Punitive measures against girls forced into child marriages should not find a place in government policies, programmes and practices

Child brides are not criminals. They cannot be compared to children accused of committing crimes. Anyone who hears a story of a girl forced into marriage before she turned 18 will tell you that she had little choice in the matter. In fact, under Indian law, children convicted as juveniles cannot be disqualified from having access to any benefits or legal entitlements on the basis of their conviction. So why punish children who were forced to marry by closing the door on them?

The case of Ratnashri Pandey

Take the example of Ratnashri Pandey from Madhya Pradesh. Her family pressured her to marry soon after she passed her class nine examinations. Pandey told Human Rights Watch, “I didn't want to be married, but a girl's wishes are not respected. Everyone said I should get married…I got married.” Pandey never set eyes on the groom; not even his photograph. “I told my nana (mother's father) I wanted to study after marriage.”

She described her struggle to continue her education — juggling household work, fighting with her husband and in-laws to delay pregnancy, and enduring insults and beatings because of her decisions. She separated from her husband because he started beating their young daughter, and eventually divorced him.

She completed her master's degree and worked as a teacher. But because the income was not enough to support both her and her children, Pandey dreamed of becoming a civil servant. Leaving her children in her parents' care, she went to another city, moved into a women's hostel, and started preparing for the State civil services examinations. Her parents spent nearly Rs.300,000 to help. She passed the preliminary examination in 2006. But State policy stopped her in her tracks a month before she was to sit the main examination.

The Madhya Pradesh authorities informed Pandey that she was ineligible to take the exam because she was married as a child, she said. She filed a case in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which granted her permission to write the examination pending a decision on the merits of the case. She did not pass the first time. After another round of litigation, she sat the exam again in 2009. “I spent more time in courts than with my books,” she said. The Madhya Pradesh High Court upheld the government rule disqualifying applicants who had married as children. She appealed to the Supreme Court, and awaits the verdict.

Violates 2006 Act

India prohibits marriage for girls under 18 and boys under 21, and should do everything possible to prevent child marriages. But when children (usually girls) marry and prevention strategies fail, punitive measures aimed at “discouraging” child marriages victimise girls yet again. This approach contravenes a key principle of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006: no penalty for girls forced into marriages.

There is almost no information on how many such small rules are embedded in regulations or other programmes throughout the country. But there is enough information to show that such an approach is not an aberration.

Central programmes

During the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) — which is the review of each country's human rights progress every four years before the U.N. Human Rights Council — India earned high praise for its commitment to education. Other countries urged India to tackle the issue of child marriages and to advance opportunities for education and work for women. Reiterating its commitment to protecting the rights of women and children, India stated that its authorities exercised “greater consciousness” to integrate human rights concerns in every ministry's policies and programmes. The need for “greater consciousness” in responding to child marriages in the country is dire.

It's clear that what goes on even at the national level, excluding the victims of child marriages, goes well beyond Pandey's case. Indian health rights experts have documented at least two other well-known examples. The Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) programme — sponsored by the Central government — provides conditional cash transfers to women giving birth in health facilities and is linked to prenatal, in-hospital, and post-natal services.

In many States with better health indicators, though, the benefits exclude girls below 19 who are not from Scheduled Castes or Tribes and where the Central government limits the benefits to two live births. The impact of this discriminatory treatment is likely to be mitigated by the Janani-Shishu Suraksha Karyakram (Mother and Child Protection Programme), another new scheme that promises free in-hospital and referral services to all pregnant women. But it is too early to tell.

UNICEF report

The Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahayog Yojana, which is the Central government's cash assistance programme to supplement pregnant and lactating women's nutrition and double up as maternity benefit, has identical restrictions. And weigh all this against stark data in a recent UNICEF report which says that 47 per cent of India's adolescent girls are underweight and 56 per cent of girls from ages 15 to 19 are anaemic. UNICEF calls this a “severe public health problem.”

In April, UNICEF released its world report card on adolescents. It showed that India has 243 million adolescents (ages 10 to 19) — the highest number in the world. Another UNICEF report this year found that 47 per cent of women surveyed in India were married or in unions by age 18.

When the law against child marriages protects the mother and her child, it is appalling that key health and nutrition schemes for pregnant women leave out adolescent pregnant girls, affecting them and their newborns.

To be fair, the Central and State governments have dozens of schemes that “promote” girls, many of which are aimed at delaying marriage. But this is not enough.

Indian officials should develop a holistic response to tackle child marriages — a rights-based approach to Central and State government action. Punitive measures against girls and women forced into child marriages should find no place in government policies, programmes, and practices. Central and State governments should adopt a clear policy of non-discrimination that includes married adolescents in all welfare, higher education, and employment efforts. Without such a coherent response, India will fail its child brides. It's time India's approach to child marriages moved beyond this punitive phase and matured.

(Aruna Kashyap is Asia researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.)