CEDAW Committee holds India Accountable for Failure to Prevent and Prosecute Cases of Child Marriage, and Ensure Access to Reproductive Health Services

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) recently criticized India for failing to address human rights violations, associated with child marriage and high rates of maternal death resulting from lack of access to modern contraceptives and safe abortion services.  

During its 58th session in July, the CEDAW Committee reviewed India’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and issued Concluding Observations urging stronger action to eliminate child marriage and protect women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights.

Child marriage

The Committee expressed concern around the continued prevalence of early and forced marriage, despite the introduction of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, and urged the government “to strengthen efforts to raise awareness about the prohibition of child marriage… and to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish cases of forced and early marriage.”

The Committee further expressed concern around the multiple legal systems governing marriage and family relations based on religious norms. These legal systems accommodate the religious and cultural differences in India’s pluralistic society, but are frequently discriminatory against women and girls, and often prevent the government from interfering in cases of child marriage as they establish their own age of marriage, legal status for marriages conducted before the age of 18, and penalties for child marriage. Echoing their Concluding Observations from India’s last review in 2007, the Committee urged the government to ensure “that all laws on marriage and family relations governing the various religious groups… are in full compliance with articles 15 and 16 of the Convention.”

The Center’s new fact sheet on Child Marriage and Personal Laws in South Asia further details how religion-based personal status laws are among the greatest barriers to ending the practice of child marriage in India.

Maternal health

The Committee noted the persistently high rate of maternal mortality in some states, along with the high rates of death resulting from unsafe abortion and lack of access to safe abortion. The Committee expressed concern specifically around the disparities in maternal health outcomes between urban and rural areas, and the limited availability of modern contraceptive methods. The Committee urged the government to “provide women with access to high-quality and safe abortion services… and to increase access to and use of effective and affordable methods of contraception.”

The Committee’s concerns echo the claims brought against the government of Chhattisgarh in the case of NAMHHR v. State of Chhattisgarh, which was filed in June of 2014 under the Center’s SARJAI initiative. The case argues that women in the state of Chhatisgarh (which has among the highest levels of maternal mortality in India), are effectively denied access to safe and legal abortion by the state’s failure to implement existing laws guaranteeing provision of comprehensive reproductive healthcare, and calls on the state to implement the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which legalized abortion in India in 1971.

Marital rape

Finally, the Committee urged the government to establish a legal framework to more effectively prevent and respond to violence against women by amending the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act to ensure that marital rape is defined as a criminal offense. Widening the definition or rape would allow the Penal Code to more accurately reflect the realities of sexual abuse experienced by women and girls.

We urge the government of India to take these recommendations seriously and more effectively implement policies that will vastly improve the lives and health of girls and women.

The full Concluding Observations from the CEDAW Committee can be found here.