NEW DELHI: Child marriage, one India's worst social ills, is all set to get global attention.
Heavyweights like Mary Robinson, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and Gro Brundtland are travelling to the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday to put the spotlight on this social malady.
The three heavyweights are part of the Elders, which is an independent group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. They work together for peace and human rights. India's Ela Bhatt is part of this select group. She has briefed the delegation visiting the UN meeting on the extent of the menace in India. The other Elders include Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi as honourary members.
Annually, an estimated 10 million girls aged under 18 are married off worldwide, with little or no say in the matter. That's more than 25,000 girls every day or 19 every minute. In the developing world, one in seven girls is married off before her 15th birthday.
Now, child marriage is a global problem — 46% of girls under 18 are married in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia (38%), Latin America and the Caribbean ((21%) and in West Asia and North Africa (18%).
More than a third of child brides live in India, the Elders estimate.
Bhatt told TOI that "Child marriage has been a social menace in India. However, the situation is improving. Education of the girl child is becoming common with more and more young couples delaying their marriage."
"Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage" initiated by The Elders will be presented on the world stage for the first time on September 20.
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, said, "At current rate, 100 million girls will be married in the coming decade."
The Elders say, young brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence.
Laws banning child marriages were introduced in India in 1929 but 81 years down the line, the social ill continues to be as grave as ever.
Nearly half the women in India are married off before they reach the legal age of 18, a joint Indo-American study published in the medical journal 'Lancet' had recently said. Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) say this has been found to be associated with poor fertility outcomes such as unwanted and terminated pregnancies and repeat childbirths in less than 24 months.
Lead author Dr Anita Raj said the study found that more than one in five, or 22.6% were married before they turned 16, while 2.6% were married before 13 years.
India's most comprehensive National Family Health Survey-III, carried out in 29 states during 2005-06 said 45% women in the country — aged between 20 and 24 — were married off before they reached 18, the legal age to marry.
The figure crossed 50% in eight states. While 55% women in Andhra Pradesh were married off before 18, Jharkhand topped the chart with 61%, Bihar (60%), Rajasthan (57%), 53% each for Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and Chhattisgarh (52%).
Over 71% of women who got married below the age of 18 had received no education.
Women who had been child brides are 37% likelier not to have used contraception before their first child was born; seven times likelier to have three or more births; and three times likelier to have a repeat childbirth in less than 24 months. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
Girls aged between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die.