III and IV, which have a gap of 10 years. The Table 3.2 adapted from the study of Deepita Chakravarty (2018) uses successive NFHS rounds to compare the top 15 states, showing that differential rates of decline have changed the order of the states having the highest prevalence rates. At the all-India level, the most significant trend is the relatively small change between 1998–99 and 2005–06 (from 50% to 47.4%) compared with the sharp fall to 26.8% 10 years later in 2015–16. Among the most recent reports to come out at the time of writing this book is the one prepared by Young Lives for the NCPCR in November 2018 (NCPCR 2018). It is more in the nature of a fact sheet than a report and is the first to be based on unit-level data of NFHS 4. Like other studies that used the initial data sets released through NFHS 4, it suffers from the small technical drawback in that revised data released showed that Bihar moved to being the No. 1 state followed closely by West Bengal. The report offered snapshots of underage marriages as well as teenage pregnancies, largely corroborating the significant declines from NHFS 3 already discussed. For reasons that are not entirely clear, much of the report is centred on prevalence rates for the age group of 15–19 years (i.e., on those within this group who have married before the age of 18 years). Perhaps this choice was made in order to capture the most recent declines in the youngest Table 3.2  Proportions of women in age group of 20–24 years marrying below 18 years, top 15 states States




Andhra Pradesh Bihar Gujarat Haryana Himachal Pradesh Karnataka Kerala Madhya Pradesh Maharashtra Orissa Punjab Rajasthan Tamil Nadu Uttar Pradesh West Bengal India

64.3 71.9 40.7 41.5 10.7 46.3 17 64.7 47.7 37.6 11.6 68.3 24.9 64.3 45.9 50

54.8 (4) 60 (2) 38.7 39.8 12.3 41.2 15.4 53 (6) 39.4 37.2 19.7 65.2 (1) 21.5 58.6 (3) 53.3 (5) 47.4

32.7 (3) 42.4 (1) 24.9 18.5 8.6 23.2 7.6 30 (5) 25.1 (6) 21.3 7.6 35.4 (4) 15.7 21.2 41.6 (2) 26.8

(4) (1)

(6) (3) (5) (2) (4) (7)

Source: National Family Health Survey, Fact Sheets for different years. Note: Numbers in the parenthesis refer to relative rankings in different years. West Bengal and Bihar corrected with unit-level data. (Adapted from Chakravarty 2018).


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cohorts. They come up with a national average of 11.9% underage marriages in this group. However, there are problems in choosing an age range which would suffer from truncation effects (those not married below 18 years at the time of the NFHS might yet marry before 18). There could be other objections relating to the size of the sample for this age group.

Demographic explanations Along with providing a picture of patterns and trends across the country at different state or district levels, all the reports are concerned with establishing causes and consequences, whether through statistical analyses of correlation or by citing other studies. Questions of urban and rural differences, regional conditions and the socioeconomic backgrounds of the married women themselves – based on poverty/wealth measures, education, caste, religion and so on – are deployed. Here an important distinction would be between characteristics that pertain to individuals and those pertaining to regions. The former is easier to determine than the latter. This is brought out in the ICRW study, which sought to establish correlations between the socioeconomic conditions of particular districts and levels of prevalence of early marriage. Some measures such as the presence of health committees or improved sources of drinking water went hand in hand with lower rates of underage marriage, but, quite counterintuitively, levels of schooling and literacy were negatively correlated with marriage at the district level. Their conjecture was that in such districts, poorer less literate families were invested in the labour of their daughters and therefore married them off later compared with families who married their better-educated daughters early for “cultural reasons”. Nor did greater proportions of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe populations in a given district show signs of being significantly correlated with higher proportions of early marriage (Srinivasan and others 2015: 53–54). On the other hand, individual or household characteristics correlate in much more straightforward or predicted patterns. Srinivas Goli has shown this through both simple proportions (from NFHS data) and regressions (on IHDS data). There are correlations by levels of poverty, by caste (Scheduled Castes were followed by Other Backward Classes, upper castes have lower rates), and by literacy and levels of educational attainment and much higher rates for rural compared with urban location. As far as religion is concerned, there are no differences between Hindus and Muslims, while Christians and Sikhs show very much lower rates of early marriage. The ICRW study showed that there is very little difference in the rate of early marriage for women who were illiterate and had up to primary levels of schooling – it is in fact only among those with graduate levels of education that early marriage is no longer found. There is next to no discussion of work and labour in relation to early marriage in any of the major reports discussed so far. Having discussed at some length what existing reports have done with national data sets, I am also providing a glimpse from my own current research. Table 3.3 offers the most recent corrected picture for India as a 131

Table 3.3  Marriage rates of women in the age group of 20–24, at or below different ages, NFHS 4 (2015–16)




Economic status


India Urban Rural Hindu Muslim Christian Sikh Other Scheduled castes Scheduled tribe Other backward classes Others Poorest Poorer Middle Richer Richest No education Primary Secondary Above secondary


At 18


21 and above

Never married


6.6 3.6 8.1 6.9 5.9 3.7 1 6.8 7.5 8.4 6.7 5 13.1 9.4 6.4 4 1.7 25.2 21.3 9.9 1.2

20.2 13.9 23.4 20.5 20.9 13.6 6.8 18.6 21.8 24.6 19.6 18.2 31.5 26.9 22 15.5 7.8 24 24.3 18.4 2.7

10.9 8.8 11.9 11 11 6.7 6.6 10.2 11.3 12.1 11 9.8 13.2 12.8 11.8 10.7 6.4 13.2 13.7 13.4 3.5

18.2 16.2 19.3 18.5 17.9 12.7 16.3 16.1 18.6 18.1 19.2 16.4 17 18.5 19.7 19.7 15.8 17.9 18.5 22 10.9

10.2 11.5 9.6 10.2 9.6 10.3 15.3 10.6 9.3 8.2 10.7 10.8 5.6 7.6 10 11.7 15 6.3 6.1 10.6 13.2

33.9 46 27.8 32.8 34.7 52.9 54 37.7 31.5 28.6 32.7 39.8 19.6 24.8 30.1 38.4 53.3 13.3 16 25.7 68.5

122966 41486 81480 97624 18820 2535 1981 2006 25789 11677 53109 32391 19666 24486 26522 27177 25114 16800 12994 61737 31435

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U/R residence

Below 15

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whole using NFHS 4. These data have been disaggregated for different ages at marriage from among the cohort in the age group of 20–24 years, by religion, caste, poverty quintiles and education, based on unit-level data. In Table 3.3, one can see that out of the figure of 26.8% for those marrying below 18, just 6.6% have married below 15 years, confirming yet again that India is very much in the phase of adolescent (even late adolescent) marriage. Other numbers of interest (and concern) would be the fact that urban proportions, though considerably lower, are not insignificant. (Compared with NFHS 3 they are declining at a slower rate compared with the rural situation.) For all the communalization in the “othering” of early marriage, notice also that Muslim figures for underage marriages are marginally better than their Hindu counterparts. In terms of caste, even upper castes are represented if to a lesser degree, while there is a much greater concentration of the practice among the poorer quintiles in a society marked by both high levels of poverty and huge economic inequalities, in which the truly wealthy are hidden within the top quintile. Education tells its own story – notice that while almost 50% of those who have never been to school have also married below 18 years, this means that an equal proportion of illiterate women have either married at 18 or later or remain unmarried at the time of the survey. Notice, too, that as other reports have also attested, it is only beyond secondary levels of education (i.e., after class ten) that underage marriage becomes much less prevalent. More will be said about education in Chapter 4.

Causes of early marriage All reports address themselves to the causes of early and child marriage. The curious thing here, however, is that none of the major data sets such as the census or NFHS (or DLHS) can be used to determine the cause of early marriage. All that such data sets are useful for is to look at patterns of correlation, as discussed above. So reports are quite ready to draw from all kinds of micro-level studies, from all over the world, to make claims about causes. These take the invariable form of a long list – economic, social, and cultural reasons of various kinds. Economic considerations basically argue that a daughter is in the nature of an economic burden on her family and therefore her transfer to another family through an early marriage is the way of obtaining relief. Dowry only adds to this burden – the younger the age of the girl and the less educated the boy, the lower the dowry. This then is seen to be the route taken by poor families. Social causes are often attributed to the low levels of education of parents who in turn do not see much need to educate their daughters either. Cultural reasons range all the way from the social norms of particular communities for whom early marriage is the only practice they know, to the special value placed on virginity and the purity of girls before marriage. This leads to fears of loss of honour should marriage be delayed much beyond puberty, all of which is 133

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compounded by anxieties of sexual violence. Also mentioned are various regionally specific religious festivals that are auspicious occasions for marriages to take place or very specific marriage practices such as marrying sisters at the same time, marrying both a brother and sister into the same family, or consanguineous marriages (marrying permitted relatives such as cross-cousins or maternal uncles). Some reports add that crises caused by a range of factors – from natural disasters, farmer indebtedness, to civil wars and geopolitical conflicts – have a negative impact on marriage practices and that girls are married at younger ages than was the case before. Although some reports provide evidence of all these causes from other studies (including from other countries), this is not always the case. This means that some reports exhibit an air of vagueness when it comes to this section compared with all the statistical analyses. Allowing for some misgivings here, let me also say that there is something truly remarkable about the extensive reasons that – however well rehearsed and even stereotypical– are thus listed out. Surely, one must pause over the extraordinary range of the kinds of influences that are associated with early marriage and its persistence. Between the ongoing effects of tradition and culture, the endemic constraints of poverty, the deep disadvantages of disparate levels of rural development, the heightened costs associated with marriage, absent or unsatisfactory provisioning of schooling and education, norms of sexuality, honour and growing fears of violence against girls, a whole host of local and global conflicts and crisis events, and the heightened effect of all of these on social groups that are already vulnerable, one should at the very least acknowledge the enormous challenges that are involved in engaging with early and child marriage. But there are also obvious shortfalls with such lists, especially in the statistical reports. First of all, the picture provided is invariably static in nature, and all these reasons are never in themselves the subject of any detailed discussion. Second, the limitations of demographic analyses that turn correlations into causation become particularly palpable here. For example, what at a more precise level is the relation between education and marriage, and in what direction does causation work? Are girls being taken out of school to get married or might they be just dropping out of a pointless education only then to be married off? When cultural reasons are given considerable importance, a characteristic shared across classes, then how does one account for variations in the age of marriage by those who share the same “culture”? Are considerations of modesty and honour not central to the socialization of middle-class girls for whom the right age of marriage is set much higher? If puberty has been so critical in the history of marriage, how does puberty figure today, especially when age at puberty has been falling? What makes rural and urban location so significant in the Indian case? The institution of marriage itself hardly figures in most reports and remains largely in the background. Moreover, even though economic factors are usually the first to be mentioned and poverty much highlighted, such a basic structural condition hardly gets further attention. More generally, an 134

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enumeration of causes does not help much in providing explanations for changing trends in different regions of the country. Those studies that explore people’s own perceptions through more qualitative field-based analyses (of which there are very few) can be insightful here. One such would be the work of the sociologist Biswajit Ghosh, who has written extensively on the rural Malda district in West Bengal. The district of Malda is characterized by high levels of poverty and large proportions of Scheduled Castes and Muslims who are socially disenfranchised. Through focus group discussions with different “stakeholders” – mothers, fathers, elders and daughters – even the standard list of familiar causes acquires traction in the light of the different emphases offered. These are visible in Table 3.4. Notice how different the order of preferences is for daughters compared with all the others. Table 3.4  Perceptions of four groups of stakeholders about early marriage of girls Order of Preference of Causes

Fathers (%)

Mothers (%)

Elders (%)

Daughters (%)


Poverty (94)

Marriage is Essential (100)

Poverty (94)

Lack of Awareness (100)

2nd 3rd 4th

Marriage is Essential (92) Lack of Awareness (82) More Dowry Later (73)

Poverty (91) Lack of Awareness (87) More Dowry Later (86)

Marriage is Essential (93) Lack of Awareness (86) Fear of Elopement (81) More Dowry Later (71)

Security of Girl (66)

Security of Girl (67)

Fear of Elopement (65) Illiteracy (65) Large Family (40)

Fear of Elopement (67) Illiteracy (62) Large Family (58)


Lack of School (26)

Lack of School (30)

Lack of School (31)


Lack of Proper Road (26)

Lack of Proper Road (30)

Lack of Proper Road (31)

5th 6th 7th 8th

Source: Focus group discussion data, Ghosh (2011a).


Lack of School (93) Lack of Proper Road (92) Poverty (76) Illiteracy (71)

Security of Girl (69)

Large Family (72)

Illiteracy (63) Large Family (35)

More Dowry Later (40) Security of Girl (20) Fear of Elopement (10) Marriage is Essential (10)

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But Ghosh is not therefore providing us with a simple story of new role models and positive change through the agency of adolescent girls, although that is where he places greatest emphasis. The hope directed towards education by girls is particularly poignant. One of the case studies Ghosh highlights is that of the daughter of a daily wage labourer who was the first in her locality to pass class ten, only to become unmarriageable with “too much education” and not enough dowry for a “suitable” match. What happens when there is no alternative to marriage, asks Ghosh, and their worlds have so little to offer (Ghosh 2011a, 2011b, 2011c)?

Consequences When it comes to the consequences of early marriage in the current crop of reports on child marriage, the picture that is painted is usually uniformly dire and along a range of parameters, from health to violence, social isolation and overall disempowerment. But it is often not clear on what kinds of data sources or studies some of the claims are based. As we already saw from the World Bank and ICRW studies conducted on multiple countries by Quentin Wodon and his team on the economic costs of underage marriage, the only indisputable costs that could be established were fertility and health-related, but on other counts, such as violence, decision making and work, there were few indications that age at marriage was a critical vector. In other demographic reports too, health and fertility are the major focus for both the mother and the child, and the problems of child birth below the age of 18 are particularly emphasized. Much of the concern here dovetails with prior studies of reproductive and child health. By far the sharpest associations in the past have been between early marriage and fertility. This concern over population growth takes us back to the discussion in Chapter 1 regarding the 1978 CMRA law in India as well as the “populationism” discussed earlier on in this chapter. A growing literature in India has focussed more specifically on the health aspects of early marriage. Interestingly, this literature has shifted focus from the prior one on fertility, probably because of rapid declines in fertility in several states in India, which have not gone hand in hand with equal declines in early marriage. This stands in considerable contrast to the ICRW and World Bank study mentioned before. In other words (and this is not dwelt on in this literature), the small family is being increasingly realized even among poorer populations and regions (like West Bengal, Andhra and Telengana) so that the earlier link between child marriage and greater fertility has been weakening. What remains as a very central focus now is that in the Indian context marriage is followed immediately by childbearing and this is particularly true of early marriages. Adolescent growth is put at risk biologically with childbearing before the age of 18, along with risks to the child, a theme that was discussed in Chapter 2. Thus, for instance, an adolescent may even lose weight during a pregnancy, far from gaining any. 136

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Several studies therefore have been dwelling on the significance of age for childbearing (e.g., Santhya and others 2010; Jejeebhoy 1998; Santhya and Jejeebhoy 2003; Raj and others 2009; Singh and Vennam 2016). In a 2003 study analysing data from NFHS 1998–99 and a few other available studies, K.G. Santhya and Shireen Jejeebhoy from the Population Council focussed on “married adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive needs”. On the one hand, they conclude that for large proportions of young women, marriage and childbearing occur before physical maturity is reached, and are accompanied by malnutrition, obstetric risks, lack of decision making, and mobility to acquire pregnancy, contraceptive, and other reproductive health services, and with little autonomy over sexual and reproductive lives. (2003: 4376) Notice, however, their careful formulation: They argue that underage marriage is associated with major deprivations – from lack of nutrition to lack of health services – rather than making the claim that it is the principal cause. Once again one must probe further – are these not links that establish that it is the most vulnerable who marry early while those who are economically better off marry at higher ages, whose correspondingly better health indicators speak to their wealth status and access to health care more than mere age? Age occupies a contradictory place in their analysis – in one place, Santhya and Jejeebhoy say that it is younger cohorts (especially in South India) who display more decision making in their marriages than older cohorts. But soon after, they say the opposite – older women, even uneducated ones, have a more enhanced decisionmaking authority than an adolescent, even one who has completed secondary education. In a later study based on a sample of their own, Santhya and others (2010) repeated the emphasis on the risks and vulnerabilities faced by women who marry before 18 years compared with those who married later. But once again, their results are not uniform – they found no differences in everyday decision making or what they called “self-efficacy” (which might be likened to an individual sense of self or agency) across age, although on other counts like communication between spouses and sexual violence, differences were significant. A word of caution here: One needs to be particularly circumspect in interpreting survey-based results dealing with sensitive issues in marital relationships, including violence. Room must be given for the fact that better-educated women from non-poor backgrounds would be much less open in their answers compared with their poorer less-educated counterparts. Even though this study aimed to control for various parameters such as education and wealth, it is unclear to what extent this is achievable when in fact early marriage in their sample was so strongly skewed by illiteracy, rural location and poverty. Basic issues of health and nutrition are 137

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particularly hard to disaggregate from underlying conditions of deprivation. As Srinivas Goli, Anu Rammohan and Deepti Singh remark in their study of women’s nutritional status, “the ramifications of early marriage and early child-bearing are more severe in the Indian context, given the burden of poor pre-pregnancy anaemia and undernourishment among the women and poor access to health-care” (Goli and others 2015). This brings in the question of the larger context within which to assess how important age per se is when dealing with questions of women’s health and nutrition. After all, as we saw in Chapter 2, there has been some disagreement over the specific contribution of age in the health risks associated with teenage pregnancy. In any case, the disadvantage of biological age ceases with the age of 18 years or, one might be tempted to say, with marriage at 17 years, allowing for pregnancy and child birth by 18. In the Indian context, it is only too well known that poverty is the major reason for the malnourishment of huge proportions of our population (compounded by gender biases towards women), and it is poor women who form the largest proportions of those who marry early. In the study of Srinivas Goli and others on women’s nutritional status just cited, it was only marriage at ages of 25 years and above where women’s thinness (as a measure of under nourishment) showed the most significant decline, after other socioeconomic variables were controlled for. This is an extremely high age of marriage for India, which not only is well above the biological and legal benchmark of 18 years but is associated with urban middle-class lifestyles and corresponding marriage markets. Perhaps because small proportions among the non-poor are also found to be marrying early, the need to tackle poverty does not figure significantly when it comes to what needs to be done in most reports. References to the empowerment of girls abound but these are invariably couched within the frame of overcoming “tradition and culture” in order to delay marriage until 18 years. Stringent implementations of the law are always demanded. Changing mindsets through education and especially through media and communication strategies are the most foregrounded in the sections dealing with the role of interventions. But if other considerations remain the same, what exactly changes for a young girl who reaches the age of 18 and is then married? Apart from biological arguments about the physiological maturity of the female body to bear children without undue risks, it remains to be demonstrated as to what else would improve in a girl’s life and why. Reports dealing with India certainly need to be much more circumspect about making the case that from the age of 18 women’s chances for autonomy and choice in marriage increase along with greater economic and employment opportunities. In fact, none of the studies remarks on the fact that women who marry at younger ages in India have higher work participation rates than those who marry above 18 years.


