Being wedded too early leads to potentially fatal health risks and fewer educational opportunities, experts say, but the practice remains widespread.
In 1989, Anita Mondal, a 15-year-old girl from Malda district in West Bengal, was about to be married off. She wanted to study and work, but her parents had arranged her marriage to a distant cousin against her will.
A UNICEF officer who happened to visit her village at the time heard of her plight and brought it to the attention of local police, scuttling the unwanted union. But her troubles were far from over.
"Even after being rescued from the fateful incident; I had no idea what to do next, as my parents had turned against me for ruining their efforts to marry me off to my cousin," Anita told Khabar South Asia.
Today Anita is an active member of the street theater group Prayaas, which spreads awareness about social issues such as superstition, alcoholism and child marriage. The group saved her when her parents disowned her, placing her in a girls' rehabilitation home and eventually finding her a husband she could accept – a tailor – when she was 18.
Now 48, she is happily married, with two children.
"Since I could not forget my misfortunes, I decided to help other girls in my area from suffering the same miseries I endured. So I am doing my bit with the help of Prayaas," she said."Today the incidents of child marriage are much fewer in my area, compared to the days when I was being forced to marry my cousin, several years older than me."
Such advocacy work is sorely needed not only in India but across other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where child marriage, though illegal, is still prevalent.
Early marriage is by no means a new phenomenon. It is a socially-sanctioned practice that has been carried on from generation to generation, despite international and regional prohibitions which all the countries in South Asia have ratified. Across the region, 21 has been established as the legal marriage age for boys, while 18 is the threshold for girls.
The authorities, however, are often either unable to enforce existing laws or rectify discrepancies between national laws and customary and religious laws. Child marriage is typically regarded as a family matter, governed also by religion and culture.
In India, child marriage, defined as being wedded to either boys or girls below these established legal ages, carries a maximum punitive fine of Rs 1 lakh (about $2,000) or two years in prison. Yet it continues unabated. According to 2011 data published by the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, 47% of Indian women are married before the age of 18.
Adult husbands who engage in marital relations with wives younger than 15 can also be prosecuted for marital rape, although such laws do not apply to men whose wives are between India's sexual consent age of 15 and the minimum female marriage age of 18.
In most cases, brides under 18 remain in the family home until they reach puberty. After that, they are expected to join their husbands--and begin marital relations.
Childbearing can be extremely dangerous for girls in early puberty, however.
"Young girls' bodies are not prepared for bearing children," said Subhash Mohapatra, founder-director of the human rights organisation Forum for Fact-Finding Documentation and Advocacy (FFDA).
"Early pregnancy can be fatal. First-time mothers often face a complication called obstetric fistula that is caused by several days of obstructed labor," Mohapatra told Khabar.
Obstetric fistula occurs when a hole opens between the rectum and the vagina, or the bladder and the vagina, due to lengthy labours in which the unborn child is pressed so tightly in the birth canal that blood flow is cut off to surrounding tissues. Labour in women under the age of 20 is a prominent risk factor for the condition.
"The consequences are often life shattering," he said. "The baby normally dies and the woman suffers chronic incontinence. She is often shunned by her family members as a consequence."
Besides this specific condition, marriage between adult men and young girls poses more general health risks for the bride. According to the Delhi-based International Centre for Research on Women study "How to End Child Marriages," child brides are at risk of a cycle of gender inequality, sickness, poverty, violence, physical/sexual health problems such as high maternal/infant mortality rates and HIV transmission.
In a society that condones child marriage, it is not uncommon to find widows and divorcees under the age of 18.
Amala Sardar, 36, was married at 10 and widowed at age 14. She now lives by herself in a slum near the Sealdah rail station in Kolkata and works in a factory. "I was labeled unlucky and shunned by my family members," she says.
Shyamala Dosai of Barasat, West Bengal was divorced at 16. Now 22, she is struggling to raise a 7-year-old daughter on her own.
In Bihar's villages, it is common for older men to have much younger wives and boast about it, according to Bharati Dey, founder of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an organisation devoted to helping destitute women. She tells the story of a 56-year-old man in Surguja, Chhattisgarh who claims to have six wives, all between the ages of 10 and 18.
Respecting girl children
In an interview with Khabar, social worker Jawaharlal Sharma, a member of the Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), identified two contributing factors to child marriage: discrimination against girls, and a lack of awareness surrounding women's health issues.
"There are more child marriages in states like Bihar, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand, where women's education level is low," Sharma said.
Piyali Sur, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Banipur Women's College, says societal norms are so heavily tilted in favour of male children that "the moment a girl is born, her parents start thinking of marrying her off."
"Child marriage will continue for as long as the girl child is considered a liability," she said. "This feeling has precipitated child marriage."