Monday, March 10, 2014

Start the Talk About Child Marriage Prohibition Act

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Today is International Women's Day. Every year on this day we see everyone wishing women a happy women's day. And every year on this day I feel the same way - sulking at the pointlessness of a "women's day", consumed by thoughts about the many suffering women in the world, worried about the future that gen-next will  grow into - basically I just end up feeling not so happy on women's day. I know I should look at the positive side of things, like I can vote, and drive a car etc. But I specifically end up thinking about suffering on this specific day for women. Doesn't make me feel very happy.
As a result I avoid looking at "happy women's day" posts. I don't open only-for-women deal ads that show up at this time of the year. I try not to click on links posted by media channels about international women's day on my fb and t feeds. So unless there is a strong personal reminder, I don't get to know that it is women's day. Today however I did get such a reminder. I posted a link on Facebook (after confirming from other news sources that it wasn't a hoax), and a close friend of mine wished me a Happy Women's Day in response to it. She was being satirical and I have a feeling she feels the same way about Women's day as I do.
This post was about a young Indian woman by the name of Linkan Subudhi who is an IT professional and social worker  focusing on education of women and slum children in the suburbs of New Delhi. The post was about how she was beaten up, stabbed, severely injured and hospitalized while trying to stop an 11-year old girl from getting married. The post also urged to publicize Subudhi's bravery and pray for her recovery. How's that for Happy Women's Day... I did some more reading and found out that this incident actually took place in Sept 2013. Subudhi has since survived, contested in local municipal elections and lost
Dated or not, it was a terrible incident and it just barely touches the surface of the rampant social evil of child marriage in India. Studies and statistics have confirmed that India tops the world in the number of child marriages that take place in any country. 40% of all child marriages in the world happen in India, with 39,000 child marriages taking place EVERY DAY. Yes, 39 Thousand. 47% of Indian girls are married by age 18, and 18% by age 15. So more than half of India's women are child brides.
There are several complex social norms that go into making child marriage the widely followed practice that it is. There are some twisted reasons like securing a poor little helpless girls future, or strengthening family alliances, or ensuring that the girls don't go astray or marry out of their caste - reasons that only a lack of education can justify.
I don't even want to start mentioning how deeply emotionally, psychologically and physically damaging the consequences of child marriage can be. With so many women deprived of education, basic rights and wage earning skills, the social and economic impact cannot be undermined either. What's worse is that these women are forever caught in the centuries old vicious trap. They eventually start believing that the marriage is for their own good, and might force their own children into early marriages too. Take for example, the case that Linkan Subudhi was trying to stop  - Subudhi was attacked not just by the groom, but also by the child bride's own mother! And thus goes on the cycle!
Another friend asked me if there were no laws against this. The fact is that child marriage is illegal in India. The legal ages for women and men to get married are 18 and 21 years respectively. All those who grew up in India have seen anti-child marriage ad campaigns driving home the message that girls below 18, and boys below 21 years of age should not get married. Have the campaigns been effective? With a whopping 39000 child marriages being performed every day, the answer is a loud and clear NO. Here is my attempt to try and understand why, and make some humble suggestions on how we can take some steps differently to eliminate this evil.
Social activism against child marriage has been around since the late 18th century, started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Various organized groups and iconic leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to prominent social work foundations of today have been imploring society to say no to child marriage. Many are trying to spread the message of saving the girl child, educating her and not marrying her till she is 18. Essentially most efforts, including the Doordarshan ad campaigns, have been focused around pleading to society at a moral level. Since Raja Ram Mohan's time we may have made progress, but it is beginning to look like the call to morality is not helping.
Perhaps it is time to supplement the rhetoric with a high-decibel awareness about the law of the land. And to demand an effective and absolute enforcement of the law. Again, case in point, the Linkan Subudhi girl-child: giving the groom or the mom a lecture on the ills of child marriage, or telling them that its a human rights violation as per the UN would be useless given how evil they have proven themselves to be. Now if there was strong enforcement of the local law and fear of being handcuffed, things would have been different.
Let us look back at the history of the laws. Laws against child marriage have been around since 1929. Yup, that long! The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929 by the British government over colonial India. This act was a result of activism by various organized women's associations of that time (they must have been some strong willed women!). The basic demand from the law was to raise the age of marriage for girls and boys to 18 and 21. It was restricted to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian and other minorities excluding Muslims (even though there were Muslim women on a committee who favored raising the permissible ages) There were amendments to the law in 1940 and 1978 but there were still several shortcomings in the law making it difficult for authorities to act effectively against reported cases of child marriage.