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Where do we take the knowledges of demography? Having reflected at considerable length on the insights of demographic studies, we need to step back and try to take stock. There is absolutely no doubt – India has by far the largest absolute number of women who have married before the internationally stipulated age of 18 years. This fact alone ensures that India, unlike regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, or South Asia more generally, will always figure as a standalone country in global reports. But what consequences follow from this, and how should the population size of a country like India, which is poised to becoming the most populous country in the world, be brought into the picture? More than ever before, it is really important as to how one goes about interpreting big numbers at a time when the analysis of such numbers carries so much authority. As we have seen, there are clear indications that the older links between child marriage and fertility (also discussed in Chapter 1) have gained even more traction in the new millennium. The present chapter has provided examples from reports of UNICEF and UNFPA replete with alarming predictions about future trends. What they were suggesting is that child marriage was somehow the main cause of population growth, quite apart from all the problems that attach to “populationism”. The World Bank added its weight by estimating that child marriage resulted in an enormous economic cost for reasons directly emanating from fertility and health. As we saw, this economic cost was measured in terms of savings to public health investments with fewer births. Here I would like to pose a query: Most Third World states, India included, are investing far too little in public health, according to basic international norms for such spending. Regions characterized by higher levels of early marriage are amongst the poorest and have the worst outreach when it comes to even basic health facilities. A highly problematic – indeed unethical – interpretation of the World Bank study would be to simply push women in such contexts to marry later, all the while preparing to cut back even more on the already-meagre investments in health. How can this be justified? Second, in countries like India (and in others like Bangladesh), the situation is actually unexpectedly curious – fertility rates are declining considerably and small families are increasingly being realized in practice, including in the very regions where higher rates of child marriage persist. In the online news portal The Wire, demographic and population experts Srinivas Goli and Neha Jain have demonstrated in no uncertain terms the “fallacy” in current talk of high fertility and population growth, whether by Indian state leaders or the international aid community. As of 2020, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is down to 2.2 children per mother, just 0.1 points from what is known as the population replacement level of 2.1. In direct contrast to the alarmist predictions about future trends that we saw in UNICEF and UNFPA reports, they estimate that India will stabilize at a TFR of 1.7 by 2050 (Goli and Jain 2020). Demographers


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should in fact be giving this much more attention and comprehensively delink the ongoing tendency to equate marrying too young with population explosion. Another extremely critical issue concerns the ways in which associations between underage marriage, adolescent pregnancy and the health outcomes of mother and child are being selectively analysed. As recently as 2019, a study published in the Lancet uses a lot of very ambiguous language coupled with highly sophisticated statistical techniques to establish the “social, biological, and programmatic factors linking adolescent pregnancy with early childhood undernutrition” using NFHS 4 data (Nguyen, Scott, Neupane, Tran, Menon 2019). In spite of using the careful language of “associations” between adolescent pregnancy, poor living conditions, poor health services, low levels of education, undernutrition in the mother and factors such as stunting in the first-born child and in spite of several caveats in the conclusion about directions of causation between an adolescent mother, poverty and the health of her baby, their diagrams and final recommendations make it clear that the principal “cause” is somehow the adolescent pregnancy itself. This is their interpretation: Children born to adolescent mothers are at risk of being undernourished. Adolescent pregnancy is related to child undernutrition through poor maternal nutritional status, lower education, less health service access, poor complementary feeding practices, and poor living conditions. Policies and programmes to delay pregnancy and promote women’s rights could help break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition through many routes. (Nguyen and others 2019: 1) As I have argued in a published response, their article is about rigorous methods chasing a flawed hypothesis. … As it turns out, the poverty of the mother plays the greatest role of all by far both in relation to her undernourishment and that of her child, but they never emphasize this. All the authors concede in their concluding discussion is that their cross-sectional design (using data from a single time period) reduces causal inference. For example, becoming pregnant early might lead to reduced education or wealth; however, a woman from a poor background and lower education might be more likely to become pregnant early. Surely the best way to break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition … would be to pick the factors that are playing the strongest role in perpetuating it. In this case it would be to address the poverty of the mother – which could be done in a myriad of ways, beginning with the most direct method of nutritional programmes for girls and women through a range of institutional mechanisms from 140

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anganwadis to schools. However, the authors choose to concentrate only on delaying the age of pregnancy, even though this is the weakest link of all. (John 2020) Although they mention “women’s rights” rather loosely, there is no discussion of what its ramifications might be in meaningful terms. My own current research on the same data sets clearly establishes that age at marriage (followed by childbearing) is less significant than levels of poverty when it comes to the nutritional status of mothers and their children. In the Appendix to this book, for those who are interested in the actual numbers, the results of multivariate logistic regression models have been provided in Table A1.1 (in relation to the mother) and Table A1.2 (in relation to the child). Notice how inconsequential age at marriage is in relation to anaemia, for instance. Anaemia is one of the principal causes of maternal mortality in India because of excessive blood loss at the time of child birth. Notice also that, statistically speaking, the effect on child stunting if the mother just moves out of the very lowest poverty quintile into the next lowest quintile is the same as marrying when she is at least 21 years if everything else remains the same. The study by Srinivas Goli, Rammohan and Singh (mentioned earlier in this chapter) showed that it was only when women married at the age of 25 that their poor health indicators reduced to a significant degree (Goli and others 2015), and the Lancet study referred to above says as much as well. In Chapter 2, we saw that from a different part of the globe, Finnish adolescent pregnancies did not show any appreciable differences compared with their older counterparts under conditions of adequate ante-natal care. I would therefore make the case that much more attention needs to be paid to the social and economic conditions characterizing regions and groups with a high prevalence of underage marriage. The Indian story is full of regional variations. Unfortunately, the existing demographic reports say far too little about these regions and what makes them distinctive. Some picture of the regional economies in those zones where large proportions are marrying early is therefore required. For example, agrarian economies structured by poor peasant households unable to sustain themselves through self-cultivation, supplemented by largely male seasonal wage work in agriculture and migration to near and distant cities, are a widespread reality in large swathes of India and would broadly “fit” the very regions that also record higher-than-average proportions of early marriage. Even some nonpoor families in such contexts who may own land (and hence are to be found in better-off economic quintiles in NFHSs) may be highly constrained in terms of avenues of upward mobility and advancement, whether via the “pathways” of education or opportunities of employment. But none of this features in any report. These are critical considerations which will be more fully addressed in Chapter 4. 141

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In some reports, the terminology of “hotspots” (once again drawn from the repertoire of the study of disease) has been deployed as a way to set apart those districts with the highest rates, where girls are considered more vulnerable. Here a word of caution is needed. A “hotspot” is usually referred to in epidemics because of the fear of spread if disease is not contained, thus placing people at risk. But when districts are being called hotspots in the context of child marriage, this is not the danger. The single most significant finding that remains unanalysed when it comes to India’s large numbers is the rate of decline in the proportion of underage marriages overall. Although it is true that there were anomalous increases in some instances, and some degree of misreporting should be allowed for, longer-term trends showed considerable declines. More specifically, all data sources show that along with such declines (whether it be according to declines from Census 2001 to 2011 or from NHFS 3 (2005–06) to NFHS 4 (2015–16)), the biggest shift has been from marriages conducted by or before age 15 years to those under 18. To repeat what I said earlier and to draw from the terminology of Chapter 2, child marriage in twenty-first-century India is effectively becoming late adolescent marriage. Narrowly defined biological health risks due to age alone (compared with other factors) when it comes to childbearing cease with the age of 18. What implications would such changes have in the worlds of child-women? One must examine declining trends in the light of the huge array of reasons for early marriage that have been routinely provided to the point of becoming something of a stock in trade in existing studies. All the causes – economic, social, cultural and sexual – which are experienced as multiple and interlocking constraints by families, such that marrying off one’s daughter should be done well “in time” to secure her future before leaving it “too late”, are therefore not static. But the way these causes tend to be presented is as though they were timeless and traditional when this is palpably not the case. Furthermore, a very common tendency is to use the statistical presence of early marriage among some non-poor families in high-prevalence rural districts to claim that these practices are ultimately “cultural”, once they are not fuelled by sheer poverty. It is not quite clear what is meant by this, especially when the institution of marriage itself is so rarely under discussion. When it comes to notions of women’s empowerment (measured in this literature by decision making, violence, employment opportunities and so on), there is no simple scale of greater empowerment along higher ages at marriage. This very critical issue, which will be addressed further in Chapter 4, is far more complex than these kinds of studies seem to allow for. This is why, to go back to my remarks at the beginning of this chapter, I believe we need to press further into those disciplinary and thematic domains that so far have not been sufficiently yoked to the question of understanding child marriage in contemporary times. This chapter began with looking at the trajectories taken by law and policy to address child 142

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marriage. International and local players are pushing to make any marriage below 18 a criminal offence. We also saw the mixed fortunes of state policies, including the ways in which CCT schemes to curb child marriage reinforced the devaluation of a daughter, who now represents a burden that the state will compensate for at the time of her marriage if conducted at the right time. Both law and policy have been converging to produce the normative girl from poor families who must somehow overcome vulnerability by delaying her marriage at least until she is 18. This has been bolstered by the statistical production of this new “other” – in the twenty-first century she is an adolescent in terms of her age, who may have never been to school or may even have a secondary education, but who must be prevented from marrying as a “child” under the laws of the land and according to international covenants. As an “other” she remains fixed and static, rarely provided the necessary context that is shaping her life chances, waiting to be granted the right kind of agency by state actors and non-governmental organizations. On the part of the women’s movement and feminist intervention, we saw in Chapter 1 that child marriage only re-emerged as an issue towards the end of the twentieth century in very particular moments such as the Ameena case and more obliquely in Bhanwari Devi’s struggle for justice. In the present chapter, it is again only in specific legal contexts that feminists have intervened to voice their opinion. The demographic research discussed in this chapter has not seen any distinct involvement by way of participation or critique from the side of the women’s movement. Does the story change when it comes to other disciplinary approaches and interventions? This will come up in the next chapter, which looks more closely at fields of research and interventions ranging from marriage and sexuality, to education and work.

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Bhagat, R.B. 2016. “The Practice of Early Marriages among Females in India: Persistence and Change”. Mumbai: International Institute for Population Sciences (January): Working Paper 10. Chakravarty, Deepita. 2018. “Lack of Economic Opportunities and Persistence of Child Marriage in West Bengal”. Indian Journal of Gender Studies 25 (2): 180–204. Desai, Sonalde, and Lester Andrist. 2010. “Gender Scripts and Age at Marriage in India”. Demography 47 (3): 667–687. Desai, Sonalde, and Reeve Vanneman. 2016. India Human Development Survey-II (IHDS-II), 2011–12. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2018. Ghosh, Biswajit. 2011a. “Child marriage and its Prevention: Role of Adolescent Girls”. Indian Journal of Development Research and Social Action 7 (1–2): 49–62. Ghosh, Biswajit. 2011b. “Child Marriage, Community, and Adolescent Girls: The Salience of Tradition and Modernity in the Malda District of West Bengal”. Sociological Bulletin 60 (2): 307–326. Ghosh, Biswajit. 2011c. “Early Marriage of Girls in Contemporary Bengal: A Field View”. Social Change 41 (1): 41–61. Goli, Srinivas. 2016. Eliminating Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects. New Delhi: Child Rights Focus and ActionAid. Goli, Srinivas, and Neha Jain. 2020. “Modi’s Population ‘Problem’ Is an Old Fallacy in a New Bottle”. Science The Wire, July 2020. Accessible at https://science. Goli, Srinivas, Anu Rammohan, and Deepti Singh. 2015. “The Effect of Early Marriages and Early Childbearing on Women’s Nutritional Status in India”. Maternal and Child Health Journal 19 (8): 1864–1880. International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). 2013. “Asia Child Marriage Initiative: Summary of Research in Bangladesh, India and Nepal”. Accessed 25 May 2020. Jejeebhoy, Shireen J. 1998. “Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Behavior: A Review of Evidence from India”. Social Science and Medicine 46 (10): 1275–1290. John, Mary E. 2020. “The Marriage Age Misconception”. The Hindu. Lead Op-Ed. 20 August. Accessed August 21 2020. the-marriage-age-misconception/article32406793.ece. Kannabiran, Kalpana, Sujit Kumar Mishra, and S.Surapa Raju. 2017. “Investigating the Casues of Loew Female Age at Marriage: The Case of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh”. Economic and Political Weekly 52 (18). Kumar, Krishna. 2017. “Gone Girl”. Indian Express, October 18. Accessed 25 May 2020. Kumar, Sanjay. 2016. “Measuring Child Marriage from Census and Large Scale Surveys”. Demography India 45 (1–2): 59–76. Kumar, Sanjay. 2020. “Trends, Differentials and Determinants of Child Marriage in India: Evidence from Large Scale Surveys”. Economic and Political Weekly 55 (6): 53–58. Mehra, Madhu. 2017. “Don’t Misread SC Judgment, Not all Early-Age Marriages are Forced”. The Print, October 20.


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MV Foundation. 2018. And They Never Lived Happily Ever After… The Battle for Justice Goes on: Voices of Married Girls in Telangana. Hyderabad: MV Foundation. Nanda, Priya, Priya Datta, Nitin Lambda, Sneha Pradhan, et al. 2016. Impact of a Conditional Cash Transfer Programme on Girls’ Education and Age at Marriage in India – Synthesis of Findings. New Delhi: International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Young Lives. 2017. “A Statistical Analysis of Child Marriage in India Based on Census 2011”. Accessed May 25 2020. linkid=1213&lid=1463. National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Young Lives. 2018. “India Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy: Based on NFHS-4 (2015– 16)”. Accessed May 25 2020. &sublinkid=1670&lid=1677. Ch3 Nguyen, Phuong Hong, Samuel Scott, Sumanta Neupane, Lan Mai Tran, and Purnima Menon. 2019. “Social, Biological, and Programmatic Factors linking Adolescent Pregnancies and Early Childhood Undernutrition: A Path Analysis of Indian’s 2016 National Family Health Survey”. Lancet Child and Adolescent Health 3 (7): 463–473. Nirantar Trust. 2015. Early and Child Marriage in India: A Landscape Analysis. New Delhi: Nirantar. Partners for Law in Development (PLD). 2019. Why Girls Run Away to Marry: Adolescent Realities and Socio-Legal Responses in India. New Delhi: PLD. Partners for Law in Development (PLD). n.d. Recommendations for Protection of the Rights of Adolescents in the National Child Protection Policy. New Delhi: PLD. Raj, Anita, Niranjan Saggurti, Donta Balaiah, and Jay G. Silverman. 2009. “Prevalence of Child Marriage and its Effect on Fertility and Fertility-Control Outcomes of Young Women in India: A Cross-Sectional, Observational Study”. The Lancet 373 (9678): 1883–1889. Report of the Secretary-General. 2017. “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals”. United Nations Economic and Social Council. https:// Sagade, Jaya. 2005. Child Marriage in India: Socio-Legal and Human Rights Dimensions. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Santhya, K.G., and Shireen J. Jejeebhoy. 2003. “Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs of Married Adolescent Girls”. Economic and Political Weekly 38 (41): 4370–4377. Santhya, K.G., Usha Ram, Rajib Acharya, Shireen Jejeebhoy, Faujdar Ram, and Abhishek Singh. 2010. “Association between Early Marriage and Young Women’s Marital and Reproductive Health Outcomes: Evidence from India”. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 36 (3): 132–139. Uma, Saumya. 2012. Rights of Adolescent Girls in India: A Critical Look at Laws and Policies. Bombay: Vacha Publications. Sekher, T.V. 2012. “Ladlis and Lakshmis: Impressions on Financial Incentive Schemes for the Girl Child in India”. Economic and Political Weekly 17: 58–65. Sen, Amartya. 1990. “More than One Hundred Million Women are Missing”. The New York Review, 20 December. Accessed 25 May 2020. https://www.nybooks. com/articles/1990/12/20/more-than-100-million-women-are-missing/.


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Sen, Samita, and Anindita Ghosh, eds. Forthcoming. Love, Law and Labour: Child Marriage in India. Kolkata: Stree and New Delhi: Sage Publications. Singh, Renu, and Uma Vennam. 2016. “Factors Shaping Trajectories to Child and Early Marriage: Evidence from Young Lives in India”. Working Paper 149. Oxford: Young Lives. Solanki, Gopika. 2015. “Registering Marriage: Debating Legislative and Judicial Efforts”. In Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economies, State Regulation and the Marital Form in India, edited by Srimati Basu and Lucinda Ramberg, 217–250. New Delhi: Women Unlimited. Srinivasan, K., and Rakesh Mishra. 2020. “Quality of Data in NFHS-4 Compared to Earlier Rounds”. Economic and Political Weekly 55 (6): 40–45. Srinivasan, Padmavathi, Nizamuddin Khan, Ravi Verma, Dora Giusti, Joachim Theis, and Supriti Chakraborty. 2015. District-level Study on Child Marriage in India: What do We Know about the Prevalence, Trends and Patterns? New Delhi: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and UNICEF. United Nations Children’s Fund. 2005. Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice: A Statistical Exploration. New York: UNICEF. United Nations Children’s Fund. 2014. Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects. New York: UNICEF. United Nations Population Fund. 2012. Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage. New York: UNFPA. Vashist, Latika. 2019. “Age of Consent and the Impossibility of Child Sexuality”. Seminar, 721. Accessed 25 May 2020. 721_latika_vashist.htm. Vindhya, U., Nilanjana Ray, and Ujithra Ponniah 2019. Conditional Cash transfer schemes and Child marriages in Andhra and Telangana: An Exploratory Study. Hyderabad: Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Wodon, Quentin T., Chata Male, Kolobadia Ada Nayihouba, et al. 2017. Economic Impacts of Child Marriage: Global Synthesis Brief. Washington, DC: The World Bank and International Centre for Research on Women. Wodon, Quentin T., and Ali Yedan. 2017. Impact of Child Marriage and Early Child Births on Population Growth across Multiple Countries. Education Global Practice. Washington, DC: The World Bank.



