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That India marries off its daughters in such a hurry that they have little time to grow out of their teens is a fact that no longer raises eyebrows. But what should come as a shock to a country that preens itself over its growing economic prowess is that we fare worse than sub-Saharan Africa, or for that matter, all of Africa put together, when it comes to child marriage.

If that's not bad enough, sample this. The degree to which child marriage is practised in India is more than double the figure for Pakistan, a country we don't quite look up to as a role model. While India would like to believe that it will one day break into the league of countries such as the US and UK, we can take solace from the fact that a worldwide scorecard on child marriage shows that we're better off than Bangladesh, Mali and Burkina Faso. The US and UK dont even figure on the list.

A 2011 data sheet called `The World's Women and Girls', released by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, shows that 47% of women in India between the ages of 20 and 24 were married by 18. This is higher than the average for South Central Asia (45%), of which India is a part. The average for Africa as a continent works out to 34%. Most African countries fare better than India, including Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. While Pakistan's score works out to 24%, even Afghanistan, with a pathetic score of 43%, does a better job than India when it comes to curbing child marriage.

Vibhuti Patel, director, post graduate studies and research (PGSR) and head of the PG economics department at SNDT University, who was an early advocate of India's feminist movement, points to the rather strange link between child marriage and the success of some of India's welfare schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).

SSA helps schoolgirls till Class IV, after which there are a large number of dropouts and ICDS children in the age group of 0-6. As a result adolescent girls, who mostly drop out after Class VII as they can't cope up with math, science and English, don't have to look after their younger siblings. ``In the absence of any programmes targeting adolescent girls in terms of vocational training or life-skill development by the state or by civil society groups, many parents are worried that these girls, who are now free of responsibility and have a lot of time on their hands, may end up in premarital relationships and turn unwed mothers,'' she said.

That's why parents in even progressive states like Gujarat and Maharashtra marry off their daughters at an early age, said Patel.

Pointing to the health consequences of child marriage, P Arokiasamy of the International Institute of Population Science, Mumbai, says child marriage has much to do with the low status of women in India.

Arokiasamy says the practice has more to do with culture than development. Sex ratio in Africa is better than India since several tribal societies are matriarchal. In India, regions where the status of women is low, such as Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand, have more child marriages. Even in Andhra Pradesh, which has a low fertility rate, a large proportion of women are married in their teens. Meanwhile, states like Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Jammu and Kashmir fare a lot better.

South Central Asia (of which India is a part)---45

Africa------------------------ --------------------------34

Sub-Saharan Africa----------------------------------38

Northern Africa--------------------------------------17

Western Africa---------------------------------------42

Eastern Africa----------------------------------------41

Middle Africa----------------------------------------42

Southern Africa---------------------------------------6

Central America-------------------------------------27


South America---------------------------------------23

Western Asia-----------------------------------------18

South East Asia--------------------------------------18


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