Preparations for a wedding are in full swing. The hall is bedecked with flowers, loudspeakers blare popular film songs, relatives crisscross the floor dressed in costly silk, cooking smells waft in the air, ‘thavil’ and ‘nagaswaram’ vidwans belt out the usual tunes, and a priest gets ready to chant mantras.
Suddenly, officials enter the hall yelling “STOP.” All hell breaks loose.
This is not a scene out of a Tamil movie but the real-life setting for a child wedding, a common event in many villages in Virudhunagar district.
Though various agencies such as the Social Welfare Department, Child Welfare Committees, Anti-Human Traffic Cell and Childline have been working in tandem to eradicate the practice, child marriages occur with distressing frequency.
Authorities say Virudhunagar is resisting their best efforts to curb the unlawful social practice. They point to successful intervention in other districts.A marriage between a 17-year-old girl and a 22-year-old youth, scheduled to be solemnised at a village near Perambalur on September 12, was prevented. Again, the proposed wedding between a 15-year-old girl from Nadupatti in Omalur taluk and a 25-year-old youth from Ammapet in Salem district was prevented on September 16.
But in Virudhunagar district, more than 20 cases of child marriage were reported in the Tamil month of ‘Aavani.’ The marriages were prevented days, or a few hours before, the event took place. Officials were at pains to educate parents about the legal, psychological and physical consequences of marrying off minor girls.
Often, superstition stands in the way. Some parents, relatives or the bride herself regard the thwarting of a wedding as a bad omen. Officials are threatened and intimidated by irate family members when they intervene to stop a child marriage. Some attempt to use their political, money and muscle power to keep officials at bay.
There was an incident in which the groom was an armed reserve police constable. There are instances where elected representatives have been complicit in fostering child marriage. The panchayat president of Velaanoorani in Thiruchuli taluk and the Vilathikulam MLA, G.V. Markandayan, gave their consent to preside over child marriage functions on September 15 and 26 respectively.
Prospective child brides have had to be quarantined by officials in homes run by the Child Welfare Committee here, until the wedding date had passed. Angry relatives are known to lay siege to the homes.
District Social Welfare Officer I. Pandiammal blames the collapse of the joint family system, as well as poverty. The built-in protections once provided to girls are not there any more, she laments.
Single parents are under pressure to marry of their daughters early.
She says girls of the age of 13 to 18 are being trained in life skills, personality development, vocational skills and hygiene under the Integrated Child Development Scheme.
L. Latha, nodal officer of Childline, working under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, feels that young girls fall prey to the advances of predatory youth, not knowing the difference between love and infatuation, prompting parents to marry them off early.
There are other pressures, such as dowry, that contribute to girls being viewed as a burden. So, when a ‘good’ groom knocks on the door, parents do not want to say ‘no’ even if the daughter is a minor and studying in school, Latha noted.
Prevention of child marriage by creating awareness among boys and girls when they are still in school is the need of the hour, says Child Welfare Committee member A. Joseph Raj.
The Superintendent of Police, S. Maheswaran, held a meeting in August to educate police officers on the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.The Sub-Inspector, G. Bharathamatha, Anti-Human Traffic Cell, coordinates with other officials in preventing child marriages. But the administration has a long way to go.
Dr. S. Lalitha, retired professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Madurai Medical College, Madurai, says that early marriage can lead to pregnancy- induced hypertension, epilepsy (fits), anaemic condition, post-partum haemorrhage, hypoproteinemia (abnormally low level of protein in the blood) or increase chances of maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, or prenatal mortality rate (PNMR). Sexual intercourse at an early age could cause cervical cancer and infection. Further, the growth of the baby may be affected.
Dr. C. Ramasubramanian, Nodal Officer of the District Mental Health Programme at Madurai Medical College, Madurai, defines marriage as the union of “two bodies, minds and souls.” Child marriage cannot facilitate such union, he says.
As per the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, marriage between a male below 21 years and a female below 18 years should be declared null and void at the option of a contracting party.
The district court should direct both parties to return gifts and other valuables to the other party.
The male has to pay maintenance till the girl’s remarriage. If a child is born, maintenance should be given to the child as well.
If a male adult marries a child or if somebody solemnises a child marriage or if an organisation promotes it or if anybody even attends it, such an act is punishable with rigorous imprisonment of up to two years and a fine up to Rs.1 lakh.