10-year-old child bride, Ratnamma, was recently rescued by police just hours before her wedding to 14-year-old Hanumesh.  According to The Week, the authorities had instructed the girl’s parents to call off the underage marriage, but her parents chose to proceed with the nuptial plans.  After a UNICEF team visited the groom’s family to investigate the proposed marriage, police intervened and rescued both children despite protests from villagers in support of the union.

Child marriage is illegal in India, where Ratnamma and Hanumesh live.  The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) proscribes any marriage involving a girl under 18 years of age and/or a boy under age 21.  Yet, 15% of girls in rural areas of India are married before they reach age 13, in blatant violation of The Act.  “People have their own means to bypass rules,” a social worker told The Week, “Sometimes they forge age certificates.  Doctors in government hospitals here used to accept bribes and issue age certificates to minor girls.”  According to UNICEF’s 2011 State Of The World’s Children report, one in four marriages in India involves a child bride, and 82% of females in Rajasthan – the largest state in India – are married before age 18.  The Week cites a number of reasons why parents perpetuate harmful marriage practices:

[C]hild marriages are entwined with religion, in many cases. For example, in some places, attending a grandchild’s wedding is [believed to be] a shortcut to heaven… In other places, parents are forced to marry [off] their children out of poverty. “I thought marriage would provide a better future for my daughter. But it did not,” said a sobbing Bihari mother who married [off] her 13-year-old daughter last year. “I had no choice. Both of us are working and there was nobody to take care of her at home.” Some parents marry siblings, including a minor, together to save on expenses. Natural calamities also make the children more vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers, and many are pushed into marriages.

Every Indian schoolgirl has some sense of what it means to be a child bride.  “From their classmates who got married at a younger age, they know it is something bitter,” Rafia Nausheen, area manager of Mahita, a Hyderabad-based NGO told The Week, “They know they would have to stay away from their parents and may not be allowed to play or go to school.  They are not old enough to understand the legal complications or possible health problems.”  Some children beg their parents, in vain, not to force them into marriage:

Gavisidhamma, 13, from Ojanahalli, Karnataka, was very anxious when her marriage was fixed with her mama (mother’s brother) Virupaksha, 22. “My father beat me when I told him that I did not want to get married at such a young age, and that, too, to my mama,” she said. “My mother was against the marriage, but she could not say a word.” Gavisidhamma was married on January 31, 2011, and wears a thali to school.

It should come as no surprise that infant and maternal morbidity and mortality rates are extremely high in India, where 45 out of every 1,000 births involve teenaged mothers.  Shradhdha Clinic Consultant Dr. Vinita Singh told The Week:

A teen mother has increased chances of losing her life during labour. In girls under 18 years, the reproductive organs and pelvic bone may not be fully developed. So, in early pregnancies there will be more chances of eclampsia, pre-eclampsia, hypertension, post-partum haemorrhage, Caesarean section and higher rate of mortality. Children are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases due to biological reasons. Poor hygiene and not using contraceptives make them more prone to infections. It may increase the chances of cervical cancer also.

When child marriages fail, the brides’ parents do not welcome their daughters back into the nest.  With nowhere to go for help, many women and girls turn to prostitution to support themselves and their children.  10-year-old Ratnamma is one of the fortunate few who manage to escape forced marriage; her future remains unwritten.

READ MORE: Knot before 18, By Mini P. Thomas, The Week (July 16, 2012).