Fighting Child Marriage in West Bengal

Child Marriage

Child marriage is a problem that has proven to be difficult to solve in India. Its ill-effects still plague the country and inhibit the process of development. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA), 18 is the legal age of marriage for girls, and 21 for boys in India. Despite several years of this Act being in existence, the early marriage of children continues to be practiced. What is really irksome is the fact that child marriage is a gendered practice. The phenomenon affects far more girls than boys. After the implementation of free and universal elementary education in India, progress in enrollment and completion of elementary school has been noticed, however, the transition from elementary to secondary school remains a concern. Secondary education is not free, and many impoverished parents, failing to see the economic rationale for investing in their daughter’s education, marry her off at this age in the belief that this will enhance the girl’s and the family’s security. It is the most prevalent form of sexual abuse which goes unnoticed by the parents because of the socio-economic benefits their marriage seems to offer. It leads to the disempowerment of women leaving them prey to trafficking and abuse.

In 2018, the Government of West Bengal started a cash transfer scheme, “Kanyashree Prakalpa”. It was aimed at educating and empowering girls. The scheme tries to ensure that girls stay in school at least until they are 18 years old. Conditional cash transfers serve as a safety net mechanism to achieve the said objective. The scheme has two cash transfer components: The first is an Annual incentive of Rs. 750/- to be paid annually to the girls in the age group 13 to 18 years (studying in Class VIII equivalent or above for every year that they remained in education, provided they are unmarried at the time. The second is a One-Time Grant of Rs. 25,000/-, to be paid after a girl turns 18, provided that she was engaged in an academic or occupational pursuit and was unmarried.

The term ‘education’ encompasses secondary and higher secondary education, as well as the various vocational, technical and sports courses available for this age group. A point to note here is that the scheme is open only to girls who belong to families with an annual income of Rs. 1,20,000 or less. For girls with special needs, orphans and girls in J. J. Homes the income criterion is waived. Girls with special needs, but in a class below class VIII, can also apply for the annual scholarship. The scheme is meant to not only to give monetary support but also to empower these women. Hence, the money is transferred into a bank account in the girl’s name. As more and more girls remain in school, it is envisaged that they will use the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge that will help them become economically independent. Till the 16th of March, 2018, 47,65,571 girls have enrolled for this scheme.
Another scheme which has been set into motion by the Government of West Bengal is “Rupashree Prakalpa”. This scheme is independent of “Kanyashree Prakalpa”. This scheme aims to provide marriage assistance to girls coming from economically weaker sections of society. Girls who are unmarried till they turn 18, would be granted a generous amount of Rs. 25,000 as marriage assistance. While presenting the State Budget for 2018-19, the Finance Minister of West Bengal, Amit Mitra said “I propose to extend a one-time assistance of Rs 25,000 to the family of the girl with an annual income upto Rs 1.5 lakh at the time of marriage after attaining the age of 18 years.” The scheme has received a budgetary allocation of Rs. 1500 crore and is said to prove beneficial to six lakh families.
Both these schemes have paved the way in the right direction but people have found a way to misuse these policies as well. Reports from teachers of educational institutes in rural areas have shown how the families of these girls use this money in the most unproductive manner. The teachers say that these girls enroll for a course in college, finish their first year in college but drop out as soon as they turn 18 and receive the Kanyashree money. They then go ahead and claim the Rupashree money and the total sum becomes their dowry. The “whack-the- mole” theory is not working in this situation. The mole finds a way to raise its ugly head after each whacking. The misuse of these schemes is something which is beyond the control of the government. Abolishing child marriage is a social change which needs to come organically. This proves that incentivisation has to be juxtaposed with changing the mindsets of the people. Pure economic incentives will not be able to eradicate this problem.
Having said all of this, the scheme has managed to at least push the age of marriage to 18 in many cases. It is a progressive step for the state, which until recently was reported to have highest number of married girl children.

– Contributed by Vinny

Picture Credits: Reuters

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