The Supreme Court's direction on Tuesday to the Centre and the States to enact legislation to make the registration of marriages compulsory irrespective of religion is a breakthrough. It will aid the dismantling of the unhealthy social edifices of child marriage and the exploitation of married women. The Court has ordered the governments to amend the relevant rules and procedures within three months to effect this. Compulsory registration will have far-reaching benefits. Child marriage, which continues to be practised in many communities (although prohibited by a 1929 Act), will be drastically curtailed, ensuring the girl child the right to a free and wholesome childhood. Parents will no longer be able to sell their girl children into marriage for economic reasons or because of social compulsions. This is evidenced by the fact that in Sri Lanka, after registration was made compulsory, there was a dramatic decrease in child marriages. Cases of desertion and polygamy are likely to be fewer as there will be documentary proof of marriage. A marriage certificate can be used in court by women in vulnerable situations to assert their rights as spouses.
Since the Special Marriage Act came into force in 1954 for civil marriages, there have been moves to push for legislation to document all marriages. But these have fallen by the wayside as the majority of marriages are solemnised by religious rites and fall within the domain of different personal laws. Meanwhile, the absence of such a law has caused tremendous hardship to women of all communities as the core principles of gender equality and non-discrimination are often nullified by retrograde social practices. Only a few States have taken the initiative to make registration compulsory. The reform, which has been spearheaded by the National Commission for Women, will have a nationwide impact as proof of marriage will now be available. If the purposes of the proposed law are to be served fully, it must have the following attributes. The process of registration must be made simple. Cost, access, and effective communication will be the keys to success in urban as well as rural India. The costs of registration should be nominal. Easy, hassle-free access will be facilitated if, in towns and clusters of villages, post offices in addition to sub-registrar's offices and, in villages, village administrative officers or gram pramukhs are entrusted with the job of registration. As in the case of compulsory registration of births and deaths, there must be a vigorous campaign to communicate the new rules of the game to all households, above all to women. It needs to be emphasised that, under extenuating circumstances, unregistered marriages should not stand invalidated. The government has to be responsive to the difficulties of women that may arise from non-registration. Although many specifics are yet to be settled, it is clear the Supreme Court has struck a progressive blow for gender equality in India.