For over two decades, policymakers in India have been experimenting with conditional cash transfers to address the issue of child marriage. In this article, Amin et al. contend that financial incentives targeted at parents are unlikely to be sufficient; it is important to invest in girls' education, and ensure steady growth of suitable jobs, and fair remuneration for them.
Over the next decade, more than 140 million girls around the world will marry before their 18th birthday. Nearly half of these child marriages (marriages before the age of 18) will occur in South Asia. There is worldwide recognition today of the severe limits on girls' life choices imposed by the practice of child marriage, but there are very different views about the best ways to tackle the problem.
India's experience with tackling the problem of child marriage
Within South Asia, India has the longest experience with programmes and policies aimed at tackling the problem of child marriage. The government has implemented specific plans to tackle the problem for over two decades. Therefore, India's experience can offer important lessons for its poorer neighbours - Bangladesh and Nepal – which have much higher prevalence of child marriage.
One of the earliest large-scale programmes to tackle child marriage in the developing world, innovated in India, was based on a simple idea: namely, the provision of financial incentives for parents to delay marriage among under-aged girls. The underlying logic for the programme is as follows. Indian parents generally play an important – if not dominant – role in the marriage decisions of their children, particularly daughters. Marrying later has a financial cost because dowry demands, which are common across classes, rise with the age of the bride; and because parents have to pay for their daughters' upkeep for longer. Therefore, a programme which pays parents for delaying the marriage of their daughters would – according to this logic – relax these financial pressures.
This incentive-focussed approach to child marriage is also favoured by some development agencies and policymakers as a potent strategy to postpone the marriage of adolescent girls. According to Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, among different strategies for preventing child marriage, providing financial incentives is the most effective - more so than programmes that focus on the empowerment of girls.
The first major initiative in the world was the 1992 Girl Child Protection Scheme in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which took a financial approach to addressing child marriage. This provided for a girl child to obtain free education and a bonus of Rs. 100,000 on turning 18. Around the same time, Bangladesh launched the Female Secondary School Assistance Project (FSSAP), a cash transfer scheme, which required girls to be in secondary school and not get married before the age of 18. In Bangladesh, Save the Children has an intervention which offers conditional transfers, and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) is contemplating a similar intervention.
Inspired by the Tamil Nadu experiment, other Indian states pursued the strategy of using financial aid to delay marriage among girls. Prominent examples include the Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD)1 programme of the Government of Haryana (1994), Ladli Lakshmi Yojana2in Madhya Pradesh, the Dikri Bachao3 Campaign in Gujarat, the Girl Child Protection Scheme in Andhra Pradesh, and the Ladli4 Scheme - in Haryana (2005), Delhi (2008), and the 'Laadli Laxmi Scheme' in Goa (2012). The latest additions are the Kanyashree Prakalpa and SABLA5 programmes launched by the government of West Bengal. Today, at least 15 such schemes are in operation throughout India.
Over the past two decades, child marriage prevalence has declined to some extent across all states in India. However, the problem remains most acute in north-eastern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and West Bengal, while southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have moderate incidence of child marriage. In the state of Bihar, for instance, the prevalence is higher than 60%.
Limitations of financial incentives approach
We argue that this incentive-based approach to child marriage will fail to address the issues that lie at the heart of the problem (Amin et al. 2017). Child marriage is, ultimately, a reflection of the lack of agency of adolescent girls in making their most important life choices. These include not only who and when (and if) to marry, but also decisions about childbirth and employment, and freedom from coercion within the marital union. Programmes based exclusively on financial incentives keep the focus on parents as decision-makers, with no attempt to bring about changes that would improve the agency of adolescent girls within their households and their communities. Indian parents, as well as many other South Asian parents, face strong social pressures to marry off their daughters early. They do respond to financial incentives as numerous studies of conditional transfer programmes have shown (for a review of this literature, see Das et al. 2005). But in the case of child marriage, these responses are unlikely to translate into wider social change, including change in the agency of the girl herself.
A recent evaluation of ABAD in Haryana by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) illustrates this point. The study found that programme beneficiaries were more likely to marry during their 18th year than non-beneficiaries, suggesting that parents were postponing the marriage of their daughters just long enough to receive the conditional transfer. More than half the respondents reported using the transfers to cover marriage expenses.
In effect, parents appear to be tweaking the marriage process just enough to reap the rewards promised by the programme. This may involve lengthening the engagement period or entering into prolonged negotiations with the groom's family regarding the terms of the marriage. This is a far cry from enabling adolescent girls to be active agents in their own lives. It does little to change the underlying social customs which imply that unmarried adolescent daughters and their actions bring shame and 'dishonour' to their families. Therefore, conditional cash transfer programmes for delaying age at marriage of girls may not be the best strategy to empower girls and women in India in making their major life choices.
India's two-decade-long policy experiments with financial transfers therefore call for rethinking the approach to end child marriage, a key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator, by 2030. Financial incentives targeted at parents are unlikely to address the problem on their own. Since the justice system in India and in other parts of South Asia, is weak the scope for a legal solution through strict enforcement of the law on minimum marriageable age is limited. This calls for prioritising initiatives that build the decision-making capacity of adolescents and adopt a multi-dimensional and longer-term solution to the problem.
In this context, directly raising the economic value of female labour can be a more effective channel to eradicate child marriage. Evidence shows that access to jobs in India's rapidly growing Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry did lead to significant postponement in marriage decisions among women. Greater earning potential of women not only shifts their work aspirations, parents also see daughters as assets rather than liabilities. However, the supply of suitable jobs including 'call centre' employment is still limited - a key reason why overall paid work participation of women in India and Bangladesh has not improved in recent decades.
The main policy lesson from India is that the battle against early marriage in South Asia will not be won through the provision of cash rewards to parents but by investing in girls' education and simultaneously ensuring steady growth of jobs that are socially acceptable and pay women their fair share.
1. This is Hindi for 'Our daughter, our wealth'.
2. This is Hindi for 'Beloved goddess scheme'.
3. This is Hindi for 'Save the daughter' campaign.
4. This is Hindi for 'beloved'.
5. SABLA stands for 'Empowerment of adolescent girls'.
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