REINTEGRATING THE “OTHER” Age, education and work under compulsory marriage

Chapter 3 gave us one kind of framing of child marriage in twenty-firstcentury India. Demographically, legally and as the subject of state policy, child-women emerged quite massively in the form of millions of adolescents who are marrying before they are 18, while a state apparatus has been attempting to regulate if not criminalize such unions. As the victims of child marriage, they are the “other” of contemporary Indian society, the principal targets in the agendas of international agencies. However we look at them, these are our girl brides, who appear in global discourses as children who suffer the regressive social norms of their communities. Those most concerned for their welfare have, often with the best of intentions, sought to delay their marriage until 18 or provide adolescent girls with “agency” in order to somehow overcome their vulnerabilities. In the course of the last chapter, I raised several doubts about the kind of disproportionate weight being placed on sheer biological age as the principal cause of their disadvantages. How then, if at all, should age at marriage figure in our concerns? This chapter seeks ways to reintegrate the “othered” child bride into our worlds, our politics and our research agendas. I believe the way forward is to recognize the workings of marriage as a compulsory institution in contemporary India. Its compulsions need to be placed on a better footing so as to be able to assess its manifold terms of inclusion, which push those who are unmarried by choice beyond the pale. Child marriage is not a separate institution governed by a unique social norm from which today’s adolescents must be rescued, whether to stem the growth of populations or to invest in their future. Rather, the fact that significant numbers of young women in India are marrying too young calls for turning the lens onto the institution of marriage itself and to recognize it as a complex dynamic and hierarchical system where numerous forces are in play. Out of all of these, it is my suggestion that – even when mean ages of marriage are slowly increasing and rates of child marriage reducing – it is the paradoxical combination of expansions in education and declines in women’s work opportunities that is most responsible for the reproduction of its hegemonic and compulsory status in contemporary India. 147

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I therefore begin this chapter by pushing at the boundaries of existing research on three major interlocking issues: age at marriage within studies of marriage, the sphere of education, and finally the world of women’s labour and work. What is truly surprising is that the literatures concerned with these fields are very sparsely represented in scholarship on child marriage. With a few exceptions, existing reports have not felt the need to discuss the institution of marriage, even though they do point so frequently to the role of “culture” and the social norms of communities. Second, with education being invariably offered as the single most important site for change in every study, this has not led to strong connections being made with existing scholarship on schooling and education. Third, and this is by far the weakest link of all, critical issues of women’s labour and employment are virtually absent in existing research on child marriage, even though women’s empowerment and gender equality across the globe have everything to do with the value of women’s labour, employment prospects, lack of financial control and the problem of economic dependency. The task of this chapter is not just to probe current literatures in the fields of marriage, education and work. It has the more ambitious aim of offering an alternate frame for research – and intervention – into the phenomenon of child marriage. I believe that it is by further exploring the interlocking dimensions of marriage, education and work – as unequal as they are – that we will not only deconstruct the “othering” of child marriage but have the opportunity of bringing today’s child-women back into contemporary feminist politics.

Age at marriage in contemporary India The obvious fields to go to for studies on marriage are the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. Locating early and child marriage within the larger frame of the institution of marriage in India, however, turned out to be quite disappointing because age at marriage has, very curiously, been marginal in the sociological literature on contemporary marriage practices in India. Given all the extensive discussions undertaken in Chapters 1 and 2 of this book, it would appear, therefore, that notions of childhood, adolescence and adulthood have not really entered the literature on marriage in the present context. This makes for a double challenge: On the one side, there is such strong pressure to eliminate child marriage but without a substantive picture of the nature of marriage in present-day India; on the other, studies of marriage today have rarely seen age as being critical to their inquiries. There are always exceptions, of course, and one of them would be the anthropologist Leela Dube. A much-cited essay, “Caste and Women”, which she wrote in 1991, is in the nature of an overview about how she saw caste operating on women through kinship relations. In a section dealing with marriage and sexuality, there is a short discussion on early marriage in the context of her views regarding the centrality of women’s greater sexual 148

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impurity and consequent vulnerability compared with men in the maintenance of caste boundaries. “Caste imparts a special character to the process of growing up female” (Dube 2008 [1991]: 471). On the one hand, uppercaste women are much more vulnerable, according to Dube, to permanent pollution than lower-caste women. But she then provides the following differential picture when it comes to early marriage: In traditional terms it is the marriage of a virgin with full rites within the acceptable limits of connubiality which sacralises and sanctifies the girl’s sexuality. It makes her a full member of her caste and thus a complete person…. It is significant that while castes and families who can afford to keep their girls secluded and protected tend to marry them off after puberty, other castes who require that their daughters work in the fields or away from home prefer to marry them before puberty”. (Dube 2008: 473) Notice therefore a certain tension between, on the one hand, the declaration of upper-caste women’s greater vulnerability to pollution by virtue of their upper-caste status coupled with the capacity of such castes (today?) to marry off their daughters later and, on the other, so-called lower castes who feel unable to provide their working daughters with any other viable protection than a pre-pubertal marriage. These contradictory statements (which are rather formulaic and all too brief since it is also not clear what regions or time periods are being referred to) are indicative of the nature of the challenge in thinking about marriage practices and forms of control as these have been evolving in contemporary times, especially in relation to age. This is where the absence of a historical account is a severe stumbling block, one that would better show how “traditional” practices such as child marriage become subject to very different processes of change depending on, among other things, one’s location in a caste hierarchy. So while upper-caste women are ostensibly subjected to more stringent norms of purity, their privilege also translates into entering marriage markets later than lower castes do. These issues were already flagged in Chapter 1. For its part, a classic textbook like Patricia Uberoi’s Family, Kinship and Marriage in India (1993) has no essays that address age or childhood, and neither of these terms appears in the index. Rather, issues of the difference in marriage practices in the north and south, changes in the joint family system, the inequalities between wife-givers and wife-takers, the “social evil” of dowry, and so on appear to have constituted the canon of marriage studies from anthropological and sociological perspectives. Interestingly, some of the more historically oriented essays that show changes over time point to some of the peculiarities of the marriage market structured by hierarchy and hypergamy in a modern economy, such that dowry inflation, for instance, went hand in hand with higher levels of education, urbanization and new jobs. Although age is not mentioned in Ursula Sharma’s important 149

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essay on the subject of dowry (which included the shocked discovery of dowry deaths by women’s organizations among urban middle-class families in the 1970s and ’80s), one can presume that this “social evil” took place when ages of marriage were higher and competition for grooms was greater (Sharma 1993). The reason to pause over this is that so many reports on child marriage have emphasized the avoidance of larger dowry payments as a major reason for marrying their daughters early. However, if higher dowry payments are a consequence of the modern competition among families for social prestige, in which women become the instruments, then perhaps a prior question would have to be asked of those who at this time are marrying with smaller dowries. Could it be that they are simply not able to compete in these kinds of inflated marriage markets, or does a younger age actually work as compensation for not having more to offer financially? In any event, then, shouldn’t the primary problem be the negative consequences of this modern institution of dowry as much if not more than those who marry too young? It is surely noteworthy that one of the earliest campaigns of the women’s movement in the 1980s in India was against the giving and taking of dowry, which, however, ran aground before the decade came to a close. (See Basu 2005 for an excellent overview.) Some thought that this battle might actually be misplaced in contexts where daughters received next to no inheritance, but the larger story (yet to be adequately told) is that energies flagged as this “modern monster” (to use M.N. Srinivas’s evocative phrase) just kept getting bigger and fatter, openly flouting whatever existing laws were in place. (It is also worth noting in passing that Ursula Sharma believes that similar changes, and similar negative consequences, have attended the inflation of bridewealth in those countries in Africa known to practice it.) A much more recent collection of essays on marriage is Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World, edited by Ravinder Kaur and Rajni Palriwala (2014). What is valuable in the editors’ introduction is their effort to spell out what kind of institution marriage is. Whether arranged by others or chosen for love by the individuals marrying, marriage “is an alliance in structuralist and political terms”, establishing ties between two social groups such as family-households, lineages or clans, and has implications for the continuity and boundaries of these groups and for inheritance and status, access to resources, care and support. As a fundamental social institution, “it is part of the espoused social values and cultural beliefs cutting across many classes, communities and regions in South Asia. The inequalities of marriage, domesticity and society remain interwoven, and as with all institutions, particularly those that pervade society and have a hegemonic sway, marriage excludes, it marginalises those who fall outside its parameters or never enter it” (Kaur and Palriwala 2014: 4–5). One element that even this comprehensive description does not sufficiently highlight in our context is that marriage is not just hegemonic but bears a profound compulsory force that is almost universal. 150

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We shall have occasion to come back to this critical issue at the end of this chapter. Diverse practices, greater class differentiation within caste-based alliances, and the possibilities of resistance or the greater acceptability of separation, divorce and remarriage can be accommodated here. The editors conclude with a question: Beyond the claims of the English speaking world, are there trends towards “the democratisation of marriage as more people choose their own partners through pre-marital courtship, and [terminate] unhappy marriages through divorce?” (Kaur and Palriwala 2014: 20). It would surely be worth comparing these descriptions of marriage with the discussion in Chapter 2 on contemporary marriage in the US. Clearly, India couldn’t be further removed from the kind of de-institutionalization referred to by Stefanie Coontz and Andrew Cherlin. But, then again, recall that it was necessary to correct for a less-than-careful account of contemporary US practices in order to reveal the role that marriage is playing there in reinforcing status and prestige. Once again, however, age is not foregrounded by Kaur and Palriwala in their introduction. Interestingly, age comes up in two of the essays in their volume, one on Bangladesh and one on India, which use demographic trends in their analysis. Both the essays have provocative arguments to make. The essay on Bangladesh, which I briefly referred to in the introduction to this book, concerns a country that has even higher prevalence rates of early marriage than India but that is treated as an “anomalous outlier”. This is because its fertility patterns are considerably lower than what would be expected in a context where early marriage is a norm; furthermore, levels of education do not fit standard demographic predictions. In fact, this essay uses existing secondary data to show that it is very difficult to establish any simple links between early marriage, stronger patriarchal structures and greater control over the lives of women. Although the authors Sajeda Amin and Maitreyi Das are obviously in favour of later marriage, they see interventions in the economic aspects of marriage, especially the association of dowry prevalence with poverty, as having more positive outcomes for women (Amin and Das 2014). The second essay, by Lester Andrist, Manjistha Banerji and Sonalde Desai, deals with India and builds on their prior research on marriage using Indian Human Development Survey data (Desai and Andrist, 2010). The arguments in the present volume take forward their notion of “gender scripts”, and theirs is one of the few demographic studies to actually provide a more dynamic view of marriage practices and marriage timing. Their point of departure is what looks like a mismatch between developments in the field of education in recent decades, where there has been so much expansion in girls’ schooling and even access to higher education, and the relatively slower rise in mean ages at marriage. In their view, early marriage is part of a gender script or gender performance, along with practices such as seclusion, and gender segregation. This is how they set up the problem: Families today may be in a dilemma over wanting more education for their daughters (to appear more modern) while 151

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having to contend with fears relating to modesty and sexual purity (i.e., socalled culture and tradition), apart from pressures of finding a good match, which would dwindle as girls get older (Andrist and others 2014). I believe these are very significant considerations and, within the limits of the vocabulary of tradition and modernity, speak to contemporary conflicts over Indian girlhood and womanhood. But rather than simply refer to gender scripts as they do, the necessary context would be better described as one where marriage is treated as compulsory, structured by a marriage market affected by an extraordinarily complex set of factors, including education. But we do not (yet) have an adequate description or analysis of this kind of compulsory marriage market in all its regional, caste and class ramifications. The resolution offered by Andrist, Banerji and Desai is that aspiring families achieve a nice alignment of modernity with tradition by conducting the marriage ceremony early and then leaving a considerable gap to allow the young wife to be educated up to college before she actually moves into her in-law’s home with the corresponding gauna ceremony. But only certain castes in Rajasthan are currently known for these kinds of child marriages, and all indications show that they are on the wane. What is needed is a more nuanced exploration of changing trends in education and age at marriage, including the distinct possibility that wives do continue with their education after they are married. Moreover, a perusal of associations of age at marriage with levels of education (see Table 3.3 in the previous chapter) would show that girls may go all the way to secondary school and still have no other future than an underage marriage. Nevertheless, this essay provides one kind of dynamic model for thinking about the relationship between contemporary marriages and the significance of age and indicates that contradictory pressures might be at work when it comes to marriage timing. Such models have been quite lacking so far. A contemporary ethnographic study of marriage practices among lower castes in a slum in New Delhi by Shalini Grover shows how such studies can offer insights into persisting trends in a contemporary urban context, even though age at marriage is not directly addressed. All that the study has to say on age is the following: “The legal age for marriage in India is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. In actuality, girls [in this study] are married between the ages of 15 and 18, and boys between 20 and 25” (Grover 2011: 32). Here then is an effective account of an urban version of adolescent marriage. Grover goes on to dwell on what makes arranged marriages hegemonic even in a context where women might be employed and where secondary unions are not uncommon. So-called love marriages (between adolescents, who may have known each other since childhood) are rarer, not because they are less stable but because women in such relationships cannot rely on crucial natal family networks in times of need. As Grover puts it, “an arranged marriage guarantees post-marital support as well as a crucial entitlement to refuge” in situations where, although husbands have been chosen for their supposed breadwinner role, women have to contend 152

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with physical violence, alcohol-related abuse, sexual jealousy and conflict over money within unequal marital relations (Grover 2011: 202–203). It is quite likely that the lens of marriage timing would have added further insights into these very same marriage practices if only to indicate why higher ages of marriage or remaining single is unlikely to find a place in such a world, but this was not its focus. Similar studies that explore change in rural contexts such as U. Kalpagam’s very interesting discussion of aspirations among women in a village in Uttar Pradesh also look for such change in terms of questions of choice. Marriage by choice versus marriage according to traditional norms is the frame through which she recounts the views of both older and younger women from different castes in a context where it would be obvious that more education, growing desires for financial independence and especially the desire to escape village life through making a good match in the nearby city of Allahabad would have definite repercussions on the age at which marriages would take place. But this is not commented on – rather, young women’s tendency to still wish to leave it to parental responsibility to find a marriage partner, even as they negotiate more freedom for themselves, is at the heart of Kalpagam’s inquiries (Kalpagam 2008). One more example of new scholarship on marriage, Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economies, State Regulation and the Marital Form in India, co-edited by Srimati Basu and Lucinda Ramberg (Basu and Ramberg, eds. 2015), provides further clues as to how age may have escaped the frameworks of those at the cutting edge of present-day research. While never losing sight of the marriage form, the editors set out to “dethrone the reigning definition of marriage as a relationship between reproductively oriented self-evident men and women” (2015: 6). They ask: when a man wishes to marry his male lover in front of family and friends, or when an online Quikr advertisement asks for a female companion for the chairman of a multi-national company who would be “wife-like”, what forms might these be? Their introduction and several of the essays have to do with non-heteronormative conjugalities, divorce among Muslim women, the devadasi married to the goddess, and love marriages against caste and familial authority. However, without intending to do so, these modes of investigation leave the “norm” somewhat unaddressed. It is assumed that it is enough to refer to the state-centric and reformist mode of standardized marriage, one that is patrilineal, monogamous and heterosexual. They go on to say that “it is not unsurprising that socially marginalised people continue to reach for and implicate themselves in a form that reproduces hierarchies of gender and caste even as it confers legitimacy. A wife may be an abject form of social personhood in relation to a husband, but she is not socially dead in the way that a widow, a lesbian, or a prostitute is” (Basu and Ramberg 2015: 10). Their central question is: Can – and should – marriage be reclaimed in non-normative relationships and by non-normative subjectivities? Age might have but does not appear as a vector that either normalizes 153

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or destabilizes the marital form, and child marriage is all but absent. Although age was not in their frame, this book is immensely helpful in thinking further about the hegemonic quality of compulsory marriage in contemporary India. It completely confirms my claim in the introduction to this book that it is marriage – not heterosexuality – that is foundational, and the examples of non-normative marriage and marriage-like arrangements provided in this volume strengthen my thesis considerably. Current studies on marriage – many of them clearly marked by feminist concerns – thus indicate that the question of age largely remains a challenge for future work. Let us turn the question around: How could further thought about marriage throw light on questions of age? We will come back to this in the concluding sections of this chapter. In the meantime, what can be learnt from the world of education?

