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To be defined at length in a later section, child marriage is most simply, for our purposes, a marriage in which the wife is below the age of eighteen at the time of consummation. The practice of child marriage in rural India is deeply rooted in cultural values and grounded in social structures. And despite laws that prohibit child marriage, the practice is still extremely prevalent in many regions. Though the statistics are contentious, it is estimated that in some parts of India, like the state of Rajasthan, nearly 80 percent of the marriages are among girls under the age of fifteen” (Gupta, 2005, p. 2). In India overall, roughly 47.6 percent of girls are married by the age of eighteen (The implications of early marriage, 2004).
Despite international human rights efforts, the eradication of child marriage is greatly hindered by the intertwined social issues that often lead to and are then in turn reinforced by the practice. Various underlying social factors inform why child marriage exists, including: traditional gender norms; the value of virginity and parental concerns surrounding premarital sex; pressure of marriage transactions (or dowries); and poverty (Amin, Chong, & Haberland, 2007). The social outcomes of child marriage are also significant, and often devastate communities in which these practices take place. Societies in which child marriage takes place have higher rates of early childbearing, unwanted pregnancies, maternal and infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) and unsafe abortions. Additionally, adolescent girls placed in child marriages are often deprived of basic health care and health information, and achieve extremely low educational attainment (Mathur, Greene, & Malhotra, 2003, p. 4- 11; Bruce, 2007; Amin, Chong, & Haberland, 2007). Apart from these health and societal consequences, such marriages also affect girls’ individual experience as social actors. Early marriage negatively affects girls’ social networks, decision-making power, and ability to negotiate with partners—all of which do influence the health and well being of the individual (Bruce, 2007).
In many ways, the social issues that emerge from the practice of child marriage also serve to reinforce it—creating a vicious cycle. This cyclical pattern is just one reason why the practice has yet to be eradicated despite international pressure and legal interventions. Each of the problems that informs child marriage intersects in complex ways and the result is an incessant and engrossing problem that impacts all aspects of the social worlds in which it takes place, from the well-being of the individual girls to the economic, political, and cultural structures of general Indian society. What is most urgent about child marriages in India, however, is the relationship between child marriage and the increasingly severe Indian HIV epidemic. The rates of HIV in India are a topic of great debate between the Indian government and both Indian and International NGOs. Yet, there is a consensus that HIV, once an urban phenomenon in India that was primarily transmitted within high-risk populations is now gaining momentum in rural areas (“Fears Over India,” 2005). These trends are alarming and suggest that the cultural contexts in which these HIV rates are climbing need to be addressed.
Additionally, recent research has found links between HIV and early marriage in communities across the globe. “…[T]he majority of sexually active girls age 15-19 in developing countries are married, and married adolescent girls tend to have higher rates of HIV infection than their sexually active, unmarried peers” (The implications of early marriage, 2004, p. 1; Clark, Bruce, & Dude, 2006, p. 79).
HIV/AIDS in India
The Indian HIV/AIDS epidemic is relatively new, and, once limited to high-risk urban...