| Bill in knots
New Delhi, Oct. 21: The Centre has decided not to declare child marriages void, keeping in mind the very “social traditions” that women’s groups say are propping up the practice.
The government is looking to strengthen the law against child marriage, which is now more of a call to the community for “restraint” rather than a directive to law-enforcers for “prevention”.
When the Prevention of Child Marriage Act replaces the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act of 1929, officials would be appointed across the country with the sole job of preventing child marriages.
But women activists are urging the government to go the whole hog and “abolish” child marriage, so that unions involving under-18 girls or under-21 men become automatically invalid.
But the conservatives in the government believe this will in practice be seen as “divorce”, which often carries a stigma in Indian society. “This will make it particularly difficult for the girl to get married later,” an official said.
The act, though, is likely to be amended to allow a child bride or groom, after they become adults, to seek divorce on the ground of being married while underage.
“Only abolition will end the practice. The government wants to go from ‘restraint’ to ‘prevention’. We want ‘abolition’,” said Sudeshna of the National Alliance for Child Rights, a voluntary organisation.
“It’s a question of attitude. Abolition implies a much stronger commitment.”
The current law is silent on whether child marriages are valid, though it prescribes punishment for the groom, the families and the priest.
Section 11 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which deals with the grounds for making a marriage void —such as bigamy — does not include “underage” on the list.
The 2005 UN report on the state of world population says 50 per cent of Indian girls are married before they are 18.
The Centre had two years ago introduced the Prevention of Child Marriage Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The bill was sent to a parliamentary standing committee, which heard out various groups, many of which said child marriages should be made void.
One reason for India’s high maternal mortality rate is child marriage, activists say. Young girls, pulled out of school and married off, get pregnant at an age when it poses a health risk. Child marriage also robs girls of the opportunity for education.
“A UNDP report on violence against children looked at child marriage as an indicator of the extent of violence that exists in that society,” Sudeshna said.
Officials say the government’s response to any issue impinging on social traditions remains conservative and cautious, although it’s now discussing issues that would be swept under the carpet a decade ago.
“The home and law ministries are not keen on declaring child marriages void because it may hurt traditional customs. This would also mean hurting vote-bank politics,” Sudeshna said.