Scholarship on education Krishna Kumar is one of India’s leading educationists. In a significant article, “Culture, State and Girls: An Educational Perspective” (Kumar 2010), Kumar has delivered an extraordinarily powerful negative indictment of education in relation to girls. He believes that a genuinely childhood-centric education is incompatible with the kind of culture that girls in India have already imbibed well before they enter the school gates for the first time. As he outlined it, this is a culture with ancient Indian roots, reworked during the colonial period by Hindu nationalist ideas, to which the Indian state has accommodated itself, such that little girls already know that their future is to be wives and mothers. This means that girls and boys do not enter primary education similarly. While boys from labouring families experience a break from their unacknowledged family labour when they enter school, the story for girls, according to Kumar, is quite different: Their involvement in the family’s work starts in childhood and continues throughout the school-age years, but never receives acknowledgement. That is what it means to grow up female: to learn to work and live without being acknowledged…..These negative proclivities are established by a routinised rearing system which compels girls to curb their child-like agility and restrain their physical movements and gaze. Giving priority to others’ wishes and cultivating readiness to accept guilt and to feel a sense of shame are among the qualities girls are required – and not merely encouraged – to imbibe since long before puberty brings in a still harsher regime. (Kumar 2010: 79) Kumar goes on to argue that the notion of socialization is an inadequate concept for grasping how this happens since socialization presumes modern ideas of freedom and dignity in a process that smoothens the tension 154

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between differentiated individuals and society. His preferred term is cultural imprinting, whose force on young girls stands in complete contradiction to the notions of autonomy and creativity necessary for learning. No bleaker version of the double bind of the child-woman could have been scripted – as someone who could never be a child but also never be an adult, if by adult one implies some sense of recognition and self-worth if not autonomy. If we were to revisit the questions raised in Chapter 1 and especially Chapter 2 about what modern childhood might mean in the case of girls, Kumar’s response for contemporary India seems to be that there is none. Marriage during childhood is the norm, and in the middle and wealthier classes, girls “escape” early marriage while nonetheless having imbibed the “wisdom” of what their ultimate futures will be. The value in Kumar’s account is that he does not shy away from naming universal early marriage and subsequent motherhood as a basic structural force of Indian society today. His views and those of other educationists like Karuna Chanana who have made similar arguments ought to be taken seriously by all those concerned with child marriage and by those who are looking instrumentally at education as a means to delay age at marriage to that of 18 to satisfy legal and reproductive health requirements. I am less sure, however, about the totalizing mode in which Kumar constructs his normative claims about the child-woman, which in any case seem to assume that clear norms of childhood are fully in place in Western contexts but absent in India, where we remain imprisoned by our ancient culture. As Chapter 2 attested, childhood, including notions of adolescence, has been highly contested and conflicted terrain over the course of its invention. It would also have been helpful to know more about what a differently oriented education policy could be doing to counter these imprinting processes. Are schools ready to actually address the institution of marriage in India and how would they do so? Are we sufficiently well served by the overly simple notion that the control of sexuality is at the heart of this institution (see Chanana 2001)? What more must schools be taking on that families are unprepared to do? What support can students expect to receive from their schools and teachers if they do not follow conventional gender scripts? There are also critical voices in the field of education such as that of Sarada Balagopalan who is both at odds with educational policy and disappointed with the lack of feminist interest in the field of education at the present time. Balagopalan is certainly right that compared with the preindependence period when education was so pivotal in the agendas of reformers and for women’s organizations, this kind of interest is no longer critical for the contemporary women’s movement. Much of this has already been discussed in Chapter 1. Her criticisms have to do with the problematic content of educational policies directed at girls by a state that is solely focussed on enrolments but that has little concern over what education ought to mean and the critical roles it could be playing. In one of her essays, 155

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she questions the kinds of surveillance that rural girls in residential schools are subjected to, all in the name of increasing retention and preventing “traditional” ills such as early marriage (Balagopalan 2010). On their part, as we saw in Chapter 3, demographic studies of early marriage that look at correlations with education indicate that education up to primary schooling, compared with no education, does little to change the prevalence of early marriage. From a crudely instrumental point of view, then, there ought to be a greater interest in secondary education if not higher education. The years spent in secondary education are the crucial years of completing high school from the ages of 14 to 18, so essential for any kind of further education or training beyond. It is therefore salutary that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2017) brought out by Pratham on the status of learning in elementary schooling has launched a special report for the first time in 2017, called “Beyond Basics”, which addresses youth in the age category 14 to 18 years, of whom 86% are in formal education. According to their statistics, although there is just a 1% gender gap among those not enrolled at 14 years (4.7% for boys and 5.7% for girls), this increases to 4.3% among those not enrolled at 18 years (27.8% for boys and 32.1% for girls). Explanations for such trends would be vital, especially when both boys and girls are dropping out. What is most visible in much of the scholarship on schooling is an ongoing focus on primary or elementary education. Important studies such as those in the edited volume by R. Govinda (2011), Who Goes to School? Exploring Exclusion in Indian Education, demonstrate why educationists have continued to focus on elementary education in a paradoxical situation. Tremendous additions in enrolment every year go hand in hand with the all-too-familiar story about those for whom education seems to have no necessary place in their lives. The compulsions for boys to add to the family income or for girls to help at home continues to produce “dropouts” at the primary stage of schooling itself. In these discussions, early marriage does not figure – girls are dropping out and then kept busy with work at home. It is only in the last few years or so, perhaps in response to the current pressure to address child marriage, that connections between early marriage and education are being made. A study conducted in rural Andhra and Telangana (Kannabiran, Mishra and others 2017) was particularly focussed on how education might be playing a critical role in relation to early marriage in these states. The authors observed that in those villages where all levels of schools were present (i.e., up to higher secondary schools) ages of marriage were higher. They also noted the significance of dropouts among the majority of their respondents who had married below 18. Reasons given for dropping out in their study appear to be quite complex. First, the greatest proportions were dropping out to engage in some kind of paid work (details of which were not specified), and this did not depress the age of marriage. In fact, in Telangana, the figures for age at marriage were higher compared with those in Andhra. 156

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A close second in terms of proportions was dropping out to get married (with somewhat lower ages of marriage in Telangana); the reason of care of younger siblings was a distant third. By taking a life-cycle view of these processes, the study showed further that very few were being married right after reaching puberty. Instead, some girls left school to engage in paid work followed by early marriage whereas others dropped out and then were married. At the same time, the authors remark that schooling did not seem to occupy a significant place in the lives of these girls and their families. Something of this new interest in early marriage can be seen in the work of Shanta Sinha, who is well known as a campaigner for the abolition of child labour and now calls child marriage “sanctified subjugation”. In a characteristic earlier essay where child labour is central, Shanta Sinha and Amuluya Reddy displayed some impatience with the language and framework of dropouts, which place the blame on the poverty of the parents or on macroeconomic structures. Such children, they said, should rather be called “push outs” since it is institutional insensitivity and “the limitation of the [school] system to rise to the expectations of the faith the poor parents have reposed in the system that results in children getting pushed out” (2011: 197). A recently launched report of the MV Foundation, with which Sinha is associated (MV Foundation 2018), is based on interviews with girls married below the age of 18. Its tone is particularly strident: their first recommendation is that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) must be amended to make all marriages below 18 void. In this report, in considerable contrast to the prior studies of “push outs” where schools were held responsible for low enrolments, families are castigated for forcing their daughters into child marriage, as though sole responsibility rested with them rather than being shared with schooling or indeed the world beyond. More constructive is the kind of programmatic demand placed on the system of education, which is spelt out in some detail: the establishment of high schools, and corresponding infrastructure and financial support for girls, in all villages. There is obviously enormous scope for much more research on the complex relationships between education and marriage. Consider the vexed question of the causative relationship between the two, which was encountered in Chapter 3 in the context of demographic studies that have clearly established strong associative links between levels of education and ages at marriage. Only detailed questions of a more qualitative nature can distinguish between a situation where a girl’s education is actually being cut short by the decision to marry (whether this decision is made by parents or by the girl herself) or whether girls are “push outs” from a failing educational system, who must then be married off sooner rather than later. Anecdotal evidence from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and my own recent field investigations would indicate that the latter is more in evidence than the former as parents are becoming increasingly invested in the education of 157

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their children. Mothers with little or no educational opportunities have considerable expectations from daughters, whether or not such aspirations are realized. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) periodically conducts smaller surveys on specific themes and one of these concerns the costs of education. Table 4.1 provides a snapshot view at the all-India level of different reasons for dropping out or never enrolling among boys/men and girls/women in the age group of 5 to 29 years (thus spanning the larger proportions who enter primary schooling all the way to the smaller numbers in higher education). While financial constraints are a big obstacle for both boys and girls and “not interested in education” is in all likelihood a euphemism covering a host of institutional ills that leads to “push outs”, the starkest gender divides are in dropping out for “economic” activities and for “domestic” work. Marriage figures only marginally for girls. So it is very likely that when it comes to the much-cited associations between levels of education and age at marriage, it is the educational system that is failing the youth rather than that girls in large numbers are being forcibly pulled out of school in order to be married off.

Table 4.1  Major reasons for never enrolling/dropping out, age group of 5–29 years, 71st Round, NSSO 2014 Male


Major reason never enrolling/dropping out Never enrolled 123 445 Not interested in education 6,518 4,790 Financial constraints 6,100 4,155 Domestic activities 1,233 7,160 Economic activities 7,015 1,041 School-related reasons 240 939 Level completed 1,224 1,256 Failed 1,160 881 Preparing for competitive exams 328 176 Girl student – Marriage 0 2,706 Girl Student – School-specific 0 52 Others 1,855 2,260 Total 25,797 25,860










10,256 8,393 8,057

40.5 85.3 12.9

19.9 16.2 15.6

1,179 2,479 2,040

79.6 50.6 43.2

2.3 4.8 3.9







52 4,115 51,657

100.0 54.9 50.1

0.1 8.0 100.0

Source: Adapted from the 71st Round National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) Report and Unit-Level Data, Education in India January–June 2014 on Social Expenditure in Education. % Female calculated out of Male + Female; % Total calculated as proportion of Total.


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These figures must be further contextualized at a time when education has seen extraordinary expansion and a closing of gender gaps between boys and girls, all the way up to higher education. Education has become the principal route in aspirations for social mobility, especially for marginal groups, the very ones that have been most prone to early marriage. Educational institutions in India are, however, extremely diverse and unequal. More recent research has been examining the range of schools across the government and private divide (Vasavi forthcoming) and the experiences of discrimination among new entrants in schools that reinforce inequalities rather than reduce them (e.g., Velaskar 2003; Nambissan and Rao 2013; Ramachandran and Jandhyala 2010). Perhaps the question should be asked the other way around – for whom does education make a difference? Under what conditions can girls have greater negotiating power and what role does schooling play? This is particularly important at a time where there are scattered reports of girls who are coming forward with the support of NGOs to stop their marriages. We must surely go on to ask: What is the relationship between education and marriage for those considered to be legal adults? Are the more educated resisting if not subverting gender scripts? And what of the growing phenomenon of young love that does not find familial sanction but precisely for that reason may need the legal refuge of marriage all the more?

Labour, work and employment Fleeting references have been made to work in relation to marriage and early marriage. It can safely be said that the relationship between labour, work and age at marriage is the least explored in our context. This is no ordinary “gap”. Across the world, ages of marriage rose when significant proportions of women became part of a work force that received wages and even more so when extended years of schooling and training were prerequisites in the search for jobs and livelihoods. This is the story of adolescence and adulthood normalized in Western contexts during the twentieth century; it is also the story in countries like China, beginning with how the Chinese state addressed rural women as workers under socialism. The Indian situation could not be more different. Low work-force participation rates among women in twenty-first-century India is an issue that somehow has eluded public attention more generally and especially in the literature on early and child marriage.

The case of child labour A good indication of the lack of links between age at marriage and questions of labour and work can be seen in discussions on child labour. Moreover, the issue of child labour demonstrates a very different approach to the whole question of childhood compared with what we have seen in 159

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the realm of marriage. Although child labour is a major theme with a legacy that goes back to late-nineteenth-century colonial India, it appears to have gained fresh visibility in the Indian context in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Thus, it predates the new twenty-first-century focus on early and child marriage. One of the first things that is striking is that the very concept of child labour is a matter of hot debate. Articles and books are structured around different views, and much of the writing on the subject is carried out in a spirit of strong disagreement. One way of making a link between child marriage and child labour would be via the very definition of a child. If no child below the age of 18 can give consent to marriage, then such a marriage, by definition, must be considered forced marriage. Any labour within such a marriage would then be forced labour (not unlike slavery, which has been banned by international conventions). Those opposed to child marriage in principle can thus find further ammunition by rendering it as forced labour under international conventions. But others question the very structure of these new conventions around the rights of the child. In the context of the enactment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), it is telling that those sections dealing with child labour have been the most contentious. Vasanthi Raman, for instance, has argued that it is precisely here that the Eurocentric bias of the new child rights discourse is most visible. “In many third world settings children’s work is considered valuable not merely for the economic contribution they make towards their own and the family’s survival and viability, but also because such work has its own place in integrating children into the family and wider kin and community networks” (Raman 2000: 4057). Another social scientist, G.K. Lieten, has asked: How should child labour be defined? Is all work done by children a problem? He argues that it is wrong to have a single definition of child labour and that the tendency to place all children not in school – whom he calls “nowhere children” – within the category of potential or actual child labour is a mistake. According to him, it is necessary to disentangle different situations, especially the hazardous, largely urban-based exploitation of children from other kinds of work such children may be doing as part of socialization within their families, especially in rural contexts (Lieten 2002). But Neera Burra cannot agree, and she makes a gendered analysis to underscore her point. First of all, she finds the very distinction between child labour and child work suspect – a distinction that is endorsed by the International Labour Organization and the World Bank – where it is only child labour which must be opposed as it interferes with children’s development and especially their schooling. She goes on to say that such a distinction is particularly problematic when it comes to girls. It is girls whose schooling is curtailed and who are engaged in “invisible” unpaid family work related to households – from collecting water and fuel to housework and sibling care (Burra 2005; Burra 2001). 160

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In the midst of this contentious literature where the very question of what counts as child labour remains open to different views and definitions of the problem, it was all the more instructive to discover how the question of age is addressed. The upper limit for legislation on child labour has been set at 14 years, a significantly lower level than that of marriage. Much of the debate on child labour has been connected to the push for making the education of children compulsory and universal. Here too the extraordinarily long and, until very recently, unsuccessful effort to enforce the right to education in India as a state-sanctioned fundamental right to all children was focussed entirely on elementary education until class eight, when children would be in the region of 14 years. The contrast with the push to end child marriage is palpable where the age of 18 years, as we saw, has made many look to secondary levels of schooling as a way forward. Curiously, at the very time when legislation on child marriage has sought to become more stringent, the most recent amendment of the Child Labour Law (in 2016) has allowed for non-hazardous work, including family and householdbased work, by children below the age of 14. All of this has made for few connections between those engaged in child labour and those concerned with child marriage. Scholars like Neera Burra who have been at the forefront of writing and advocating on the subject on child labour have also paid some attention to the girl child in this context. Most of the focus in the literature on child labour has been on boys since it is they who predominate within the definition of labour for remuneration. In order to draw attention to girls, Burra compares feminist arguments about the invisibility of women’s domestic work with the work assigned to girls at home, which keeps them out of school. Just as feminists have argued that women need to be brought out of the private sphere into the public world for their empowerment, so too must girls be disengaged from housework in order to gain an education, which is currently being denied to them. The equation of being female with the labour associated with the home is yet another version of the childwoman that we have been encountering so extensively throughout this book. Burra makes the further assumption that schooling is the pathway to a life outside the domestic sphere, a common but erroneous assumption in the Indian context. Yet again, the very low work participation rates of women remain completely unacknowledged. But Burra does make a link with child marriage in her account of the work of the MV Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, whose efforts to combat child labour involved postponing the marriage of girls. Organizing girls – now described as adolescent girls – who were working or out of school to make them go back to school also led to organizing them to resist being married before the age of 18. According to MV women staff, as cited by Burra, it was easier to get parents to participate in programmes against practices of bonded labour than to change marriage practices (Burra 2001). Whatever the efficacy of these programmes, the effort seems to be one of keeping girls in school, although it is not clear 161

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what new avenues of employment would be available to them after they turned 18. There is also a definite limitation in the frameworks adopted: while the whole discussion on child labour is located within the conditions of survival besetting poor households who are dependent on the contributions of children, the discussion on marriage is framed in terms of “cultural stereotypes” and “deep seated beliefs, traditions and mindsets”, where people basically suffer from “false consciousness” (Burra 2001). A different case study of child labour, undertaken by Sabiha Hussain, is about girls who are engaged in rolling agarbattis (producing incense sticks as a form of home-based work) along with other women of the family among Muslim and Dalit households in certain pockets of rural Bihar. This is a particularly grim account of the “lost childhood” of these children. She contrasts the situation in both communities where compulsions of poverty keep children out of school. Dalit family members said that it was preferable to have their daughters roll agarbattis at home rather than go out for more risky brick kiln or agricultural labour, whereas impoverished Muslim families would not allow women to undertake any work outside the home. Hussain remarks in passing, in a note of surprise, that while such child labour has its hazards, child marriage is not a practice among these particular families. Presumably, the contributions to household income, however small (including some money for personal expenses and towards a dowry), are significant enough to plan their marriages at a later age than is otherwise common (Hussain 2015).