In 2006 the Child Marriage Prohibition Act was passed (name changed from "Restraint" of 1929 to "Prohibition" implying reduced tolerance for child marriage) and currently stands as the law against child marriage, which unlike its predecessor, applies to each and every citizen and overrides all personal laws.  This is going to be a long read so for the benefit of those who want to take off already, I should state that my suggestion is to start with making awareness of this law as widespread as possible. To look beyond our moral responsibilities as a society, step up on a judicial level and start branding child marriage as a crime, not social evil. To cut down on the inaction, start reporting the cases and start preaching the law every time you see a child marriage happening around you. And to preach the law, wouldn't it be good to read some bullet points on it?
  • Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 overrides all personal laws and governs each and every citizen of India
  • The ages are still the same - 18 and 21 for F and M
  • Any child marriage is voidable (though not void) upto 2 years after reaching adulthood
  •  Under Section 3 of the Act, a girl has the right to approach a court to get the marriage declared void till she attains the age of 20 years.
  • children from a child marriage are treated as legitimate even if the marriage is nullified
  • Any male over 18 years of age who enters into a marriage with a minor or anyone who directs or conducts the marriage ceremony can be punished with up to two years of imprisonment or a fine
  • If the girl is under 16, it is an out and out crime.  Consent does not matter to constitute offence under Section 376 of Indian Penal Code. (under 16 the girl is considered too young to give consent)
  • Consummation with a wife below the age of 15 years of age is an offence under Section 375. No exceptions!
  • Religion of the contracting party does not matter.
  • Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 being a “Special Act”  will override the provisions of Hindu marriage Act or any personal law.
The above is a summary listing the highlights of the Act. It is not complete and there are caveats, but in general it looks like a pretty powerful law to have if enforced effectively.
We need steps taken to -
a) spread awareness about the law, especially given that it covers every citizen and overrides other personal laws
b)  demand effective enforcement of the law
Since most child marriages take place in rural and uneducated sections of the society, there needs to be grassroots level work done to spread awareness about the law and its tenets. Today there is no fear of the law, but perhaps there is also very little awareness about the law. 
Once they are aware that they have till the age of 20/23 to get their marriages nullified, some brave girls and boys might get the courage to approach a court. Once they know that the perpetrators and conductors of a marriage can get jailed for 2 years, more girls can start reporting to the authorities. I am not sure there is an immediate remedy for the ineffectiveness of law enforcement authorities. However if the awareness spreads, and media steps in, and number of reported cases start increasing then the cops might be pressured to start treating child marriage as a crime, not a social norm (ye to chalta hai ji. ab hamara byaah bhi to 15 saal ki umar me ho gaya tha).
Indian media has in recent years been very effective in highlighting social issues. They need to spread viral messages about 18 and 21 being not just suggested ages but the legal ages. Its the law, and there are no exceptions. Maybe Amitabh Bachchan should do a campaign with his long kanoon ke haath (hands of the law) wrapped around someone conducting a child marriage. That would be something!
My point again is to highlight child marriage as a crime. It is my plea to anyone working against child marriage to start promoting awareness of the law. Appeals to morality alone will not be able to change the deeply embedded, centuries old convoluted perverted traditions.
There are some great social work groups working towards the betterment of the girl child. They are all dealing with child marriage as the big bottleneck that truncates girls education. One notable group is the Study Hall Foundation which operates schools for underprivileged children from very poor backgrounds.  They have started the "India's Daughters Campaign" against child marriage, very aptly calling child marriage as slavery. This post is largely an inspiration from their campaign, and a result of their asking readers to share their thoughts on child marriage. I hope they will find this post worthwhile and take steps to talk about the law through their grassroots level work. (You can also email them your views at )
Voidable under Section 3, Criminal under Sections 375 and 376 of the Child Marriage Prohibition Act for every citizen - it should be our responsibility to ensure that every girl child at risk has these phrases in her lexicon. It might sound harsh and drastic but on this women's day let us start trying drastic.
And so it is women's day. The day that doesn't make me very happy, but today after putting down these thoughts, and hopefully useful suggestions, I don't feel so miserable after all. I feel hopeful that someone might find my advice useful. I feel hopeful that there might be something worthwhile that I can do through writing. When I first got to know about women's day (12 or 13 years ago) the computer-less me had taken to a little diary and poured her heart out with thoughts on justice and happiness for women, hoping and praying that some day we might overcome. Well now at least I have a blog to pour my thoughts on and share with the you. Other than that, nothing much has changed. We still haven't overcome...but I am still hopeful.
Happy Women's Day!