Marrying off a minor girl is against the law and has major ramifications
Last Sunday was one of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar. Many marriages took place on that day in Madurai district. As many as eight weddings were stopped by the police the same day. Reason: the brides were minors.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 defines a ‘child’ as a person who has not completed 21 years of age, if male, and 18 years, if female. And marrying off a ‘child’ is illegal. Data available with the District Social Welfare Office shows as many as 41 child marriages have been stopped since 2010. “These are a few of the marriages we were able to stop. More marriages involving children below 18 years may have taken place because local people did not alert us,” says Superintendent of Police V. Balakrishnan.
Jim Jesudoss, Director of Childline, a non-governmental organisation, feels a section of society does not perceive child marriage as being unlawful. For many parents, a girl child remains a burden till she is married off. “They think that once she gets married, they can rest easy. This is a primary reason why girls are given off in marriage at a young age,” Mr. Jesudoss says.
Changing social trends compound their worries. “A girl talking over phone or being very friendly with a boy are seen as dangers by parents. They become anxious and try to marry her off to someone else at the earliest,” he says.
Social Welfare Officer R. Anandavalli lists out issues that lead to child marriage. Poverty takes the top position. “When the parents have to take care of more than one girl child, they try to marry her off early. The sense of insecurity in bringing them up forces the parents to take such a decision,” she says.
Marriages between children of close relatives are conducted to revive or perpetuate family ties. “Girls aged under 18 are married off to an over-aged maternal uncle or cousin,” says S. Vasuki, who also works in the Social Welfare Department. Such marriages are also aimed at protecting the family wealth. But the parents fail to realise that before the age of 18, the girl is neither physically nor mentally prepared for conjugal relations.
“The hormonal changes in the girl are completed only between 18 and 21 years. This is true with her physical growth too. The hip bone, which is an important aspect in pregnancy, is not fully developed before 18 years,” P. Angayarkanni, Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Government Rajaji Hospital, says.
At 16, most girls are playful. Ms. Angayarkanni wonders how a child can become a mother at that age. Ms. Vasuki says a girl at a tender age will not have the mental make-up to consummate marriage and also to adjust with the in-laws. The worst impact of child marriage for girls is that they lose the opportunity for education. “This will have a cascading effect on the upbringing of her children too,” she points out.
“Such marriages tend to break up early only because of lack of maturity in the girls,” she says. Given that the responsibility of running the family usually falls to the daughter-in-law, young girls cannot shoulder such a huge responsibility, Ms. Vasuki points out.
Officials say awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage has risen manifold in recent years.
People are ready to alert the officials to prevent such marriages. Among them are friends of the girl and her relatives. In some cases, the foes of the family also tip off the authorities. The love affair that leads to forced child marriage often becomes the source of information for officials.
“The lover boy informs the officials,” Ms. Anandavalli says. Officials proceed to verify the allegation. They visit the girl’s home and scan documents such as birth certificates to verify her age. “If the family members fail to cooperate, we try to get it through the school where the girl last studied. When the allegation turns out to be true, the family members are made to give an assurance that they will give up the marriage plan. We keep a vigil till the wedding date. If they fail to honour their promise, those who arrange the child marriage will be in trouble,” the officer says.
The Act envisages a fine of up to Rs. 1 lakh and rigorous imprisonment of up to two years for the organisers of the marriage. The list of violators does not stop just with the family members.
Former Collector Anshul Mishra had issued a circular in June, 2012 to those who ran marriage and community halls to verify the age of the bride and the bridegroom before allowing their premises to be used for marriages.
The temple authorities were also cautioned not to solemnise marriages without verifying the age of the bride and the groom.
The administration has warned violators that they are liable to be booked under non-bailable sections of the law. In addition, the license of the halls will be cancelled.
The Superintendent of Police has appealed to schoolteachers to keep a vigil on their girl students who abruptly absent themselves from classes.
“The teachers can tip off the police without fear in order to prevent child marriages from taking place. Even in the event of a marriage having taken place, we can initiate steps for the legal separation of the child from the groom. This is an emotional and complex problem, but we can deal with it by means of the law,” he says.