Women’s work and child marriage A major reason why efforts to address child marriage are so flawed is that the realm of women’s relation to work has hardly been examined in this context. An important exception would be an essay by Deepita Chakravarty (2018), which has also been included as part of a larger study entitled “Love, Law and Labour: Child Marriage in West Bengal”, conducted by the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University (Sen and Ghosh, eds. forthcoming). Her main point of departure is that since West Bengal is an average performer when it comes to literacy or poverty, it is the lack of economic opportunities for women (i.e., gainful employment with adequate remuneration) that accounts for the fact that West Bengal has such high proportions of girls marrying below the age of 18. Her essay offers crucial historical and contextual underpinnings, which are complex and contradictory. After all, as we saw in Chapter 1, Bengal was at the heart of the social reform struggles focussed on child marriage during the colonial period. So, first, it would appear that the version of cultural nationalism that was promoted during the reformist period in colonial Bengal was able to expand its normative place in the decades that followed, one that not only glorified female domesticity within the home but that reached beyond the urban middle classes to the rural and working poor. Equally crucial, the nature of 162

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agricultural production, on the one hand, and industrial stagnation and decline, on the other, became forces of effective exclusion for women in the realm of work. In rural Bengal, women are predominantly engaging in small home-based activities (such as a popular form of embroidery known as katha stitching), and urban cities have been attracting disproportionately large numbers of young migrant girls to work in middle-class homes as domestic servants. None of these forms of work or employment requires any relationship with schooling and all are perfectly compatible with early marriage (Chakravarty 2018). The paradoxes that characterize the exceptional situation in urban Kolkata, where girls in the age group of five to nine years outnumber boys among child workers, might in turn throw some light on the much larger paradox that characterizes women’s work in India, once the institution of marriage, especially early marriage, is brought into the picture. Deepita Chakravarty and Ishita Chakravarty have been trying to make sense of Kolkata’s girl child workers in a series of studies (Chakravarty and Chakravarty 2008, 2013, 2016) and so has another investigation by Samita Sen and Nilanjana Sengupta (Sen and Sengupta 2016). This is effectively a story of reversal – from the early-twentieth-century colonial period when child-wives from well to do families were looked after by elderly servants to the contemporary period when highly educated affluent metropolitan women (married at appropriately adult ages, who might be housewives or pursuing careers) could be served by full-time live-in girl children. Poverty, poor quality of schooling, histories of migration, and contracting work opportunities for both working-class men and women have resulted in a situation where the inequalities of age and gender have made paid domestic work by far the leading sector of urban employment for women in Kolkata, quite supplanting an older feudal culture of male servants (Ray and Qayyum 2009). Kolkata also has significant rates of early marriage compared with the much lower rates in other Indian cities, and patterns of decline have been much less pronounced. In their survey of domestic workers in two working-class squatter settlements in Kolkata, Samita Sen and Nilanjana Sengupta found that early marriage “interrupted” the life cycle of young unmarried girls who were working for little more than bed and board and who then returned after motherhood to work part-time in more than one household. Furthermore, there was little change in age of marriage across three generations in spite of protestations by respondents that they wished to marry their daughters later (Sen and Sengupta 2016: 181–184). The phenomenon of young girl children working in Kolkata’s middleclass homes indicates why the pathway of this kind of employment does not change the trajectory of their early marriage. The very different state of Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, has been held up as a “good” state and has relatively low rates of early marriage. It is also a state known for a pattern of industrialization in its most advanced industrial sectors such as garment manufacture and electronics industries within Export Processing Zones, 163

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where young unmarried girls have found work. Kavita Krishnan has quoted from advertisements by companies like Victoria’s Secret that position their Tamil Nadu factories as the saviours of poor rural girls who otherwise would be condemned to early marriages but who now have found a different life in their manufacturing units by making bras (Krishnan 2018). Tamil Nadu has been known for its infamous Sumangali scheme (which had to be officially stopped), whereby young adolescent girls, mostly Dalit, worked in spinning mills, often as so-called apprentices with the promise of a lumpsum payment at the end of 1 to 3 years, under conditions that amounted to bonded labour. According to some reports, the practice continues despite being illegal (Theuws and Overeem 2014). Other studies, such as by Madhumita Dutta, have offered a more favourable account of migrant young women (in their early twenties) from rural Odisha and Tamil Nadu, who savoured their few years of employment in a Chennai Nokia factory before its abrupt closure in 2014 (Dutta forthcoming). All of them had completed at least 12 years of schooling or had begun a college education when compulsions – usually hardship and poverty in the family, especially when fathers did not manage to be “breadwinners” – brought them into the world of mobile phone assembly. Just how complex the world of factory life becomes can be further glimpsed in a recent study by Tamil Nadu’s Council of Child Welfare: In those towns and cities in Tamil Nadu where the prominence of factory work has created the sense of abundant work opportunities for a young growing migrant workforce, they found that more than half of the cases of underage marriages among local girls were “love marriages” with this class of male factory workers. In rural districts, however, almost all the underage marriages were arranged by families among poorer castes (Murugesan, Rajan and Kumarbabu 2019). How, then, do we view these examples of youth, work, love and marriage in the “modern” context of factory life and its attendant cultures? Some marriages may be underage, others not. And what of the numerous cases of fully adult women in Bangalore’s garment manufacturing units? A tribunal set up by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance for a “living wage” listened to testimonies in Bangalore in 2012 from women workers from several garment manufacturing units that testified to systematic practices of overtime, having to meet impossible targets, acts of sexual harassment by supervisors, and wage theft through the withholding of payments, among other violations (Asia Floor Wage Alliance 2014). All of these very specific and somewhat isolated examples make it abundantly clear that women’s relation to work and employment is in a peculiar crisis because marriage has been so naturalized (or considered so central to Indian culture) as to make women’s large-scale exclusion from gainful employment go unnoticed. India’s employment market is markedly characterized by the most exploitative of conditions and low levels of remuneration when it comes to women. For the majority, there are no jobs waiting at the end of their school years, whether urban or rural. In ways that are 164

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hardly paid attention to, the only qualification for a “good” marriage is the right kind of education, and these very qualifications need not have any job prospects. In order to correct the widespread assumption that higher ages at marriage bear a positive correlation with employment opportunities, Table 4.2 gives us a rudimentary picture based on National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) unit data. Note that NFHS asks only very minimal questions about occupation to a smaller sample of respondents. Table 4.2 offers break-ups for very broad categories of employment (not working, professional work, sales, agriculture and manual work) among respondents in the 15- to 49-year age group, disaggregating among those who married below 18 years, between 18–20 years and 21 and above. Information has been provided at the all-India level and for three states known for their high prevalence of underage marriage. For those Table 4.2  Occupational status by age of marriage groups in India, NFHS 2015–16 States and indicators

Married below 18 years

Married between 18 and 20 years

Not working  Rajasthan 66.2 72.1   West Bengal 74.3 84.8  Telangana 42.1 58.8 India 65.2 73.5 Professional/technical/managerial/clerical  Rajasthan 0.7 0.9   West Bengal 0.8 1.2  Telangana 1.4 4.8 India 1.1 2.2 Sales/services  Rajasthan 2.8 1.7   West Bengal 5.4 2.7  Telangana 8.0 8.0 India 5.0 4.1 Agricultural  Rajasthan 22.4 18.8   West Bengal 6.9 4.9  Telangana 37.6 19.9 India 21.3 14.4 Skilled/unskilled manual  Rajasthan 8.0 6.4   West Bengal 12.5 6.4  Telangana 10.9 8.5 India 7.4 5.7

Married by 21 years and above



75.1 77.6 62.4 74.4

69.7 77.8 50.7 70.2

3,045 5,306 1,357 61,329

4.2 9.5 12.5 7.0

1.4 2.4 4.4 3.0

61 162 117 2,609

2.7 4.3 3.8 4.8

2.4 4.5 7.3 4.6

105 305 195 4,061

14.2 4.1 15.0 9.1

19.8 5.9 28.3 16.0

863 400 758 14,005

3.7 4.6 6.3 4.7

6.7 9.4 9.4 6.2

293 644 251 5,394

Source: National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4), 2015–16, Ages 15–49 years. The summation of all types of workers and non-workers is 100%. N denotes weighted sample size.


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unfamiliar with the Indian scenario (about which more shortly), the first shock would be that the majority have never worked for any kind of remuneration: 70.2% at the all-India level. Agricultural work is the highest category overall (and there are huge differences between the three states), and small proportions are to be found in the other sectors, including the most modern ones. But – even more surprising – the proportion of those not working increases at higher ages at marriage (associated with higher levels of education). West Bengal (a state with one of the lowest rates of employed women) has a somewhat different pattern because the greatest proportion of women not employed is in the 18- to 20-year age group. The stigma attached to agricultural and manual labour is evident too – it reduces at higher ages at marriage (which in turn are associated with higher standards of living). Only tiny proportions of married women in professional sectors see an increase in employment at higher ages at marriage. It is therefore a matter of some urgency that careless if not irresponsible claims of how eliminating child marriage will lead to better employment opportunities for girls must be critiqued. Whatever might be the situation in other parts of the world, this is most definitely not the Indian story. These considerations of age at marriage have rarely entered discussions on women’s work. Feminist scholars and development economists have been quite bedevilled by the more general question of how to link trends in women’s work in the Indian context with women’s lack of value and what should be done to address it. For very long, it seemed as though the only way forward was to question the very accounting systems that recorded such low work participation rates in the first place. Existing definitions of economic activity were expanded to include activities that do not involve a market transaction, part-time and subsidiary occupations came to be listed, and new categories were also created. A good example would be the NSSO’s data collection systems. During the 1980s, the NSSO changed its definitions of economic activity (to include productive work for own consumption such as self-cultivation), added new categories of domestic work and extended domestic work (to include free collection of fodder and fuel, tailoring for home consumption, and so on), and added subsidiary to principal occupations. This also led to some arbitrariness in terms of what was considered an economic activity and what fell within domestic production. Be that as it may, all these efforts went to prove that when all such work was counted, including what would be considered housework, women as a whole are working more than men (Sen and Sen 1985; Mondal, Ghosh, and others 2018). According to the NSS figures for 2011–12 for all workers, 86.2% of women and 79.8% of men are engaged in work (Mondal and others 2018). But other scholars pointed out that there is no getting away from the huge gap in women’s employment rates compared with men (even in contexts of poor employment prospects overall). (For a discussion, see John 166

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and Gopal forthcoming.) What is only now gaining some public traction is that women’s official work participation rates not only are low but have been dropping. Declines in women’s work-force participation had already become known in the 1970s, when it was among the major findings of the Towards Equality Report on the status of women in India (Sharma and Sujaya, eds. 2012). These declines were highlighted in relation to the effects of modernization and technological developments in agriculture and allied industries, such that women’s labour in fields and household industries was marginalized in relation to that of men. Later, yet again, during the years of high growth in the subsequent era of globalization and neoliberalism from the 1990s (when gross domestic product in India soared to double digits), national data sets showed patterns of overall stagnation if not decline, including in urban contexts. According to Neetha N., who has examined National Sample Survey rounds from the 1980s to 2011–12, in a situation marked by overall declines in female employment, women belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (in that order) have been the biggest losers. These losses were in a context where they are already over-represented in the most stigmatized and poorly paid sectors, in some contrast to enclaves of relative privilege among better-educated upper-caste urban women (Neetha 2014). Table 4.3 provides a snapshot of these trends for different social groups. (The point to keep in mind by way of contrast is that male work participation rates remain between 50% and 55% in both urban and rural contexts.) But what no one was prepared for were the results of the latest sources of data, initially suppressed by the government. The Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2017–18 has shown an unprecedented absolute decline in India’s overall labour force in which, yet again, it is women who have lost the most. The greatest declines have been among rural and less educated women, and there have been small gains for women with educational levels beyond high school, especially among upper-caste groups. But even here, these gains are taking place in a variety of low-level urban service-sector jobs which earlier were open to those with less education but in which computerization and technological changes could now be favouring those who have gone beyond high school (Kannan and Raveendran 2019; Chandrasekhar and Ghosh 2020). All these cumulative trends are hugely significant and extremely troubling in and of themselves. India’s entry into modernity over the course of the twentieth century and beyond, and across different eras of capitalist development, has been accompanied by smaller proportions of women entering the worlds of employment or, to put it differently, with larger proportions being excluded. The biggest declines have been in rural India and among those who are vulnerable by caste and class. Urban India in any case has lower work participation rates than our villages, as Table 4.3 has attested. Now consider bringing these trends into some kind of relationship with all the data trends we saw in Chapter 3 regarding early and child 167

Table 4.3  Female work force participation across social groups, NSS 1999–2000 to 2011–12 2004–05




Difference between 2011–12 and 1999–00

43.8 32.5 31.4 16.1

46.4 33.3 34.7 17.8

39.7 30.7 31.1 15.0

35.8 26.8 28.1 14.0

36.6 26.2 25.6 15.3

−7.2 −6.3 −5.8 −0.8

24.6 29.7

29.5 32.7

24.3 28.9

21.9 26.0

21.3 24.8

−3.3 −4.9

20.4 18.5 16.8 9.7

24.5 20.0 19.6 12.1

20.4 16.7 16.2 9.8

20.2 17.7 15.6 9.2

19.6 17.3 16.5 10.5

−0.8 −1.3 −0.3 0.7

11.2 13.9

14.0 16.6

11.9 13.8

11.7 13.7

13.4 14.7

2.2 0.8

41.2 29.9 28.4 14.0

44.4 30.8 31.6 16.0

38.0 27.9 27.8 13.2

34.5 25.0 25.1 12.4

34.8 24.2 23.3 13.6

−6.4 −5.7 −5.1 −0.4

19.8 25.8

23.4 28.7

19.2 25.0

17.7 22.7

17.9 21.9

−1.9 −3.8

Source: Unit-level data, Various rounds, National Sample Survey, Usual Principal and Subsidiary Workers (as a proportion of the entire population) N. Neetha (2014) OBC, Other backward class.

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Rural   Scheduled tribe   Scheduled caste   OBC non-muslims  Muslims  Upper caste non-muslims Total Urban   Scheduled tribe   Scheduled caste   OBC non-muslims  Muslims  Upper caste non-muslims Total Rural + Urban   Scheduled tribe   Scheduled caste   OBC non-muslims  Muslims  Upper caste non-muslims Total


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marriage and Table 4.2. A country known for high prevalence rates has nonetheless seen a slow and steady decline in child marriage. Table 4.2 revealed that more women were unemployed at higher ages at marriage at a single point in time (NFHS 4, 2015–16). In Table 4.3, based on National Sample Survey data, we see overall declines in paid work and employment over a time period that has witnessed an upward trend in age at marriage. No studies so far have brought both these effects of India’s path of development into the same frame. We will return to this vexed relationship at the end of this chapter. It should be clear that we are dealing with a very complex situation for women, whose dynamic is the outcome of the highly unequally interlocking markets of marriage with education and work across regions and for different social groups and classes over time. In recent years, especially among NGOs and several women’s organizations active on the ground, a different framework is palpable when it comes to tackling early and child marriage – it is that of the adolescent girl and her sexuality.

Adolescence and adolescent sexuality When the term “child” is used for anyone who marries below the age of 18, we have repeatedly seen that the marriage is treated as a violation. What changes when adolescence and the adolescent girl are the points of reference rather than that of the child? How is this category gaining traction today? Chapter 2 introduced the category and showed how adolescence shifted from being approached primarily as a problem phase among young people in Western industrializing societies to becoming normalized as a particularly plastic transitional stage in personal development. We also saw how the adolescent girl became a new category in international aid discourses and programmes. According to Dipta Bhog and Disha Mullick, a kind of “high risk, high potential” frame has been undergirding the priority that should now be granted to the adolescent girl (Bhog and Mullick 2015). Much of this is conceptualized in the form of better returns to investment and transformed futures for poor developing countries – invest in girls’ education, health and work rather than allowing them to marry and start families too soon. They go on to suggest that in Indian policy this has been reflected since the late 1990s in a shift from addressing women to focussing on girls. Bhog and Mullick take the example of the Sabla scheme for adolescent girls, which was launched by the Ministry of Women and Child Development as a “window of opportunity”: The scheme is meant to provide inputs and resources for young girls in selected districts in matters of nutrition, reproductive health counselling, vocational training and leadership building through the formation 169

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of, and capacity building with, collectives of girls at the village level. Although conceptually, and in terms of structure, the Sabla scheme holds potential as an empowering programme, its focus on health (especially sexual and reproductive health) and nutrition is far greater than the inputs both on accessing public spaces and entitlements, and vocational training. (Bhog and Mullick 2015:5; emphasis added) Notice the clear bias in such schemes, which, for all their promise, have so little to offer at those levels of public access and employment that would make all the difference for young people eager to experience greater autonomy, let alone attain the markers of adulthood. If we look at the relatively sparse literature available on adolescence and girls in India (compared with the effusion of writing elsewhere), we find a major contraction around the kind of questions that need to be raised in exploring what adolescence might mean in a context like ours. In some contrast to the call for realizing the full potential of adolescents in policy documents, actual studies – few and far between – have little to say about adolescence beyond treating it as a matter of age. Most of these studies address themselves to the question of sexuality. Adolescence is a term that now finds its place among some studies –titles of reports refer variously to reproductive health, sexual and reproductive health (as a compound phrase), sexuality and marriage. In somewhat circumspect ways, these kinds of studies wish to acknowledge the sexuality of the adolescent. (This is not a possibility when it comes to the child, except as child abuse and child sexual assault.) At the same time, this literature is also a troubled literature, often unable to express itself clearly, and is shrouded by references to the Indian situation where sexuality is seen to be a subject suffering from all possible taboos. What makes the writing particularly unsure of itself is that it is unable to do very much with the category of adolescence. Here is a rare case that actually has something to say about the notion: Growing up in Rural India: Problems and Needs of Adolescent Girls (published in 1990) by Ranjana Kumari, Renuka Singh and Anju Dubey. The introduction refers to ideas of adolescence (taken from Western sources) as a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, a time of “status discontinuity” (Kumari and others 1990: 3), only to contrast this with rural society, where there are no adolescents, only young girls. “There is no space for adolescence to occur in … rural situations as has been understood in the western model or even the Indian urban reality” (Kumari and others 1990: 4). The major reason is that her marriage takes place early, before or once she has reached puberty. This makes for a peculiar quality in such analyses, which list out problems and possibilities associated with adolescence – from turbulence and identity crisis to becoming mature – only to say that this is absent or avoided in rural India. Instead, it would appear that rural girls in this study have to 170

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deal with too early adulthood (invariably through their marriage), thus producing yet another version of the child-woman we have encountered so frequently, in this case through the eclipsing of “adolescence”. The above study was conducted in rural contexts. A very common distinction in studies of adolescents is a certain dichotomy – married adolescents (usually rural and usually girls) and sexual activity, before marriage, usually in urban contexts, where males are the more frequent subjects of enquiry. These studies adopt an unmarked heterosexual frame while allowing for some male homosexual activity in an exceptional mode. Amongst those working from a demographic or health perspective, the overall perspective is one of risk and therefore of the need for considerations of safe sex. This is particularly true in urban contexts where the adolescent becomes synonymous with being a person potentially or actually engaging in sex, often in problematic ways. One study begins by saying “Young people who are sexually active are clearly a minority of the total population, whether urban or rural, but they constitute a very large population and there are many signs that those numbers may be increasing” (Sodhi and others 2008: 303). But the study goes on to quote from several other studies, making it evident that there actually is no consensus on how much sexual activity there is, and there are many different findings and many limitations when it comes to approach and methodology. In their own study conducted in an urban slum in Delhi, the very acknowledgement of huge gender disparities and all the prohibitions surrounding “fear or loss of izzat (honour) or badnami/dhoka (defamation)” ends up making adolescent girls the subjects of a highly conflicted sexuality, whether they are having relationships or not. In those studies where men are the main subjects of study, women and girls appear only as partners (who might be married, unmarried or more rarely sex workers). In the one just cited, double standards and the coercion of girls abound, and girls who consent are invariably looking for “love” if not marriage. Or as another study (conducted in a slum in Mumbai) put it, girls tend to see their relationships in terms of “true love” whereas boys see it as “time pass” (Abraham 2008: 47–63). The obvious tension in these two articulations is left open. Thus, adolescence, clearly an emergent category, entails a very truncated existence, gesturing in the direction of problematic sexual behaviours. Overwhelmingly, adolescents or “youth” are simply a demographic group, whose “risky” behaviour calls for the better promotion of sexual and reproductive health in a population that was not recognized before. Even where there is an explicit aim to develop notions of sexual rights, the focus is largely on these kinds of problems. As we have come to expect, in the Indian context such concerns end up having to deal with marriage as well. “While international attention tends to focus on premarital sexual activity among young people, for young women in India, sexual relations occur overwhelmingly within the context of marriage” (Jejeebhoy and Sebastian 2003). 171

