A data story on female child marriage in India

An attempt at drawing attention to regions in India with high levels of female child marriage, as well as discussing potential solutions to address the problem.

Authors: Shubham Mudgil and Swathi Ramesh Rao
Published: March 20, 2023 in Ideas for India

Child marriage signals the end of childhood. It is a serious problem with large-scale ramifications, not only for the underage girls married, but also for society at large. Studies show that child marriage restricts girls’ access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, and even leads to inter-generational effects like undernutrition in children (Field et al. 2016).

In 1978, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 was amended to increase the minimum legal age of marriage for females from 15 years; almost 45 years later, the minimum legal age is 18 years, and female child marriage continues to be a pervasive problem in India. Data from the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) shows a 23.3% incidence of female child marriage in the country in 2019-21. The magnitude of this figure is especially concerning since India is currently estimated to have around 225 million girls below 19 years of age (National Commission on Population, 2020).

Until now, NFHS data for child marriage has been collected and made available at the district, state, and national level. As a result, elected representatives from parliamentary constituencies (PCs) have had to rely on available district-level data to monitor their constituencies. However, because PC and district boundaries do not overlap, it cannot be assumed that district-level data will provide accurate estimates for PCs. For example, the Kannauj PC, although homonymous with the district of Kannauj, actually intersects three different districts – Kannauj, Auraiya, and Kanpur Dehat. As of 2022, India has 543 Lok Sabha constituencies and 766 districts.

Given that Members of Parliament (MPs) are directly elected by citizens in their respective constituencies, a lack of PC-level data hinders meaningful, constituency-specific policy discourse, and hampers MPs’ engagement with their electorate. In this data story, we explore trends in female child marriage in India using NFHS data mapped specifically to the parliamentary constituency (PC) level.

We aim to highlight the status of this issue and draw attention to regions in India with high levels of female child marriage, as well as discuss potential solutions to address the problem. The continued prevalence of child marriage, despite the enactment of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012, suggests that criminal prosecution alone cannot be a deterrent; neither perhaps can retroactive action on families that allegedly engaged in the practice of child marriage.

Table 1: National prevalence of female child marriage across rounds
NFHS Round Prevalence of Female Child Marriage
NFHS-1 (1992-93) 54.2%
NFHS-2 (1998-99) 50.0%
NFHS-3 (2005-06) 47.4%
NFHS-4 (2015-16) 26.8%
NFHS-5 (2019-21) 23.3%

Since its first round in 1992, the NFHS has measured female child marriage by surveying women who were first married by age 18. Even though data from the five rounds of NFHS, as presented in table 1, indicate that the practice has been on the decline, child marriage is yet to be eradicated. In fact, in Figure 1, dense clusters of PCs with high levels of female child marriage, highlighted by shades of red, can be observed throughout the country.

Figure 1. Prevalence of child marriage among women in NFHS-5

In the worst-performing states of Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh, 1.5 out of every 4 girls in the age bracket surveyed by the NFHS were married when they were underage. Additionally, female child marriage rates vary sharply among PCs, but while PCs in the bottom 10% have rates ranging from 41-61%, and the top 10% range more narrowly from 2.7-8%, India, unfortunately, has no parliamentary constituency where child marriage has ceased to exist.

National female child marriage rates have fallen from 26.8% in NFHS-4 (2015-2016) to 23.3% in NFHS-5 (2019-2021). The progress made over the last five years is notable, with 77% of PCs registering a decline (see Figure 2).

However, in the remaining PCs, child marriage rates have actually increased by 3.3 percentage points on average. Some PCs have even registered an increase of over 10 percentage points.

Figure 2. Change in levels of child marriage from NFHS-4 to NFHS-5

The PCs of Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh), Salem (Tamil Nadu), and Parbhani (Maharashtra) also present a peculiar case – they regressed significantly while their surrounding PCs improved. These exceptions require immediate attention to identify the causes behind the increase and address them through effective solutions.

The path to progress in bigger states with high levels of child marriage 

Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are both large Indian states with high levels of female child marriage (see Figure 3). However, between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5, these adjacent states registered tremendous progress: the prevalence of child marriage has decreased from 35.4% to 25.4% in Rajasthan, and from 32.4% to 23.1% in MP (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Levels of child marriage in Rajasthan (left) and Madhya Pradesh (right) according to NFHS-5
Figure 4. Progress made by Rajasthan (left) and Madhya Pradesh (right) in eradicating child marriage

This encouraging trend is also visible in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra. However, the respective state governments should remain unrelenting in their efforts, as most of their PCs still lie in the ‘red’ zone. Additionally, enhanced efforts should be directed towards PCs which have regressed over the same five-year period, such as Bikaner (Rajasthan) and Morena (MP).

Underreporting of child marriages: NCRB vs NFHS

Even though NFHS data suggests that female child marriage is still prevalent in many parts of the country, such marriages are largely underreported under the law. In fact, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual ‘Crime in India’ reports, since 2001 states like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim have reported zero cases under the PCMA. However, NFHS still shows a significant prevalence of child marriage in all four states (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Levels of child marriage in select states according to NFHS-4 and NFHS-5

Between 2001-10, an average of about 80 child marriage cases per year were reported nationally through the NCRB. This figure increased to about 360 during 2011-20. This national average is markedly lower than the numbers estimated by the NFHS, which has consistently reported high national-level child marriage rates –47.4% in the 2005-06 survey, 26.8% in the 2015-16 survey, and 23.3% in 2019-21. While the law has made some difference, it has not been able to eliminate the widespread social acceptance of child marriage as a practice, and the potential reluctance to register complaints against family members.

Alternative solutions

Female child marriage is symptomatic of a larger underlying issue of women’s agency and empowerment. Studies show that a woman’s age at marriage is linked to her education, income, and prevailing socio-cultural norms (Desai 2010). Child marriage is a complex issue, and tackling it calls for a holistic, bottom-up approach, with an enhanced focus on women’s socio-economic elevation rather than a singular focus on criminal punishment.

Several central sector schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Sukanya Samridhi Yojana have been implemented to address female child marriage by incentivising girls’ education and ensuring their financial empowerment. Along similar lines, various state governments have enacted schemes and programmes to advance the socio-economic status of girls and women.

The Kanyashree Prakalpa Scheme in West Bengal is an example of a programme that incentivises continued education for girls and their retention in schools. To ensure their financial independence, the scheme provides direct, conditional cash transfers to girls, while simultaneously addressing the norms around marriage in their communities. Along similar lines, the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust launched the Sphoorthi Project in 2015, to improve life outcomes for girls and women in 51 villages. The project sought to both empower adolescent girls, and encourage their parents to serve as role models to positively influence prevailing norms around girls’ education and age at marriage. The success of the project in the district of Koppal (Singh 2018) has prompted its expansion to other districts in the state as well.

While criminal prosecution may continue to be a strategy to tackle child marriage, the relationship between female child marriage and female personal agency must not be overlooked. Strengthening schemes that benefit girls and women will likely have a larger and more permanent impact on reducing (and perhaps eliminating) the prevalence of female child marriage across India