Marriage is a sacred tie but child marriage is a curse. Early marriage means your daughters are deprived of education, their physical and mental development is hampered; early motherhood poses a risk to the lives of the mother and child, also leading to physically and mentally impaired generations and is a breeding ground of life-threatening diseases.
As per the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1992, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18 years and 21 for boys. Those found violating the Act can be punished.
Inspite of good laws and good intension the picture is pathetic in India. According to the 2005 UN report on the state, 50 percent of girls in India are married off before they are 18. Infact statistics go still further to suggest that they even complete their families by 20 years.
It is quite disquieting to note that hundreds of child marriages take place all over the country, particularly in the Northern India, on the occasion of Akha Teej, which falls in April, in direct violation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act.
This is mainly because the Act exists only on paper and has not been able to deter parents from marrying their under-aged sons and daughters. Ironically, the Act renders all under-age marriages illegal but not void, which means that an illegally married couple can stay married. It is, therefore, violated with impunity and hardly anyone is ever hauled up. Despite the fact that child marriage is a criminal offence, action is rarely taken by the police. Even the civil society remains a passive spectator and the marriages often have the blessings of the local VIPs, including Ministers and MLAs, because of social, religious and economic compulsions. There is not enough outrage against the practice even among the educated people. Moreover, the meager fine and imprisonment up to three months shows that the state does not view the crime seriously.
One way of combating child marriage is to make registration of marriage compulsory. This will not only check child marriage but also provide proof of marriage in cases relating to bigamy and adultery. However, the process of registration must be easy and simple so that people in the rural areas have easy access to it. Secondly, the offence, with regard to child marriage, must be made not only cognisable, but also non-bailable and people participating in such marriages must also be held guilty under the law. Moreover, the law must be made more stringent with deterrent punishment for the contraveners. The Child Marriage Prevention Officers envisaged in the Act should play a more active role in preventing such marriages.
There is also an urgent need to educate the masses as well as create awareness of the adverse health effects of child marriages.
The bleakest part of the scenario is the physical havoc that early marriage wreaks upon girls, who are too young to bear the burden of maternity. Under-aged girls, already disadvantaged by a childhood of deprivation, produce weak offsprings, adding to the rate of maternal and child mortality.
Indeed, the malaise is so deep-rooted and all-pervasive that only courts of law and policing by outside forces can do little to control it. Working towards structural changes in the community and ultimately, building up community pressure on the family alone can provide deterrence against this social evil.
(The writer is chairperson, Women Wing, IMA.)