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The Population Council in India has recently undertaken a large study called UDAYA (an acronym for Understanding the lives of adolescents and young adults) in two major states of north India: Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The main respondents are unmarried and married girls in the age group of 15 to 19 years, and there are smaller samples of boys and younger girls; the study, begun in 2016, is ongoing (e.g., Santhya K.G. and others 2017). Based on surveys, the data are quite wide-ranging as they include education and work, health indicators and views relating to sexual experiences apart from the more expected focus on reproductive health. It would appear, then, that a study conducted in 2016 is less circumscribed by taboos (there are even questions on same-sex experiences, although apparently next to no answers were forthcoming) in spite of its central demographic emphasis on reproduction. The use of the category of adolescence or young adulthood is not, however, elaborated – it merely means that persons in the age group of 10 to 19 are the subjects of study whose “healthy transitions to adulthood” require evidence that is currently lacking. There may be some limitations in the way comparisons are drawn between unmarried and married girls in the 15- to 19-year group given that a large proportion of the married girls were in the age group of 18 to 19 years. But the allowance (or even desire) to record instances of sexual activity among unmarried adolescents goes only so far. When it comes to recommendations for empowerment, the subject of safe sex (when it is wanted) receives less attention than the need to delay the marriage of those who have married before 18. The fact that most girls (and boys) said that marriage should not happen before 18 was thought to be a significant way to make family and community members agree to later ages at marriage. The report foregrounded social norms and legal provisions to a considerable degree, to the point of recommending that marriage before 18 be treated as a criminal act: Equally important is to ensure greater commitment from relevant authorities to enforce existing laws on the minimum age of marriage and the registration of marriages and to levy penalties on violators. Allowing for anonymous reporting, making law enforcement agencies and others aware that the practice of early marriage is not a minor violation, and making the guidelines for penalties clear to enforcement agencies and the wider community are possible steps in this direction. (Santhya and others 2017: 37) More constructive (though formulaic) subsequent recommendations were offered in relation to schooling, skills development and livelihoods. Important suggestions that adolescents play a greater role both in marriage decisions and in addressing power imbalances within marriage should have been developed much further. 172

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Demographic studies like the UDAYA project thus indicate mixed outcomes when adolescence is a point of reference for addressing early marriage. Although law and reproductive health continue to be emphasized in much the same way as before, some signs of change are perceptible in the limited discussions around sexuality and references to family education (a euphemism for sexuality education). In a rare micro-level study conducted with great sensitivity and depth, Partners for Law and Development (PLD) explored the “choices” of young girls (invariably from resource-poor and deprived backgrounds) who had entered into a sexual relationship with a boy in secret, fearing the taboos of society. Whether or not they intended to marry later, when they were discovered, these couples “ran away” to get married. PLD argues that it is therefore a problem to consider all such marriages “forced” by definition since the girls were underage at the time. Rather than being subjected to an all-determining focus on age or labelled as children, these are “older” adolescents, “choosing” in a context characterized by disadvantage and a largely choiceless life to have sex. Since marriage confers respectability and the hope of security, such girls have no choice but to marry once found out (PLD 2019). Even organizations that emphasize a sexual rights framework when it comes to adolescents have felt the lack of adequate research. As a study by the organization Crea points out, “Generally, research on sexuality with adolescents has tended to focus more on sexual acts and activity per se, rather than provide a conceptual framework for understanding the contexts and socio-psychological dynamics of these” (Crea 2005: 10). As they put it, what existing studies reveal consistently “is that there is always a slew of unanswered questions and confusions” (Crea 2005:10). From the literature reviewed, this is even more true when it comes to making connections between adolescence, sexuality and marriage. In a global context where the interests of international funding continue to be fuelled by a definable set of agendas, it is necessary to be alert to the kinds of subtexts that may be an undertow within new discourses favouring sexual rights because bald fears around fertility and population explosion are still rife. An updated “populationism” can very well accommodate – indeed openly encourage – young people having safe sex outside marriage in order to delay the childbearing that follows marriages, whether these be freely “chosen” or “customarily arranged”, in countries like ours. Recall the age/sex system introduced in Chapter 1 as a way of marking the huge controversies over child marriage and consent during India’s period of colonial rule. After independence, national agendas of development dovetailed all too neatly with fears of the multiplying poor millions, and the mention of sex was muted or altogether submerged within the tracking of population growth. In twenty-first-century India, in another twist of the story, talk of adolescent sexuality is all the rage, if poorly studied and shrouded in secrecy, speculation, and media-driven “moral panics”. 173

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Before commenting further on the question of how to evaluate this kind of research focussed on adolescence, we should look into what kinds of positions are now crystallizing over early and child marriage, especially among those engaged in interventions on the ground.

Where are the debates and differences? From the prominent place occupied by demography discussed in Chapter 3, this chapter has revealed rather scattered insights with plenty of gaps in other scholarship and disciplines that ought to have thrown more light on child marriage today. Such a state of affairs is not conducive to creating a climate of public interest, involvement or debate. It is among those working on the ground that one can discern differences in point of view, although actual debates are hard to find. Some of these differences were apparent in the discussion in Chapter 3 on the role of the law. There was evident disagreement on the usefulness of making the PCMA criminalizable such that marriage on the part of a girl below the age of 18 would become void ab initio by turning the PCMA into a no-exception law. It is in reviews and discussions of interventions – mainly by NGOs – that differences can be discerned. Before discussing some examples, let me clarify that I will not be undertaking an evaluation of existing programmes. Some global studies have categorized types of interventions and even attempted to determine which ones are more successful in efforts to address early and child marriage (e.g., Lee-Rife and others 2012; Malhotra and others 2011; UNFPA/UNICEF 2016). But these studies themselves indicate how difficult it is to make evaluations and how few such systematic efforts exist. For the purposes of this book, what is of interest is that some recent reports on interventions in the Indian context have thrown up clear differences if not disagreements on how to understand the problem of early and child marriage and what approaches are preferable. The first thing one notices is that it is the very focus on age itself that has elicited criticisms. So, for example, in their pioneering landscape analysis of existing interventions, the Nirantar report on early and child marriage distinguishes between two broad approaches: the first is called age-centric and the second empowerment-centric (Nirantar 2015). The report is quite critical of those approaches among NGOs which concentrate primarily on finding ways to delay marriage until the age of 18 and which follow state and developmental targets to show just how many child marriages could be prevented. In their view, such approaches do not address the “root causes” of child marriage. On the other hand, their depiction of the second approach is more attuned to the idea of agency. Interestingly, the Nirantar report also refers to each of these approaches as child-centric and adolescent-centric respectively, which leads them to explicitly argue in favour of the term “early marriage” rather than “child marriage”. Not only does an empowerment 174

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approach address itself to the structures of marriage, the control of sexuality, issues of violence and so on, but they also believe that when young people are treated as adolescents rather than children, their capacity to negotiate their futures rather than simply being protected from harm is being addressed (Nirantar 2015). Another example that takes some of the concerns of the Nirantar report forward is even more directly concerned with interventions and how to assess them. A study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, led by Meena Gopal, engages with the question of alternative measures of change, which are known as outcome mappings. Here, too, mere focus on age is seen as unduly restrictive. Instead, processes of change through the collectivization of women and girls around core issues – violence, gender and sexuality, education and livelihoods – are the focus. The challenges are therefore of a different order – is it possible to engage at the community level around these issues? Unsurprisingly, many organizations were unable to engage on issues such as sexuality. On the other hand, it was something of a commonplace to hear that girls wanted to marry when they were financially independent (although it was not clear to what extent existing programmes were in a position to actually address this desire) (Gopal and others 2016). Some organizations have found innovative ways to bring in questions of marriage into their work. A good example is Samvada, based in Bengaluru, which has been undertaking gender and sexuality workshops for broad categories of disadvantaged “youth” for two decades. According to Samvada’s director Anita Ratnam, it was experiences of girls dropping out at different levels of education for marriage, regardless of age, whether due to family pressure or having entered intimate relations of their own, that got them interested in bringing marriage explicitly into their work with young people. Notice, also, that they use the loose term “youth”, addressing all genders (not just girls), some of whom may be well into their twenties. “Marriage preparedness” rather than prevention of child marriage characterizes their approach, which is connected to education, training and sources of livelihood, both rural and urban. These are the contexts for examining forms of gender discrimination and questions of sexuality, which includes addressing those who may already be married or whose marriages have broken (interview with Anita Ratnam and Nitya Vasudevan, March 2017). Meanwhile, “agency not age” is becoming quite a popular slogan among several organizations in India that combat child marriage, and in all likelihood this would be true elsewhere too. But how is agency being understood and deployed? A recent evaluation of child prevention programmes in two Indian states (West Bengal and Rajasthan) by Renu Khanna on behalf of Haq Centre for Child Rights has commented on the possibilities and limitations of NGO-led programmes of change, which try to work with adolescent girls, with the community and community leaders (often religious leaders) and with the legal and administrative state machinery meant to address child marriage. The evaluation report sponsored by Haq seems to 175

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suggest that greater success is to be found in working with girls and that there are many more obstacles at community and state levels. But here, the very “agency” of girls can become hugely tricky. (Many programmes these days include sessions where girls take the stage and speak out against child marriage.) As the report points out, “While it is great to have adolescents recognised as leaders and champions of the issue, how ethical is it to put them in positions of vulnerability?” (Khanna 2019: 26). A particularly problematic aspect in these campaigns is when such girls are made “informers” of a case of early/child marriage in their communities. “What do programme implementers need to do to ensure that human rights defenders are protected and have a support system? There is the additional issue of the conflict between increasing solidarity and trust through adolescent girls’ groups, and asking a few amongst them to turn informers – what does this do to the trust between the girls?” (Khanna 2019: 27). I would like to press further and ask – when NGOs undertake programmes with girls, what kind of follow-up and what support structures are there once they leave? When a child marriage is prevented, what happens afterwards? Yet another voice to consider in this context is that of Abhijit Das. In a two-part online article, Das (who works in the field of health) asked more confrontationally, why is child marriage a problem? The ages of 18 and 21 years are quite arbitrary in his view. He referred quite positively to his own work in rural contexts with older women who had married in their teens and were quite “vivacious” and “bouncy” and had no signs of trauma or oppression (Das 2018a). He went on to argue that early marriage was but a symptom of a larger problem: the nature of marriage in India, the control of women’s sexuality and notions of honour. Indeed, he likened the marriage system in India to a “breeding transaction between two families of similar social standing”. Das went on to refer to the work of his organization which focusses on men and boys so that sons no longer just represent “lineage” and daughters “honour”. As he put it, The point I wish to make here is that we do not see early marriage from an external standpoint as a social problem. We work closely with men to help them understand their own relationships with women in the family, in the community and their own beliefs and actions towards others. This helps them look at the world differently and respond differently to the various issues of life. (Das 2018b) Although there can be no doubt that it is as central to engage men and boys as it is girls and women, here too there is much more that is left unsaid about the nature of the structure of marriage and its institutional underpinnings. These examples have been raised to demonstrate some of the contrary voices in a field dominated by demographic and health-related indicators 176

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and where the slogan is one of ending child marriage. In my view, there is much, much more that needs to be debated in this context. Better debates will be possible with the help of more robust frames of analysis.

The notion of social norms One of the more problematic conceptual frames that has become widespread in the field of advocacy around child marriage is that of social norms. Or rather, the notion of social norms finds frequent mention, but usually without elaboration or discussion, as though perfectly understood. It is often used interchangeably with ideas of culture or tradition. Child marriage is described as a social norm within certain groups and communities. Sometimes marriage itself is called a social norm. There exists a very specific and complex philosophical literature on social norms, and one of its best known proponents is Christina Bicchieri. (Others in the field include the work of Rajiv Rimal who works on public health. See, for example, Rimal and Lapinski (2015).) In her recent book Norms in the Wild (Bicchieri 2016), Bicchieri has in fact referred to how she was approached by UNICEF because they believed that her theoretical studies involving experiments in collective social behaviour and described in Bicchieri’s earlier book The Grammar of Society (Bicchieri 2006) could be applied in their own work dealing with changing the behaviours of groups they were working with. In her writing, child marriage was one example of many practices (such as female genital cutting, open defecation, and unsafe sex) in cultures different from “ours” (i.e., the West) which are based on evidence that the West would not agree with and that needed to be changed. The curious thing is that Bicchieri begins by actually asking: “Think of child marriage: is it a custom, a social norm, a simple convention, a response to the moral imperative of protecting one’s child, or a reaction to difficult economic conditions?” (Bicchieri 2016: ix). This question, with its range of considerations, is never answered. The presumption seems to be that it is indeed a social norm according to her definition (and that the other possibilities listed do not apply), which therefore lends child marriage to being approached as a social expectation among certain people which can be manipulated, changed and abandoned. It is not easy to summarize the different aspects of her theory since a great deal (far too much) is highly technical and of a game-theoretic nature. However, a few points do stand out: A social norm is precisely “social” and is not necessarily or primarily a legal or moral code. Most importantly, it is dependent on the expectations of others. People follow social norms not just because they can empirically see that others who are part of their network do so but because they believe that a sufficient number of people think that they ought to do so. (This is what makes them normative rather than just descriptive.) A further key aspect is a notion of Bicchieri’s which she calls “pluralistic ignorance”. The idea here is that 177

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while many actually dislike the norm in question, they nonetheless follow it because they believe that others believe in it and so feel a compulsion to do the same. The thinking seems to be that several “maladaptive” social norms continue to exist for this reason. So teenagers in the US go on drinking sprees not because they love getting drunk but because they think that their peers believe that this is what teenagers should be doing. Prison guards are cruel to prisoners. Actually, they dislike having to beat them up and do not enjoy this kind of violent masculinity, but they continue to act this way because of social expectations from others. They wrongly believe that others believe this is the way prison guards ought to behave, thus giving this form of masculinity a further lease of life even though all the individuals practicing it are against it. So also with child marriage. Parents may not personally want to marry off their girls at very young ages. But they think that this is what others in their community expect of them and so the practice persists. There are several reasons to wonder as to how useful such an approach can be for approaching child marriage. I believe the very aspects that go into making such an analysis of social norms so attractive are what is problematic. After all, who would dispute that norms regulate people’s lives and decisions in fundamental ways? But Bicchieri’s notion of the grammar of society that propels people to act in one way rather another, or to change what they do, appears to be a matter of acquiring certain psychological dispositions alone, outside of contexts or structures. Norms are thereby reduced to a very thin aspect of people’s social relations (solely built around expectations from others) which can then lend itself to “behaviour change” and the abandonment of such norms by leaving out the structural underpinnings involved. Such a narrow behavioural approach is particularly inappropriate when it comes to an institution like marriage. There are at least two problems here: First, there seems to be a widespread tendency to view marriage as a primarily cultural institution (when it comes to the developing world) such that families alone decide whether and how to marry their children. The fact that families initiate marriage transactions within their caste or community is profoundly misread as though it were primarily a family decision. Second, child marriage is treated as a fixed, standalone practice set apart from other kinds of marriage practices rather than being a matter of deciding when a marriage is to take place along a continuum of age. The idea of pluralistic ignorance is even more troubling since the implication is that what is really needed is the right kind of information (presented in a suitably appealing or acceptable way) that would break what are essentially false beliefs about other people’s expectations. Such information, it is implied, would make it possible to abandon such a social norm and follow one’s own true beliefs that have been, as it were, held in check. At times, it appears as though the problem is even more basic – it is one of ignorance, pure and simple. What is therefore required are strong enough signals (from public figures, new 178

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communications channels, and even soap operas) that can become trendsetters. Here is an example from Bicchieri’s book: The main character of a story about education or child marriage may be a girl belonging to a very typical family with which people can easily identify. The novelty is that the girl has different aspirations; for example, she wants an education and maybe wants to marry for love. This fictitious character takes the place of a real trendsetter, and her fictional adventures can highlight the expected hurdles and triumphs that new behavior will likely encounter. The fact that many people all watch the same program and often discuss it is an important avenue for change. (2016: 195) Note the rather patronizing mode in which “people” are approached as if a soap opera could do the trick of making these “people” abandon a practice like marrying their girls as children. If child marriage persists at this point in time, its primary cause is not that people are unaware of the value of schooling for girls or even of the problems that a girl might face if she is married off too soon. Families are not living in isolation from the rest of society in remote villages untouched by changes all around them, fundamentally ignorant. On the contrary, a more likely scenario is that families are caught up in contexts where they perceive enormous if not tumultuous processes of change over which they have little or no control. Changes are perceptible in their own lives from one generation to the next. Children go to school unless the most severe hardships and deprivations prevent this. Most important of all, age of marriage has not been static but has been slowly, if unevenly, rising – child marriage is therefore not a fixed practice in the first place. References to social norms (shorn of any analytical baggage) are now ubiquitous in the literature on child marriage. Social norms are simply the unquestioned basic cause which must be the principal site for change. Here is an example from United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA’s) State of the World’s Population Report 2020 Against My Will: Social norms underpin all systems of marriage. The norms that underpin child marriage in a particular society are based on such beliefs as expected paths into adulthood, views on sexuality among boys and girls, views on gender roles, the importance of respect for age hierarchies, interpretations of religious beliefs, underlying gender inequality, and gender based definitions of economic roles. (UNFPA 2020: 99; emphasis added) Notice how child marriage is somehow set apart as a unique collection of false beliefs (in which hierarchy, inequality and religion appear prominently), in contrast to unspecified other norms about marriage. And since 179

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these false beliefs “underpin” child marriage, the job at hand is to correct them, ostensibly with true ideas about gender equality and choice. What is needed instead is a more systemic account of what makes people take decisions as they do and under what kinds of conditions – whether it be parents who wish to regulate their children’s marriage (and daughters or sons who in turn would rather leave it to their parents to do so) or young people who fall in love. The norms at play may range all the way from being quite flexible to being remarkably rigid. In fact, the extent of the complexity of the problem can be illustrated with the following picture that shows how family strategies in relation to marriage may be caught between conflicting “harmful” practices.

