Is sexual violence a driver of the early marriage of girls in India?

Marriage at a younger age, generally before the legal age of marriage, is a pervasive practice in many parts of the world. Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday and 25 million were married before the age of 15.

The incidence of child marriage — that is, marriage before the age of 18 (the legal age of marriage in most countries) — is especially pronounced among women living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where 56% and 42% of women aged between 20–49, respectively, were married before they reached 18.

The causes and consequences of early marriage

The adverse consequences of early marriage have been documented across the world for both women and their offspring. Various studies have shown that child marriage that subsequently leads to early childbearing has detrimental effects on the offspring. Early marriage is linked to school dropout and low human capital formation which leads to poor labour market outcomes for women. Other consequences include adverse effect on the wellbeing of women in terms of their health, post-marital agency, and vulnerability to domestic violence.

The first and foremost reason why this practice persists in developing countries, according to the literature, is poverty. Due to the patriarchal set up in most parts of the world, parents often view daughters as burdens and sons as economic agents. Moreover, marriage markets in countries like India operate through dowry payments, payable by brides’ families to grooms’ families. The dowry payment increases monotonically with the age of the bride, the older she is the more the parents need to pay to arrange her marriage as men prefer younger brides. Therefore, parents in poverty often decide not to invest in daughters’ education and prefer to marry them off as soon as they reach puberty.

In addition to economic conditions, culture play an important role in early marriage. For example, in Indian society, pre-marital pregnancy or any sexual activity outside marriage — including being the victim of sexual violence — is socially unacceptable. Therefore, parents share concerns about sexual safety, reflecting fears about how girls will be perceived within the community and their future marriage prospects if they are victims of sexual violence. This concern may lead to early marriage as parents feel that an unmarried girl is vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

This threat is reason enough for many parents as it could compromise the chastity and subsequent marriageability of their daughters, particularly because it takes place in a society where women’s sexual purity is valued. Men also tend to express a preference for brides who are sexually inexperienced, young , and easier to control.

Crime against women in the locality and marriageability

The incidence of crimes against women in the locality where young women live therefore play a vital role in the decision to marry them early. Using nationally representative data from India, we find new evidence that a household’s perception of a higher chance of crimes against unmarried girls in the locality enhances the chances of early marriage for adolescent girls significantly. The effect of perceived crime against girls on the likelihood of marriage is higher in households that practice purdah, the practice of screening women from men by covering their faces. The effect is not as significant for households that did not practice purdah.

We also find that the positive relationship between crime against unmarried girls in the locality and the likelihood of early marriage of girls holds only in northern India, where stronger gender norms and a more patriarchal culture prevails. These findings suggest that while the safety of women should be a general concern, increasing sexual violence in the locality also has a potential to inflate the incidence of child marriage through the channel of cultural norms in India. The value that conservative societies place on a woman’s chastity and its relationship to her marriageability is the mechanism behind this positive association. Therefore, from a policy perspective, promoting safety for girls and creating awareness about sexual violence at the community level is as important as providing financial incentives to parents to delay the marriage of adolescent girls.

Dr. Sudipa Sarkar is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and a researcher in our 'Women's Work - Routes to economic and social empowerment' project. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.