Child marriage is not only a social evil, it is also a criminal offence in India, though it may take many more decades for society to recognise it as such. While the practice is prevalent in states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh among others, a recently published study by Child Rights and You (CRY) finds the relatively advanced Kerala to be reporting incidences of child marriages mostly in its northern Muslim-dominated districts, though, on the whole, the trend is on the decline in the state.
In a district-wise breakup, the northern Kerala district of Malappuram, a Muslim-dominated area, reports the largest number of child marriages in the state. Over 45,000 child marriages occurred in Kerala since 2001, in which a majority were from Malappuram district, according to the study.
Furthermore, “as many as 3,404 underage girls got married in the district in 2012 (girls in the age group of 11-18)...majority of them, exactly 2,827, are from the Muslim community”, states the study. This finding reinforces the fact that child marriage, a practice popularly associated with Hindus, is a scourge that pervades all Indian communities.
The qualitative study titled “Child marriage among Muslims in Kerala”, was conducted by Anvar Sadath, lecturer in psychiatric social work, department of psychiatry, St John’s Medical College Hospital, Bengaluru. In his surveys, Sadath found that among reasons like economic backwardness, lack of education, societal pressure, fears of pre-marital relationships that contributed to the prevalence of child marriage, the absence of religious consensus for a legal marriageable age in Islamic laws was also a big factor. “Interviews with Muslim religious leaders revealed that the Quran does not state a specific age of marriage; however it does give a guideline and mentions situations and conditions that should be considered before marriage such as determining mutual compatibility and that the parties should be of marriageable age/mature (but no age was specified),” he says. “Marriageable age is therefore sometimes taken to mean puberty, but there is no uniformity on this,” Anvar told this newspaper.
Prophet Muhammad married Aaisha when she was six years old, and consummated the relationship when she was nine—as narrated by al-Bukhaari, 4840 and Muslim, 1422. But there were discrepancies between Sunni (Shafi school of thought) and Mu-jahit (Mu-jahit does not follow any specific school of thought) religious denominations regarding what her age was at the time of marriage, ranging from six to 19 years, Anvar writes in the CRY study. Religion plays a big role in this. As a cleric told Anvar, “We cannot prevent a girl from getting married at any age for religious reasons. Our religion did not specify any age for marriage, in fact, Aisha got married when she was a child.”
In conversations with the subjects, Anvar says he found regret among the girls who were married early as well as among their parents. “They do seem like they are open to reform,” he says. As for the religious leaders, “they say they do not encourage child marriage or allow it to take place within the mosque premises, but they only provide religious sanction for it if the parents have decided to conduct such a marriage,” says Anvar.
Child marriage is practised largely among economically backward classes, though in a few places it survives as an age old tradition as well. The Prohibition of Child Marriages Act was introduced in 2006 to address the weaknesses inherent in the former legislations. It came into effect from 1 November 2007, replacing the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929 or Sharda Act. Although child marriage has been on the decline in recent years, the progress is slow and in terms of numbers the incidence of child marriage is still quite high, according to the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).
Census 2011 showed that 2.9% of girls and 1.6% boys belonging to the 10-14 age group were married before the age of 15. Further, 10% of all the girls in the 15-17 age group were married. Also, 7.5% of boys in the 15-20 age group were married. The figures varied slightly between urban and rural areas.
Many studies, surveys and reports published over the years have identified economic backwardness and lack of education as a major reason for families to practice child marriage, especially for girls who are viewed as a burden. Besides, child marriage is a deep-rooted socio-cultural tradition in India and is practised, even defended, by many communities.
The maximum number of child marriages was reported from Rajasthan, with 2.56% of girls and 4.69% of boys married under the legal age (Census 2011). In Gujarat, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya incidence of child marriage is high amongst both girls and boys. Interestingly, Kerala, celebrated for its high literacy rate and considerable strides in social development, also reports 0.604% of all girls in the state aged between 12 and 15 had entered wedlock prematurely and illegally. In numbers that is 23,183 married girls before the age of 15, according to Census 2011.
While child marriage is viewed only as a social evil and not a criminal offence such arguments will and are often used to justify participation in any role in the conduct of the marriage, whether as priests, guests, or onlookers. “It is difficult to weed out such deep-rooted traditional practices in the short term,” says Sonali Kusum, columnist and PhD scholar at NLS Bangalore, who has worked extensively on legal issues concerning women and children in India.
According to Kusum, enforcing marriage registration and equipping and encouraging local authorities to do the same as well as to intervene in the conduct of child marriage are two things that can offer a remedy to the prevalence of child marriage. While local authorities to act against child marriages have been set up by various commissions, and full power has been given to them on paper, the authorities rarely exercise these powers in the absence of awareness as well as the will to do so. “When strategies are created under these government Acts, policymakers should also focus on raising the budget allotted for the salaries of these grass-roots officers. In some places, domestic violence protection officers are not even appointed though the post has been created on paper. Acts create authorities, but they should also outline the qualifications required for candidates to be hired under these authorities and outline their duties as well,” she says. Ultimately, child marriage needs to be recognized by society for the criminal offence that it is, as it puts the girl child’s physical and mental health at risk, puts a decisive break on her education, career aspirations and capacity to be an independent individual, and propagates the “child becoming mother of a child phenomenon” which benefits neither the child nor the mother.