Child marriage and the adverse child sex ratio: Two sides of the same coin? Unlike the sporadic nature of current research on early and child marriage in the Indian context, the social sciences and feminist research have been engaging for some decades now with the adverse child sex ratio. (For an overview, see John 2014.) Especially following Census 2001 came startling evidence of growing disparities in sex ratios at birth emanating to a greater extent from more developed states such as Haryana and Punjab (i.e., not states associated with child marriage) but also to a lesser degree from other regions in the north and west. Again, in considerable contrast to early marriage, the phenomenon has been urban-led, and several states have more adverse rates in cities and towns. The worst figures have been among the non-poor classes, those aspiring for some economic mobility under uncertain and limited developmental conditions. Parents are planning for a small family of one son and one daughter, a complex phenomenon that on the surface appears gender-egalitarian. But it hides a contemporary form of daughter aversion, especially visible in the avoidance of being a girl-only family by resorting to sex selection to ensure the birth of a son (John 2018). These are families who in fact desire better futures for their daughters – to be brought up to adulthood and have higher ages of marriage and better levels of education. In other words, these are families that do not wish to marry off their daughters as children. The heightened burden represented by the birth of a daughter who would require many more years at home with greater investments in nutrition, health and education, coupled with parental fears of the unattached sexuality of adult daughters in a highly competitive and differentiated marriage market, appears to have set in motion a different kind of family building strategy, in which extra daughters are not born. (See John, Kaur, Palriwala, Raju and Sagar 2008.) Census data from 2011 and subsequent data on sex ratios at birth have revealed further patterns in a growing imbalance – and there have been small improvements in the worst states of Haryana and Punjab but further declines elsewhere in the north and east, including parts of the south. In 180

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other words, the very period that has seen improvements in child marriage has seen a worsening of child sex ratios, and adverse sex ratios have become a growing phenomenon in those regions where child marriage was more prevalent. Why is this relevant in a discussion of early and child marriage and social norms? Because we should not underestimate the pincer movement represented by the co-presence of early marriages in families who wish to be relieved of the burden of extra (unwanted) daughters (including other forms of discrimination and neglect) and the decision taken by others to sex-select in the hope that the right kind of small family will in fact bring them closer to realizing a better future for the daughter they do want. Experts in the field today worry that child marriage is not declining fast enough; in some of the better-off states, others fear the negative consequences of a growing gender imbalance. Could there be a negative relationship between decreasing trends in early marriage and growing gender imbalances, especially in those regions with no history of sex selection? I leave the question open as the jury may be out. But what is not in doubt is that both these practices call for a larger perspective on the nature of marriage in contemporary India.

Towards a conceptualization of compulsory marriage This book began with the child-woman/woman-child across space and time. With a few interruptions, we discovered and rediscovered her everywhere. In colonial India, she had the power of becoming the site of some of the fiercest controversies of Empire, given the interlocking and evolving compulsions of an imperial civilizing mission with a home-grown desire for social reform – far too often conventionally constrained but also at times feminist and anti-caste. An age-sex system became visible as conventions around marriage were subjected to battles over raising the age of marriage for girls (and secondarily for boys) from 10 to 12 years and then to 14. Less remarked upon in all this was that marriage remained a constant undertow. For all the furore that was created amidst repeated cries over giving play to an uncontrollable female sexuality, the dire consequences of flouting scriptural injunctions or, from the other side, arguments about the weakening of the Indian race, the question never really strayed from “when” and “how” marriage was to be conducted, and hardly any voices were entertained that said something radically different. So, yes, the historical record speaks of the progressive alternatives represented by self-respect marriages in the anti-Dravidian movements of the Tamil-speaking South, where rational choice rather than patriarchal and caste custom would be the guide. There is B.R. Ambedkar’s potent call for the annihilation of caste through intercaste marriage – contained within his overall struggle over the stranglehold of Brahmanical Hindu religion. The socialist bent running through the Women’s Report of a Planned Economy, discussed in the first chapter, certainly included some critical ideas about the rights of women as workers 181

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and hinted that women could have a place outside the institution of marriage, but this report was lost to posterity. It played no part in the plans of the post-independence nation state and was accidentally rediscovered by feminists in the 1990s. We do not yet have a narrative – least of all a social history – of the quiet evolution of middle-class upper-caste women’s norms and practices around marriage in the decades following independence into the present, such that child marriage receded as a memory of past generations. It would appear that when the women’s movement re-emerged in the late 1970s and ’80s against the backdrop of the many movements of the 1970s, the default figure whose wrongs it addressed was that of an unmarked adult woman. As we saw in some detail in Chapter 1, raising the age of marriage to 18 for girls and 21 for boys was pushed by population agendas and not by any feminist campaign. So, yes, domestic violence and the evils of dowry were central preoccupations and sites of legal change and civil protections. The whole issue of a uniform civil code versus the ongoing resort to personal laws based on religion in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption became unexpectedly controversial from the 1980s as the country became more communalized in its politics. But here too we have to pause and ask, how exactly was the institution of marriage itself envisaged in all the arguments over diversity and national integration? When sex ratio imbalances made it clear that son preference was somehow responsible for millions of missing girls, once again one has to wonder, to what extent has marriage, its structures and expectations figured in all of the research undertaken? Feminist economists were certainly at the forefront of naming the failures of development, especially for women in rural India. Here, all the concern over measuring and giving value to the enormous range of women’s unrecognized labours that were left out of national accounts and statistical sources once again assumed the marriage relation binding women to their households. When these emerged at all, lower ages of marriage were folded within accounts of greater poverty, social backwardness and sexual vulnerability. In Chapter 3, we saw how “child marriage” as a problem was brought back, primarily through international agendas and covenants. Disaggregated data sets and maps depicted a country in the twenty-first century with the highest numbers of women in the world who married before the age of 18. District clusters in regions of the north, east, west and south showed higher rates of underage marriages, whether measured with census data or that of the NFHS. Even so, ages of marriage were slowly rising according to all data sources, if somewhat differentially, giving us a picture of “adolescent” rather than “child” marriage. Side by side, several studies indicated that young women aspiring for another life, whether in Delhi’s slums or in rural Uttar Pradesh, nonetheless saw the question of their marriage as one best left to the decision of their parents. One could add to this list, as statistical and econometric analyses have gone to great lengths to demonstrate, that 182

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marriage continues to be governed by convention – be it contemporary Kolkata’s middle classes (Banerjee, Duflo and others 2013) or at the level of all-India preferences (Allendorf and Pandian 2016). This means that there is something misplaced in the commonplace evocation of “arranged” versus “love” marriages in the Indian context, as though the latter were increasingly gaining ground, pushing the former to the margins. All that we can say is that there are some situations where “love” marriages can turn into life and death matters – cases of honour killings have been hogging the headlines for decades in states like Haryana (Chowdhry 2007) – while in contexts like West Bengal there is considerable evidence of inter-caste eloping couples who do not invite violent reprisals (Sen and Ghosh eds. forthcoming). How, then, can one place such variation within a larger perspective? First, we must pause over the “paradoxes” of the Indian scenario. One that has gained some attention is that expansion in educational enrolments and attainments among girls (with narrowing gaps to the point of parity in many streams of higher education) has gone hand in hand with surprising declines in women’s labour force participation (Das and Desai 2003; Swaminathan 2008; Chatterjee, Desai and Vanneman 2018; Pappu 2015). Indeed, the opposite might be more true: moments of greater entry into the labour force are signs of pauperization and immiseration (Mazumdar and Neetha 2011). Much less noticed is a crucial third factor that I referred to earlier: along with paradoxical declines in employment with greater educational access have come increases in the age at marriage, if at a rather slower pace. This means that we are dealing at the very least with a three-way dynamic in contemporary India. It therefore becomes all the more vital to analyse the Indian institution of marriage in all its persistence and transformations as an institution at the intersections of several forces, constantly upgrading and modernizing itself. It cannot be grasped as just a customary practice that refuses to go away. This is an institution with very significant variations, by region and group, by class and caste, even interpellating those stigmatized for their non-normative sexualities. It is extremely capacious – promising to provide women economic security (but whether it succeeds is another matter altogether), social meaning, sexual respectability and the only viable space for the reproduction of children. This last is absolutely essential and part of an intergenerational contract – marriage is for the reproduction of the family. Marriage may, on some occasions, be entered into for love, but, above all else, it is compulsory. There are absolutely no signs whatsoever of its decline as the twenty-first century enters its third decade. It is demographers and not feminists who have described marriage in India as a “golden cage” (Srinivasan and James 2015). K. Srinivasan and K.S. James’s surprising example is the state of Kerala, known neither for sex selection nor early marriage. (Consider the calculations of another demographer, R.B. Bhagat: in Kerala, as of Census 2011, the mean singulate age of marriage for women was 21.7 years, but in Rajasthan, known for its high 183

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prevalence of early marriage, the mean singulate age of marriage was not all that different: 19 years (Bhagat 2016).) Kerala points to some essential characteristics that must be paid attention to: Marriage is almost universal, gender inequalities persist with low levels of labour participation, and divorce rates are negligible. Kerala is not particularly different from other states since its marriage structure is similarly based on religion, caste, and the huge economic and social costs of marital breakdown (Srinivasan and James 2015). Srinivasan and James contrast the Indian scenario with other countries: the US and the UK in the West and Japan in the East. They point out that the institution of marriage in Western contexts has been most disrupted by the high presence of children that are born outside of marriage (over 50% in the case of the UK), while it is the significant and growing proportion of women who remain single that is transforming marriage in Japanese society. These are interesting observations and connect with my own discussions in Chapter 2. Srinivasan and James are also entirely on the mark when they conclude by saying that “one of the contributions of the caste system is the stability that it has brought to the institution of marriage in India” (Srinivasan and James 2015: 45). (It is another matter that such stability can come at a huge cost to those who flout such norms.) Caste and religious endogamy are the most responsible factors for India’s “golden cage”, in their view. R.B. Bhagat has apparently found the image of a golden cage too benign and replaced it with “iron fetters” (Bhagat 2016: 17). But caste cannot be treated as simply a “factor” that regulates marriage alliances. As B.R. Ambedkar noted as far back as his 1916 essay on caste, too much is left out from a simple characterization of caste-based endogamy. Caste has a hierarchical and systemic quality whereby marriage alliances are regulated by levels of social distance, structured from above by exclusion and from below by imitation (Ambedkar 1979). Writing in 1916, Ambedkar went on to identify child marriage and enforced widowhood as Brahmanical injunctions for women at the top of the hierarchy – the lower the status of a given caste, the less the capacity to imitate these “inequities” on women that the caste system imposed. Today the tables are evidently turned. Upper castes have sufficiently modernized themselves at least as far as child marriage is concerned, while their less well-endowed lower-caste sisters in slums and villages struggle to “catch up”, too often from locations of profound vulnerability. It is therefore time to recognize the compulsions of the contemporary Indian marriage market with some care. Ours is much more than the institution of prestige encountered in present-day US or the one that China’s leftover women are being pressurized to compromise with. I would describe our marriage system as an intergenerational contract, somewhat inchoate and unspoken, but thriving, in all its infinite variety, characteristic hierarchy and deadly monotony. This intergenerational contract is being bolstered from all sides – by the secularized caste gradations of endogamy no doubt (which includes a cosmopolitan English speaking “caste” who 184

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believe they are casteless), so that marriage has become one of the principal mechanisms for the reproduction of caste. But the reason caste continues to find so much traction in the most modern of settings (as in the worlds of newspaper matrimonial advertisements or online marriage portals) is that India’s economic trajectory has made contemporary marriage the primary domain that women are socialized into for their economic survival and experience themselves as financial and social dependents. Notice, therefore, that my account of this compulsory institution covers much more than the overly simple rendition of marriage as “the control of women’s sexuality”, which one finds in much of the literature, including in popular stances towards women’s sexual rights and greater “choice”. Entering or not entering this institution is not just about women’s sexual agency or the lack thereof and cannot be fully grasped by contrasting notions of “consent” versus “force”, however meaningful these might be. Or rather, when girls and women are desirous of greater choices in making their own future, they will have to take on the economic, social and sexual costs of potentially bucking the intergenerational contract, as distinct from making accommodations with it. Most critical of all, societies like India with patterns of compulsory marriage are societies where early marriage will be prevalent, governed overall by the form of an intergenerational contract. This should, by now, make intuitive sense. But, more remarkably, this situation is by no means static but is characterized by slow and uneven declines in the proportion of underage marriages. Along with greater expansion in schooling and a closing of gender gaps in education, the contemporary hold of marriage has by no means slackened. If anything, with declining employment opportunities, the “golden cage” might indeed be better described as “iron fetters”. To get a more differentiated picture, in place of “social norms” or “agency” I would suggest situating adolescents in their respective contexts by exploring questions such as the following: Within what kinds of economies are they coming of age? What is considered a “good” match? What levels of education are available and with what future prospects? Where might dreams of another life take them? When are they considered “adult”? What makes the vast majority “consent” to family decisions when it comes to husbands and with what preparedness as wives and daughters-in-law? Under what conditions can they refuse? What room does compulsory marriage have for those whose gender and sexual identities do not conform to heterosexuality or to binary gender? How does the contemporary reproduction of caste and community hierarchies play itself out today? Notice that these questions are equally pertinent across all sections of the marriage market, from a poor peasant household, or a landed family in a rural context, to a family dependent on casual wages or a more secure regular income in urban India. The “right” age may well depend on a host of considerations, even in relatively deprived contexts. What kind of “agency” much less “empowerment” is available to women negotiating their marriages in 185

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such diverse situations should by no means be presumed. Who is in a position to decide whether, when and how to marry? Women’s critical dependencies across social groups and classes have been made much more precarious given the economic crisis that is unfolding globally, however unequally distributed across class and caste hierarchies. This can veil the fact that in the version of contemporary development that India has chosen to follow, marriage binds all women into households to undertake the tasks of social reproduction, subsidizing capital accumulation by ensuring that women’s labours at home will be the hub of our care economies (John forthcoming). Other scholars have finessed this care system further as one of “stratified familialism” (Palriwala and Neetha 2014). Such a compulsory institution can better account for the much higher numbers of early marriage in India (followed invariably by the birth of a child) compared with the tinier figures in countries like the US and China. A slowly declining proportion of underage marriages is going hand in hand with more years of schooling and, for some, a college education or even a professional degree that provide “credentials” within this hierarchical matrimonial market, along with the much-noted skyrocketing of dowry. Love, even non-normative ones, will also find a place somewhere. But with declining opportunities of economic independence, even for the better off, far too few alternate spaces exist for a future life. In one of the very few reflections on “the case of the single unmarried woman” in present-day India, Rekha Pappu has this to say: “depending on the frame of reference, the single woman is regarded as any one or a combination of the following: unfortunate, lonely, vulnerable, incomplete, frustrated, frigid, man-hater, woman-lover, self-indulgent, promiscuous, predatory, unpredictable, non-conforming, subversive, free, independent or autonomous” (Pappu 2011: 270). Women who voluntarily never marry are a strange species indeed, and even Pappu’s richly evocative descriptions do not do justice to her many vulnerabilities and are perhaps more closely aligned with middle-class life worlds and corresponding capacities for resistance. But there is yet another figure for which there are no descriptions – whether monstrous, pathetic or radical – and whose place in Indian society is quite unthinkable: this would be a woman who would want to bring a pregnancy to term and have a child outside marriage – whether in urban or rural India, in affluent, middle-class or more impoverished contexts. India’s child-women are indeed in a time of change, however uneven and constrained from all sides. Middle-class young women negotiate the intergenerational contract in several ways, as do the urban and rural poor, who have to settle for much less. Today’s adolescent girls in many pockets of India – the new subjects of international donor agencies and numerous local NGOs – do not want to marry too young. But what more empowering future is on offer for them? I believe that it is high time that everyone, feminists included, recognize the enormity of the challenge before us and refuse 186

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to accept either the notion that delaying marriage will transform social norms or that “agency” is primarily resolvable through NGO intervention and support to adolescent groups. The internationally driven agenda to end child marriage must be reconceptualized and repoliticized through a critical recognition of the foundational roles of compulsory marriage if genuine change is to become a reality.

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Grover, Shalini. 2011. Marriage, Love, Caste, and Kinship Support: Lived Experiences of the Urban Poor in India. Delhi: Social Science Press. Hussain, Sabiha. 2015. “A Lost Childhood in the Aroma of ‘Agarbatti’: The Case of Female Child Labour in North India”. International Journal of Sociology of the Family 41 (1): 31–51. Jejeebhoy, Shireen J., and Mary Philip Sebastian. 2003. “Young people’s sexual and reproductive health”. In Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Profile of Sexual and Reproductive Health in India, edited by Shireen J. Jejeebhoy, 138–168. New Delhi: Rawat Publications. John, Mary E. 2014. Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates and Future Directions. New Delhi: UNFPA and UNWomen. John, Mary E. 2018. The Political and Social Economy of Sex Selection: Exploring Family Development Linkages. New Delhi: UNFPA. John, Mary E. Forthcoming. “Marxism, Feminism and the Political Fortunes of Theories”. In Women in the Worlds of Labour: Interdisciplinary and Intersectional Perspectives, edited by Mary E. John and Meena Gopal. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. John, Mary E., and Meena Gopal, eds. Forthcoming. Women in the Worlds of Labour: Interdisciplinary and Intersectional Perspectives. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. John, Mary E., Ravinder Kaur, Rajni Palriwala, Saraswati Raju, and Alpana Sagar. 2008. Planning Families Planning Gender: The Adverse Child Sex Ratio in Select Districts of Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. Bangalore: Books for Change. Kalpagam, U. 2008. “Marriage Norms, Choice and Aspirations of Rural Women”. Economic and Political Weekly 43 (21): 53–63. Kannabiran, Kalpana, Sujit Kumar Mishra, and S. Surapa Raju. 2017. “Investigating the Causes for Low Female Age at Marriage: The Case of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh”. Economic and Political Weekly 52 (18): 57–65. Kannan, K.P., and G. Raveendran. 2019. “From Jobless to Job-loss Growth: Gainers and Losers during 2012–18”. Economic and Political Weekly 54 (44): 38–44. Kaur, Ravinder, and Rajni Palriwala. 2014. “Introduction”. In Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World, edited by Ravinder Kaur and Rajni Palriwala, 1–27. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. Khanna, Renu. 2019. Report of the Child Marriage Prevention Programme. Haq: Centre for Child Rights in Partnership with Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti and Jabala Action Research Organisation, New Delhi: Haq Centre for Child Rights. Krishnan, Kavita 2018. “Gendered Discipline in Globalising India”. Feminist Review 119: 72–88. Kumar, Krishna. 2010. “Culture, State and Girls: An Educational Perspective”. Economic and Political Weekly 45 (17): 75–84. Kumari, Ranjani, Renuka Singh, and Anju Dubey. 1990. Growing Up in Rural India: Problems and Needs of Adolescent Girls. New Delhi: Radiant. Lee-Rife, S., Malhotra, A., Warner, A., and Glinski, A.M. 2012. “What Works to Prevent Child Marriage: A Review of the Evidence”. Studies in Family Planning, 287–303. Lieten, G.K. 2002. “Child Labour in India: Disentangling Essence and Solutions”. Economic and Political Weekly 37 (52): 5190–5195.


