Child marriage continues to haunt minor girls born in poor families
“Mam, can you please save my friend Priya (name changed)? She is a minor and is getting married today.” The hassled voice on the phone compels the Social Welfare officials to swing into action. They have to stop the marriage to be held at a nondescript hamlet in Melur block.
The urgency of the matter is such that they can neither verify the information or delay in reaching the spot.
When the team enters the marriage hall, relatives gherao the officials.
When the officials demand the age-proof certificate, they fail to produce necessary documents and in fact argue that because the girl did not attend school, she doesn’t have the proof of age certificate.
But the officials again acting on a tip-off, collect the girl’s record from a nearby school. It proves that the young bride is indeed a minor.
The department officials accomplish their mission. First, they prevent the marriage from taking place and then have arduous sessions of counselling with all those involved.
This is just one case on a particular day. There are many such days when phone calls alert the officials warranting their presence at the venue of such illegal marriages.
In the last three years, the Madurai District Social Welfare Officer, who is also the child marriage protection officer, has been able to stop 27 marriages. The Act to prevent child marriages has been in existence since 2006. But people are becoming aware gradually and started informing officials in 2010, though the Act is active since 2006.
Most of the calls that the department receives are anonymous and they have no other choice but to rush to the spot in order to prevent a minor girl child being forced into wedlock.
Usually, the friends, lovers and relatives to whom the family refuses to give the girl in marriage become informers.
“The problem can be tackled once we get the age certificate,” says R. Anandavalli, District Social Welfare Officer. “We always return as the cursed lot as the family always tries to explain citing its background, the need for such a decision and the significance of marriage,” she adds.
Some family members even threaten the officials but go silent when the age certificate proving that the girl is a minor is shown to them.
On many occasions, the officials have succeeded in stopping the marriage just in the nick of the time. But what happens if they reach the place late? That has happened only once so far, says Anandavalli. “We are prompt.” In this case the officials reached the village after the young couple had completed the marriage rituals. An FIR was filed and the 17- year-old girl was sent to legal custody and is now residing at the Vigilance Home, BB Kulam.
“This is the only option we have. The girl can decide about her future as soon as she completes 18 years of age,” says Anandavalli.
According to her, child marriages are rampant in Chellampatti, Melur and Thiruparankundram blocks. “The number of marriages that were thwarted and reported in these blocks is an indication,” she says.
“It is difficult to stop the social evil until every individual takes up the responsibility of putting an end to social menace,” she adds.
The department also creates awareness among the adolescent girls, about the ill effects of early marriage.
“Parents, especially from the poor family, believe that a girl child is a liability and should be married off as soon as she attains puberty,” she says.
The major reasons behind this social evil are poverty and illiteracy. Parents either want to retain the familial ties by marrying the girl off to a blood relative or afraid to keep their daughters unmarried after puberty.
“We go out for work. Children stay at home all alone. Any thing can happen to them,” worries Mariammal, a mother of two girl children.
“To avoid unnecessary embarrassments, we prefer to marry off our daughters as early so that they are in safe hands, under the protection of a male guardian,” she says.
Her neighbour Savithriamma says “what’s wrong in getting the girl married off at 17 years. She has attained puberty. I was married at the age of 14, I am happy and I have four grandchildren. What else, you want?”
To some extent, the officials says the issue can be tackled because it is mandatory for the hotel owners, marriage hall proprietors, to collect birth certificate of bride and groom before renting out the premises.
According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, the minimum age for marriage for girls is 18 years and for boys 21 years. Anybody who flouts the rule is sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of Rs.1,00,000, if the and groom are between 13 and 15 years.
If they are between 15 and 18 years, then any one of the punishment is imposed for the offence.