Join WICID's Critical South Asia Group (CSAG): From having been at the heart of the fiercest controversies to beset social reform in late colonial India, then to recede from public discourse after independence, child marriage has seen a rekindling of focus in the twenty-first century. International agendas have primarily highlighted the fact that India has by far the largest numbers of girls who marry before the age of 18 years, while the state has been exhibiting a contradictory if ubiquitous concern over the “girl child”. Whereas child rights activism on the issue has become increasingly visible, feminists in India have – with notable exceptions – been largely uninvolved, whether through campaigns or as researchers, at least until very recently.
This is the context for the presentation I will be making. I provide a brief critique of prominent approaches to the “elimination of child marriage”, which call child marriage a social norm that can and must be abandoned, either through delaying the marriage or by providing adolescents with “agency”. I suggest instead that child marriage is not a separate practice creating unique victims out of children, but is structurally bound up within the forms that compulsory marriage as a modern, dynamic and deeply hierarchical system has been taking in contemporary Indian society. While rates of child marriage have been declining, compulsory marriage has not. I will present my arguments about compulsory marriage, where decreasing rates of under age marriage can only be understood in relation to the massive expansion in education on the one hand, but also to the paradoxes of declines in women’s employment, on the other. If there is a unique quality to gender in India today, it lies neither in harmful practices like child marriage nor even in other forms of extreme violence, but in the reasons fuelling the vibrant social reproduction of marriage as an intergenerational contract, in all its infinite variety and deadly monotony.