On Wednesday, officials intervened to prevent the wedding of a 16-year-old girl

On Wednesday, officials of Chennai Collectorate intervened in time to stop the marriage of a 16-year-old girl, after complaints from her neighbours.

But that is just an exception. Child marriages are quite the norm in many of the city’s slums, say officials of Chennai district who have received several complaints about such alliances in the recent past.

Residents of Kalyanapuram near Elephant Gate remember a teenager Vennila who lived in their neighbourhood once. She wanted to become a doctor, recalls one neighbour.

But Vennila was married off a few months after attaining puberty. Residents say they were reluctant to stop the marriage that happened a year ago as Vennila’s father Ponnan and mother Lakshmi had given their consent to the marriage.

Not surprisingly, the teenager, who now lives in a slum in Vysarpadi with her husband, has discontinued her studies.

“We were invited to the wedding but did not participate in the ceremony,” says another neighbour, who remembers Vennila as a child who visited her house often till just a few years back.

“I met Vennila recently. She appears to have matured a little and looked happy. We do not want to spoil her marriage by lodging a police complaint,” said another 26-year-old neighbour who claims to have married at the age of 16, herself.

When The Hindu attempted to locate Vennila’s parents, neighbours claimed they were out of town and refused to divulge their contact details.

This case is just another instance of the rampant practice of child marriage that exists in many slums in the city.

“We often hear of girls getting married off at a young age. But within a couple of years of the wedding, they look all grown up. Officials find it difficult to establish their age as often, these women have no birth certificates. How then can they action against the persons responsible for the child marriage?” says a resident of Navalar Nedunchezhian Nagar.

“But many of these teenaged mothers do not seem to have the psychological ability to cope with challenges in life. In some cases, such marriages fail. The government should conduct a comprehensive study to figure out the gravity of the issue. All slums should have boards displaying child helpline numbers,” the resident said.

Most of the children and elders in the city’s slums seem unaware of the toll-free child helpline 1098.

The child helpline in the city receives an average of five calls in a day.

But in 2012, the Chennai Collectorate was able to stop just two instances of child marriages, an official said.

The government has assigned the district social welfare officer as the child marriage prohibition officer.

The officer would have to ‘act immediately upon any information of solemnisation of any child marriage,’ — the information about which can be received in writing or orally.

Owners of hotels and marriage halls have been directed to permit marriages in their premises only after collecting birth certificates of the brides and grooms.

Legal action would be taken against those involved in the marriage of those below permissible age, an official communication said.

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