A new study calls for a need to distinguish between self-arranged marriages among older adolescents and forced child marriages to protect teens from social stigma, parental backlash and punitive action.
The report titled “Why Girls Run Away To Marry — Adolescent Realities and Socio-Legal Responses in India” is based on a qualitative study of 15 girls aged 15-20 years from Jaipur, Delhi and Mumbai who had been in a consensual romantic relationship, some of which resulted in self-arranged marriages. The participants included those who entered a romantic relationship when they were aged 12-19 years. These case studies involved intra and inter caste and interfaith relationships with boyfriends who were older and younger than 18. These cases were from between 2010 and 2016 to assess the impact of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.
The study — authored by Madhu Mehra and Amrita Nandy and published by Partners For Law in Development — makes a case for an age of consent that is lower than the age of marriage to decriminalise sex among consenting older adolescents to protect them from the misuse of law for enforcing parental and caste controls over daughters.
In most of these cases, a couple elopes fearing opposition from parents resulting in a situation where families approach the police, who then book the boy for rape under POCSO and abduction with the intent to marry under IPC or the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act.
In one case a couple was terrorised by the spectre of caste violence. In at least three cases, the girl gets married but her parents refuse to accept it.
There were also three cases where the boy abandons the girl fearing punitive action following a police complaint by the girl’s parents.
The study also records that while girls face restrictions on their mobility, premarital relations and sexuality, the same was not true for boys of the same social milieu who enjoyed greater freedom.
The study again provides evidence of the misuse of POCSO, which raised the age of consent from 16 to 18 years. Activists have long argued that this would result in adolescents being wrongfully targeted for consensual sexual relationship and deter girls from seeking safe abortion.
The study also assumes significance when the government has been discussing amending the PCMA to declare all child marriages null and void ab initio, while in its current form the law only permits one of the consenting parties to seek annulment of their marriage as children until two years after they turn adults (in case of minors, their parents can seek annulment).
The Women and Child Development Ministry moved a draft Cabinet note last year on this matter. The study argues that so far the law allows for differentiated response to various kinds of child marriages, which the proposed amendment will remove.
On the basis of these findings, the study calls for a need to examine coercion based on power, age and the nature of the relationship between the parties before treating a marriage between young couples as a case of child marriage.
“It would help people if reforms aimed at calibrating and nuancing responses to the different kinds of underage marriages and the particular harms connected with each, while simultaneously decriminalising non-coercive sexual contact between adolescent peers who are close in age. This would protect young people from retaliation and stigma while enabling confidential access to support and sexual health services,” the authors argue in the report.