NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Despite laws banning child marriage in South Asia, deep-rooted social acceptance of the practice and a failure by authorities to crack down and punish perpetrators has led a culture of impunity in the region, the Center for Reproductive Rights said on Friday.
According to a new report by the New York-based charity, 25,000 children worldwide, most of whom are girls under the age of 18, are married every day - with the South Asia region accounting for almost half of all child marriages.
Yet the practice - which activists say is a gross violation of human rights, exposing young girls to a multitude of abuses such as rape, domestic violence and forced pregnancies - continues unabated largely due to government inaction.
"South Asian governments are standing silently by while countless young girls are married off against their will, and in violation of international human rights law," Melissa Upreti, regional director for Asia at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said at the launch of the report in the Indian capital.
"All governments must be held accountable for not meeting their legal and moral obligation to end child marriage."
Human rights campaigners say child marriage triggers a series of violations that continues throughout a girl's life.
It starts with forced initiation into sex and on-going sexual violence, resulting in early and unplanned pregnancy, which may put her life or that of her child's at risk.
Girls married as children are often denied the chance to go to school and are isolated from society and forced into a lifetime of economic dependence as a wife and mother.
The report said 46 percent of women in South Asia between the ages of 20 to 24 report having been married before the age of 18, translating to 24.4 million. This figure is likely to increase to a staggering 130 million by 2030, it added.
The report entitled "Child Marriage in South Asia: Stop the impunity" said that in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, patriarchal attitudes played a significant role in the lack of political will to ensure stricter laws and their enforcement.
In Bangladesh, for example, the punishment for contracting, performing or failing to prevent a child marriage is only a maximum find of 1,000 taka, one month in prison, or both, said the report. While in Nepal, the Supreme Court recently issued a three-day jail sentence and a fine of 25 Nepali rupees to the father of a 13-year-old girl who confessed to entering her into a child marriage, the report said.
"There are minor punishments for violations of laws on child marriage in several South Asian nations," said the report.
"Further legal prohibitions on child marriage are only as strong as their enforcement at the local level. Prosecution for child marriage remains low in the region indicating impunity for the practice."
The report said there was a failure by governments to appoint designated officials to investigate, intervene and create awareness about consequences of child marriage, adding that the few officials which did exist did not have adequate training.
Officials and activists involved in fighting child marriage practices, said the report, often faced hostility from local communities who see it as a personal or family issue - yet there was no or little protection available to them.
In Nepal and Sri Lanka, although registration in marriages involving children is illegal, registrars report immense social pressure to falsely register such marriages. Similarly in India, activists seeking to enforce child marriage laws have faced violent retaliation.
"The single most important finding ... is that by failing to enact and enforce laws that clearly and consistently prohibit child marriage, governments in the region are complicit in the grave violations of human and constitutional rights experienced by married girls," the report said.