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A scheme to end child marriage in patriarchal Haryana has totally backfired

Too young to marry.
Too young to marry.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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A state-run scheme to end child marriage in the northern Indian state of Haryana is backfiring in the most unexpected way.

The Apni Beti Apna Dhan (My daughter, my wealth) programme promises Rs25,000 ($384) to girls on the condition that they abide by the legal age of marriage in India and stay unmarried till 18 years of age. Within 15 days of the delivery of a girl child, her mother is given a token of Rs500, with the lump sum arriving 18 years later.

But the conditional cash transfer (pdf) scheme is leading to bigger sums of dowry, the US-based non-profit International Centre for Research on Women has found. The cash—under the scheme—that an unmarried girl receives after turning 18, is actually being offered to the groom at the time of their wedding.

The scheme was implemented in Haryana between 1994 and 1998, with the first batch of girls reaching the legal age for marriage in 2012. The survey polled 13,000 women, including girls who were enrolled for the scheme, those who hadn’t and mothers of both groups. The participants belonged mostly to low-income and lower caste families.

The purpose was two-pronged: ending child marriage and ensuring that girls attended schools longer. After all, India is home to 240 million child brides—or one-third of the world’s child brides—according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“Girls married early are vulnerable to intimate partner violence, sexual coercion, and early childbearing,” the report said. “Beyond the immediate physical and mental health risks, girls who marry early are excluded from education and economic opportunities.”

Overall, the survey recorded, fewer girls are marrying before 18 years of age in Haryana, regardless of whether they are supported by the government’s cash scheme. But, among beneficiaries, the scheme “may have actually encouraged marriages at 18, and that parents who desired to have their daughters married early did so immediately upon receiving the cash benefit,” the report said.

The report also noted that beneficiary mothers referred to the programme as a kanyadan scheme and interpreted the cash as the government’s contribution. Kanyadan is a Hindu ritual in which a girl is symbolically passed on by her family to the groom, along with a handsome dowry.

“Uprooting deep-seated discriminatory norms around girls and marriage requires more than just a simple cash transaction,” lead researcher Priya Nanda of the study, called The Impact on Marriage, said in a statement.

Although girls who participated were likely to stay in school through the 8th grade than girls who did not participate, “this did not translate into higher rates of girls in secondary and post-secondary education,” the report said.

The cash benefit was largely spent on the wedding or the dowry offered to the groom. About three-fourths of the girls who had got married and encashed their benefits used it to meet their marriage expenses, according to the report. Among those who had not yet cashed out, 53% intended to use the money for their marriage and 32% for education.