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Seema Gupta

Seema Gupta works at Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), a local partner of Simavi. As part of the More Than Brides Alliance, Simavi works together with VHAI to reduce child marriage and its adverse effects on young women and girls in India. Seema is the programme director of this programme, called Marriage: No Child’s Play programme. We spoke to her in the lights of the UN follow-up and review of the Sustainable Development Goals.


How are child marriage and the Sustainable Development Goals related?

“The 17 goals outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are markers for the world’s development priorities until 2030. Goal 5 of the SDGs includes target 5.3 that speaks of eliminating all harmful practices, such as child marriage, early marriage, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. The SDGs are an ideal platform that has the potential to shape the face of global development. The Millennium Development Goals gave us a good indicator of how big the problem of child marriage actually is, and how it undermines so many of our efforts to improve the wellbeing of millions.

India has the highest number of child brides in the world and accounts for 33% of all girls married before 18. Even though this figure is slowly declining, the practice of child marriage (CM) still traps 15 million girls a year into a cycle of poverty, ill health and inequality. We need to understand that it is almost impossible to promote gender equality and female empowerment if women are married off and thus denied their rights to health, education and a life free from violence and exploitation.

The practice of CM is intrinsically linked to the goal of education (SDG 2) and goals four and five of reducing maternal and infant mortality. We need to understand that sustainable development is closely linked to girls and their development, which is denied if they are married early. Therefore we won’t make progress on at least half of the SDGs (which include ending poverty and hunger, improving health, education, economic growth and achieving gender equality) if CM is not addressed.”


What are your concerns about the SDG target ‘to end child, early and forced marriage’?

“The idea of including child marriage as a target under the SDG is smart. Setting this target will lead to better educational attainment, better economic and social empowerment and improved health-seeking behaviour. Research suggests it could have a multiplier effect that will benefit girls, their families and ultimately their communities and countries. However, we need to realise that ending child marriage and achieving gender equality requires strong policy change and political will. There is a need for additional resources that are necessary to implement policies, services and programmes, keeping in mind India’s inter district and inter-state variations.

My concerns about combating CM are the limited education opportunities that exist along with the low quality of education and the inadequate infrastructure, including lack of transport, that continue to fuel its practice. Hence one of the suggestions is making RTe inclusive of secondary education.

Another challenge is the implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA) and the illegality of child marriage, because majority of the people feel that traditions and norms are stronger than the law and institutions, and therefore rarely report CM cases. On top of this, there is limited capacity among officials and a lack of willingness to go against community decisions, since officials are themselves part of the community.

The economic aspect of CM is one that cannot be ignored as daughters are often seen as a liability who have a limited economic role in the family, a problem often exacerbated by the payment of dowries. Changing behaviour change is time consuming and for any sustainable social change, we need to address the multi-dimensional nature of child marriage. It is important to note that ending CM will require long term sustainable efforts, as change will ultimately take place within communities but will only happen after it is supported and catalysed by a collective effort at state, national, regional and international levels.”


What are the challenges that More Than Brides Alliance and VHAI are facing in Advocating for Child Marriages?

The More Than Brides Alliance does the following things to reduce the practice of child marriage:

  • Increased global campaigns on CM
  • Champions need to be highlighted
  • Enhanced investment on research
  • International collaboration
  • Increased investment on highlighting best practises
  • MTBA could look that advocating with governments for efforts to end child marriage to meet their obligations under international laws to eliminate the practice.

Child marriage in India is declining, as has been highlighted in the NFHS 4. However, the challenge when advocating for CM is due to the nature of the problem. CM falls under the Ministry of Woman & Child (WCD), yet many issues of advocacy are under the domain of different ministries such as Health, Education, Social Welfare & Skill development. Therefore the lack of inter-ministerial coordination is a big challenge because the ultimate onus is on WCD but they are not responsible for the health indicators. Furthermore, a limited knowledge and ineffective implementation of the law represents another challenge, for which sensitization of stakeholders is a must, since lawmakers are often unaware of their roles and responsibilities.

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