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M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MV Foundation). 2018. And They Never Lived Happily Ever After… The Battle for Justice Goes on: Voices of Married Girls in Telangana. Hyderabad: MV Foundation. Malhotra, A., A. Warner, A. McGonagle, and S. Lee-Rife. 2011. Solutions to End Child Marriage: What the Evidence Shows. Washington, D.C. ICRW. Mazumdar, Indrani, and N. Neetha. 2011. “Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993–94 to 2009–10”. Economic and Political Weekly 46 (43): 118–126. Mondal, Bidisha, Jayati Ghosh, Shiney Chakraborty, and Sona Mitra. 2018. Women Workers in India: Labour Force Trends, Diversification Patterns and Wage Gaps. Background Paper 3, Bengaluru: Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University. Murugesan, Radha, Ishwarya Rajan, and Girija Kumarbabu, 2019. Determinants of Child Marriage in Tamil Nadu: An Evidence Based Appraisal. Chennai, Tamil Nadu: Indian Council of Child Welfare. Nambissan, Geetha B. and S. Srinivas Rao, eds. 2013 Sociology of Education in India: Changing Contours and Emerging Concerns. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Neetha N. 2014. “Crisis in Female Employment: Analysis across Social Groups”. Economic and Political Weekly 49 (47) 22 November: 118–126. Nirantar Trust. 2015. Early and Child Marriage in India: A Landscape Analysis. New Delhi: Nirantar. Pappu, Rekha. 2011. “Reconsidering Romance and Intimacy: The Case of the Single Unmarried Woman”. In Intimate Others: Marriage and Sexualities in India, edited by Samita Sen, Ranjita Biswas, and Nandita Dhawan, 370–390. Kolkata: Stree Pappu, Rekha. 2015. “Towards a Framework for Forging Links: Exploring the Links between Education, Empowerment and Employment”. Indian Journal of Gender Studies 22 (2): 1–22. Partners for Law in Development (PLD) 2019. Why Girls Run Away to Marry: Adolescent Realities and Socio-Legal Responses in India. New Delhi: Partners for Law in Development. Ramachandran, Vimala, and Kameshwari Jandhyala. 2010. Secondary Education for Girls in India. New Delhi: MacArthur Foundation. Raman, Vasanthi. 2000. “Politics of Childhood: Perspectives from the South”. Economic and Political Weekly 35 (46): 4055–4064. Ray, Raka, and Seemin Qayyum. 2009. Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity and Class in India. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Rimal, Rajiv N., and Maria K. Lapinski. 2015. “A Re-Explication of Social Norms, Ten Years Later”. Communication Theory 25 (4): 393–409. Santhya, K.G., Rajib Acharya, N. Pandey and others. 2017. Understanding the Lives of Adolescents and Young Adults (UDAYA) in Uttar Pradesh, India 2015–16. New Delhi: The Population Council. Sen, Gita, and Chiranjib Sen. 1985. “Women’s Domestic Work and Economic Activity: Results from the NSS”. Economic and Political Weekly 20 (17) April: 1235–1245. Sen, Samita, and Anindita Ghosh, eds. Forthcoming. Love, Law and Labour: Child Marriage in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications and Kolkata: Stree.


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From the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on Independence Day of 15 August 2020, with the pomp of the ceremony muted to accommodate pandemic norms of physical distancing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that his government was considering raising the minimum age at marriage for girls. In his words: we have formed a committee to ensure that daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters.1 Governmental rumblings around raising the age at marriage to 21 years for women were becoming more audible in the months when this book was being finalized for publication. But no one was prepared for the sudden flurry of activity on this matter in the midst of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. The committee the prime minister was referring to in his Independence Day speech was a task force (TF) that had first been mentioned in February by the finance minister on another important occasion, the annual budget speech. In her words: Women’s age of marriage was increased from fifteen years to eighteen years in 1978, by amending erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering MMR [maternal mortality rate] as well as improvement of nutrition levels. Entire issue about age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light. I propose to appoint a task force that will present its recommendations in six months’ time. (Para. 67 of the Budget Speech for Financial Year 2020–21) No one could quite figure out why this announcement had been made in a budget speech – perhaps the TF would receive some financial allocation 192

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for its functioning. It was understood, though not officially stated, that the TF was meant to produce a rationale for raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 21, bringing it on par with that for men. The pandemic struck soon after this, hitting Indians hardest through the curfew-like lockdown announced with barely a few hours’ notice on 23 March 2020. Under the circumstances, the finance minister’s remarks were completely forgotten. But then, in spite of the chaos and unprecedented hardship unleashed by a lockdown that caused an already-faltering economy to come to a standstill, it was announced that the TF would begin its deliberations on June 4 and was to send the government its recommendations by July 31. (It has since been learnt that the TF has requested more time.) Activists concerned with child marriage were quick to respond by starting an online discussion group about this bizarre development, which included the young people they worked with. Many of these organizations were busy providing relief in the form of food and rations to families rendered penniless if not homeless by the sudden lockdown, especially those dependent on daily wages or petty forms of self-employment. When I first joined these discussions, there were some who were prepared to believe that raising the age of marriage was a positive step. After all, higher ages went hand in hand with better social indicators in terms of education, health, and so on. It should be added that, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first time in the history of the Narendra Modi–led Bharatiya Janata Party government (in power since 2014) that a TF has been set up to deliberate on a particular issue. This also meant that official interaction between civil society groups and the government was possible since “experts could be invited” to the deliberations of the TF according to its terms of reference. The TF comprised representatives from the various line ministries concerned (Health and Family Welfare, Law, Women and Child), two vice chancellors and a medical paediatric professor, all three being women, and Jaya Jaitly was chairperson. It was hosted by the Niti Aayog, Modi’s successor institution to the erstwhile Planning Commission.

From theory to practice? All of a sudden, I was catapulted, completely unexpectedly, from the proverbial ivory tower of analysis and writing into the world of activism. The main aim of my book was to demonstrate that more research was urgently needed on the integral links between child marriage and compulsory marriage. To be sure, greater interaction with organizations working in the field was also envisaged at some point in the future. But I had never imagined that the actual arguments of my study, all the way down to criticisms of existing approaches in the fields of health, nutrition and fertility, would become so directly relevant to a newly proposed government intervention. 193

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Initially, some of us had to convince others amongst us about the reasons why the move to raise the age of marriage was misconceived. My remark at the very beginning of the introduction to this book – namely that organizations on the ground have been functioning in an epistemological vacuum – became quite visible in this process. Many were not aware of more detailed data on recent trends in the declines in underage marriage or of drops in fertility. Explaining why the association between higher ages at marriage and better levels of education and health could be so misleadingly interpreted was an “eye opener”. Once people understood that the association reflected the fact that women from better-off groups were marrying at higher ages – rather than that poor women were automatically becoming better off just by delaying their marriage by a few years – they were convinced. Data from Table 3.3 in Chapter 3 showing what proportions of girls and women from different social groups and economic strata were marrying at different ages were widely shared. The information from Tables A1.1 and A1.2 (in the Appendix) that showed the smaller specific contribution to the under-nutrition of mothers and their children made by age at marriage compared with other characteristics, especially poverty, had the greatest impact. Within days, a collective memorandum drawing on all these and other findings (to be presented to the TF) was written and more were prepared. At its simplest, our case was that recourse to the law to raise the minimum marriageable age of girls to 21 was a terrible idea, whatever its superficial appeal of achieving gender equality with men. The Civil Society Organization (CSO) memorandum – signed by over 50 organizations – showed that, if trends did not change appreciably, raising the age of marriage to 21 would effectively leave the majority of Indian women without legal protections since most women marry before 21 years. The misconceptions about age at marriage as the principal lever for improving women’s status from health and nutrition to education and employment were foregrounded. Others in the group weighed in on the legal repercussions, access to sexual and reproductive health, and much else. All these arguments were presented to the TF, and copies of the data were shared as well. Emphasis was laid on all the other spheres that were much more relevant for making positive change rather than the law – from problematic policies like conditional cash transfer schemes that only reinforced the urge to marry off daughters at the age of 18, to questions of education and employment. Legal changes were required to reduce the age of sexual consent to 16 and to revisit the draconian aspects of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Mehra 2020). Newspaper articles were written to generate awareness (John 2020a, 2020b), and press conferences were conducted in which young rural activists also gave their views. Needless to add, all this concerted activity on the part of organizations and the chance to present our views to the TF provided much-needed positive energy. But we did not wish to fool ourselves either, even though the TF 194

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was clearly affected by our presentations and has asked for more time to make their recommendations. Given the current political climate, one should not harbour much hope. What has made the situation far more dire than it would have been otherwise is the fact that we are living in the time of a pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight. As commentary after commentary has had to emphasize, we are not just coping with a virus attack: we are witness to economic upheaval and hardship of a scale that contemporary Indian society has never been forced to endure (with the important exception of states like Kashmir in recent years) and that the Indian state has done little to mitigate. In April 2020, a women’s organization gave out a call for an online meeting to discuss the possibly negative implications of the pandemic and lockdown on child marriage. After all, spikes in child marriages have been known to happen during periods of disaster, be it famine or civil war. Over 300 organizations and individuals logged onto the webinar (a new experience for most present), much to the evident surprise of the organizers, as panellists shared their views. One speaker expressed her sense of assurance that with so much governmental surveillance in place to maintain the lockdown, any surreptitious plans on the part of a family to marry off an underage daughter would be blocked by local health workers and officials. Others pointed out how their work with adolescent girls in preventing child marriages was paying new dividends as these girls emerged as leaders in their communities in spreading health awareness. Yet others mentioned that their partners in the field (who were now inaccessible and could be contacted only intermittently through mobile phones) were more worried about relief measures reaching their areas and about livelihoods at risk. I was left wondering where child marriage stood in the list of people’s priorities in a context where the sheer struggle for survival triggered by a total economic and social lockdown had to take pride of place. Glimpses of the scale of suffering unleashed had been dramatically captured by the media in the form of images of millions of migrant workers who were stranded without wages or shelter and who were forced to walk back to their village homes, often hundreds of kilometres away. When middle-class society watching this spectacle on their screens expressed shock and dismay, a further thought would not go away – don’t “we” know what we pay our working classes, under what conditions they serve our cities and what abysmal measures of welfare the governments have put in place? This is not to assert that child marriage is a non-issue in such times. But here too it is necessary to pay close attention to the kind of media reportage that can emerge. On 6 June 2020, the national English daily Indian Express carried a front-page story with the title “In locked down Bengal, fears rise of trafficking in girls” along with this subheading: “Between March 23 and April 23, the West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) received 136 complaints – more than four every day on average – about underage girls being forced into marriage” (Mitra and Bhattacharya 195

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2020). This represented an almost threefold jump from the time before the lockdown. According to the report, certain poor families now unable to feed their children with the loss of livelihoods became even more desperate after the cyclone Amphan, the worst in living memory, wreaked havoc in early June. A quick marriage with little dowry was a way to be rid of the burden of a daughter. The report spoke of a 17-year-old girl who travelled 11 km from her home to the nearest Block Development Officer in Murshidabad district to report that she was being forced into a marriage she did not want. The fact that schools were closed made it easier to clandestinely conduct marriages since the usual authorities like teachers were unable to maintain a check. However, the report also seemed to be mixing up fears of trafficking (i.e., “smuggling” girls out of the state through deceit and fraud) with underage marriages. It is one thing to report cases of trafficking and of forced marriage (at whatever age). It is quite another to treat these as equivalent to any marriage taking place before a girl is 18 simply because she is deemed to be a “child” whose rights are being violated according to international covenants and national law. In other words, trafficking, forced marriage and underage marriage are different social phenomena. Moreover, in conditions of so much devastation and desperation, it is surely necessary to know what kinds of relief measures are being put in place to help families regain some measure of control over their lives, such that they are not forced into the choiceless choice of marrying off a daughter they feel they are unable to look after. Yet another piece of news coverage in the Karnataka edition of The Hindu reported about a doubling of rates of underage marriages in the rural district of Mysuru (Khan, The Hindu, 16 August 2020). Recall that Karnataka State had changed its law against child marriage into a noexception law in 2017, thus making all parties fully criminalizable. There were conflicting accounts of “tip offs”, of marriages taking place in remote villages in tiny temples in the dead of night (against the customary South Indian Hindu preference for the auspicious morning hours), and of marriages successfully prevented by alert officials. But there were also reports of other “rescued” couples who were nonetheless found to be back living together. The ages of the girls were said to be between 14 and 17 years, which did not prevent another news agency from reproducing the same report but with the catchier title “Baby marriages under lockdown”. Perhaps Census 2021 and the National Family Health Survey (NHFS V) will reveal a further rise in the age of marriage. Or perhaps they will not. Or the change will be smaller than anticipated. There are predictions that the increases in poverty since 2016 would balloon as even the non-poor suffer escalating job losses with consequent malnutrition, breaks in school attendance and health risks, among other heightened vulnerabilities. I would not like to predict what this might mean for the marriage prospects of young people, in spite of all the fears expressed by non-governmental organizations about possible spikes, and the sensational reporting that is doubtless going to continue. We are looking at an unfolding pandemic and its simultaneous consequences for both the public world of schools and workplaces and the 196

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so-called private spaces of family relations, all of which point to the much greater load that will now be borne by women. At least in the Indian context (and certainly elsewhere as well), compulsory marriage will be shaped by many more factors, from the most material chances of economic revival and resisting forms of abuse and neglect to the hopes and desires of girls and women of various ages. While the pandemic in India (as elsewhere) has made our stark inequalities so hypervisible that it has created a ripple effect of accountability in the media and public life, feminists have been particularly active in pointing out what else needs to be done to render other inequalities and greater vulnerabilities just as unacceptable. At this moment, the Indian government is actively contemplating raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 21 years. It is hard to fathom how such a decision can be viewed positively, and the considerable harm it would unleash under pandemic conditions is only too obvious. One of the young girls who spoke to the TF said without bitterness that should the age of marriage be raised to 21, she expected to see a rise in sex-selective abortions by families who could not imagine coping with even more years of care and responsibility. But perhaps the government is not thinking along these lines at all but rather is situating itself within a longer and grander narrative of social reform. How, then, should we evaluate this decision against the tapestry of the last two centuries? Chapter 1 suggested that the major controversy surrounding the Age of Consent Act of 1891 could be plotted in relation to ideas of “culture” (the sanction of Brahmanic scriptural texts and marriage rituals) and “nature” (biological constructions of puberty, strengthening the race, and so on). Many of these ideas found new life in the years preceding the passing of the Sarda Act of 1929. Katherine Mayo roundly attacked “Indian culture” as manifested in the evils of a religion like Hinduism for what it did to the health of child wives and mothers, which Indians variously sought to defend or recast. The year 1978, by contrast, seems to belong to a different time frame altogether, as the nation was just recovering from the National Emergency under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Arguments from “nature”, in the form of the great benefits of population control, were openly touted in the new Act that raised the age of marriage to 18 for girls and to 21 for boys. These years were not known for drawing upon the resources of Hindu cultural nationalism in the nation’s developmental agendas. The present government, however, is set on remodelling India into a revitalized modern Hindu Rashtra. Raising the age of marriage of girls could be made to fit only too well within such an agenda today given how flexibly the figure of Hindu women as quintessential bearers of Indian culture has operated. For example, much has been written about the revival of the figure of Bharat Mata, often in contexts of extreme violence. But there are no such invocations in this particular instance. Instead, we only hear talk of nutrition, of the improved health of mothers and their infants, and indeed of greater career opportunities with more years of education if marriage is delayed. What should one make of this? 197

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If in this year’s Independence Day address the prime minister spoke of the nutritional status of India’s daughters, a year ago he surprised everyone by bluntly declaring from the same ramparts that “population explosion” was one of India’s major problems. As he put it, with an ever increasing population, we have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? Before a child is born in our home, we must ask if we have prepared ourselves to fulfil the child’s needs, or are we going to leave the child to its fate? In my own thoughts on the matter (John 2020b), I wondered whether the state had fallen prey to highly questionable international agendas of population expansion. But perhaps we are underestimating the versatile power of the ideologies that are fuelling nation building at this juncture. This could well be an ideology with its own theories regarding which children should be allowed to be born and which should not. Its vision may no longer need to be anchored to a glorious Brahmanical past, embodied by an ideal womanhood, destroyed by Muslim invasions. For the first time in a two-century-long history of campaigns against “child marriage”, feminists and child rights activists stand together in their opposition to any further legislative increases in the minimum age of marriage. We have all the facts on our side – including plummeting fertility rates in even the poorest states where child marriage is high. Nor can child marriage be statistically communalized when data on Hindus are marginally worse than those for Muslims. But since when do facts speak for themselves? Young women, across different communities and castes, have been actively involved in taking on the government in their presentations – whether to the TF or in press conferences against raising the age of marriage to 21 years. Let me end with their questions to all of us: “Will we ever count for something? When can we decide our own fate?”

Notes 1The

Hindu, 16 August 2020.

References John, Mary E. 2020a. “Taking the Easy Way Out”. The Indian Express, 14 August 2020. John, Mary E. 2020b. “The Marriage Age Misconception”. The Hindu, 21 August 2020. Khan, Lakjia A. 2020. “Sharp Rise in Child Marriages during Lockdown”. The Hindu, 16 August 2020. Mehra, Madhu. 2020. “Eighteen and Over”. Indian Express, 25 August 2020. Mitra, Atri and Ravik Bhattacharya. 2020. “In Locked Down Bengal Fears Rise of Trafficking in Girls”. The Indian Express, 6 June 2020.


APPENDIX Regression tables Table A1.1  Maternal health associations with age at marriage in India Variables


Age at marriage