Ramya Kannan

“Task now is to get the message to percolate down to social and political systems at the lowest level”

CHENNAI: The government notification laying down rules for the prohibition of child marriage in the State aims at setting the entire social welfare machinery to the task of frustrating the practice and completely eliminating it from Tamil Nadu.

The notification which spells out the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Child Marriage Rules, 2009, in great detail, has assigned the District Social Welfare officer as the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer. The duties of such an officer will be to “act immediately upon any information of solemnisation of any child marriage,” information about which can be received in writing or orally.

A core committee will also be formed at the panchayat level in order to assist the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer, with the panchayat president as chairperson and including the head master or a senior teacher as local members.

Child marriages are illegal in India under the Child Marriages Restraint Act of 1929 which restricts the age for marriage to 18 and 21 for women and men respectively.

However, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 3, the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the legal age of 18, stood at 44.5 in 2005-06.

Child rights experts concede that there has been a drop over a decade, but insist that it is certainly insufficient to achieve the target set by the ‘National Plan for Children 2005’ – to abolish child marriage by 2010.

Studies have shown that early marriage has a serious negative impact on the nutrition and mortality of the mother and the child.

The situation in Tamil Nadu, while better than the rest of the country, is still a source of worry since child marriages take place in certain districts.

M.P.Nirmala, Social Welfare Commissioner, says, “Though in Tamil Nadu, we do not have a big problem, there remain pockets in Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem districts where early marriage is being practised.”

She adds that the notification formalises a process that is already being implemented in the State.

“Prevention efforts have been going on regularly. Even recently, our officers stopped the conduct of at least seven child marriages in Salem and Tiruvallur,” she explains. With the government intending to spread awareness on the new rules, information will reach the local community, which can now provide anonymous tip offs to the CMPO, the Panchayat, or the District Collector.

Thomas George, Communications Officer, UNICEF, welcomed the government’s move to notify the Rules.

“The task now is to get the message to percolate down to the social and political systems at the lowest level.” R. Vidyasagar, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF, says though the rules are in place, a sensitive approach must be taken as child marriage continues to be intertwined with social customs, rituals and traditions.

Vivian Rajkumar, Programme Manager, World Vision, has been working in Kalrayan Hills (Salem) for over a decade now, trying to get the society that practises child marriage to outlaw it. He says that lack of education, poverty, coupled with social traditions have made child marriage nearly a norm in the hills.

He again welcomes the government rules, because in his experience, he has found that working with the local tribes has been easier with the help of ICDS staff, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan staff and women police.