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Child marriage ban on Centre’ mind

New Delhi, Dec. 16: The Centre today told the Supreme Court it was thinking of making child marriages invalid, taking a step forward against a social evil still deep-rooted in several parts of the country.

“The practice of recognising child marriages was intended to protect women. The government is thinking of making such marriages void (invalid),” additional solicitor general Indira Jaisingh said.

Under the Hindu Marriage Act, child marriages are recognised as valid, keeping in mind the practice of marrying off children at a very young age, unless one of the parties moves court and gets such a marriage annulled.

Jaisingh was representing the Centre in a case filed by the National Commission for Women and the Delhi Commission for Women seeking clarity regarding the definition of a minor girl.

The age below which a person is not considered an adult now varies under different laws (see chart).

In February 2008, the Law Commission’s latest report had suggested making 18 the marriageable age for both boys and girls.

It said marriages under 16 could then be treated as void and those at 16 or 17 valid unless one of the party gets the marriage annuled.

The Centre’s move comes at a time the popular serial Balika Vadhu has made Anandi, a child bride in rural Rajasthan, a household name across India.

The two women’s commissions had appealed to the court against a Delhi High Court judgment that had recognised the marriages of two girls aged 15 and 16.

The high court had ruled it wouldn’t be proper to proceed on rape charges against their husbands or keep them in judicial custody as the girls — one of them was pregnant — seemed to have consented to their marriage.

The commissions, however, objected to this in larger public interest, especially the health of the girl child, given the high maternal mortality rate in the 15-22 age group.

They urged the apex court to iron out the disparities regarding the age of a minor girl under different laws such as the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, Shariat law, the Indian Divorce Act, 1869, and the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000.

These disparities created a lot of confusion in enforcing the law, the two commissions said in their petition, seeking a uniform definition of minor for both boys and girls.

Abolition of child marriage was on the unfulfilled wishes listed by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in a farewell message on the eve of the end of his tenure as Bengal governor.

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