For the vicarious or active audiences of Hindi soaps, this particular promo featuring a little boy, possibly not any more than 10 years old, applying “sindoor” on a much older woman’s forehead and the latter visibly being rendered into a puddle of emotions by the gesture, might have come across as highly disturbing and discomfiting. Whatever the larger plot might be, it is premised on something legally forbidden in India; Child Marriage.
Just as how a ginormous number of people, diligently watched Balika Vadhu, yet another potboiler revolving around the issue of Child Marriage, this new venture, titled, Pehredar Piya will also perhaps amass a lot of TRPs. Repeated representations of Child Marriage on the visual media, which happens to be one of the most intimate socio-cultural reflectors of our times, reminds us that it is still relevant.
A 2016 study conducted by Unicef revealed that as many as 47% of Indian girls are married before they reach the legal age of 18. There are about 70 districts in India that have recorded a “high incidence” of child marriages, spreading across both rural as well as urban areas. Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Bihar are some of the states where child marriages prevail in glaring numbers.
Patriarchal norms deem girls to be economic burdens on their respective families. There is a plethora of social stigma associated with the marriageable age of girls. Consequently, right after their menarches, many seek to marry off their daughters, thus reducing the size and securing the honour of their families. Incidentally, illiteracy is one of the major factors contributing to the rise in this phenomenon. Statistics emphasize that as early school drop-outs, these girls not only have limited awareness of their rights but are usually not paid heed to.
Child marriages have been a major reason behind the nationwide increase in the frequency of HIV/AIDS, delicate pregnancies, and other such health implications. Although the rates are relatively lower in the case of boys, the situation is no better. Superstitions and customs often force boys of tender age into marriages.
A large number of Bollywood movies like Parched, Dor, Water etc. have dealt with the theme of Child Marriage but none really made a very strong commentary about it. But, essentially, is participating in or endorsing a child marriage a crime?
An overview of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, might clarify most doubts.
According to this act, if either or both party to a marriage involves a minor, i.e. 18 years old in the case of girls and 21 years old in case boys, then the given marriage will fall under the ambit of a “Child Marriage”. In that case, the law facilitates the annulling of or legally undoing the marriage.
What does this law entail?
By virtue of this law, anyone engaged in a child marriage can legally invalidate it. This can be done by filing a petition with the District Court or the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer. Either the concerned parties or their respective parents/ guardians may make the due applications. It is, however, necessary to file the petition before they attain their legal ages, i.e. 18 years old in the case of girls and 21 years old in the case of boys.
This law also provides for maintenance and rehabilitation for the girls post the annulment.
As per this law, children born out of child marriages are legitimate. It arranges for their custody and maintenance as well.
Certain child marriages, where either or both the parties were tricked or forced into marriage or where the girl was sold or trafficked in the course of or after the marriage, the law deems the marriage void.
What is considered a crime under this law?
According to this law, if an adult male marries a minor girl, he can be prosecuted. It also treats parents or guardians who have encouraged, organized, abetted, forced, conducted or even attended such a marriage as punishable. In fact failing to stop such a marriage is a crime under this law.
What is the punishment in such cases?
Anyone who is in charge of or associated with a child marriage may face a jail term of up to 2 years and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh. However, a woman cannot be punished under these charges. The court also provides for arrest without warrant in such offenses. One cannot necessarily claim bail if arrested.
Where can complaints regarding preventing or undoing a Child Marriage be lodged?
To report a child marriage which is taking place in violation of the act, anyone with the knowledge of or involved in the marriage may file a complaint. Alternatively, any NGO, which is aware of such an incident may file a complaint.
Similarly, for annulling a child marriage, the persons involved in the marriage themselves can file a petition to the district court. In case, the child is below 18, she or he can file the petition through a guardian or adult friend or well-wisher along with a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer.
In both cases, such complaints are to be registered with the District Courts, which is either the family court, the city civil court or in cases where neither exists, the main civil court in the area.
The relevant District Courts, in this case, would be:
- where the other party to the marriage or the child resides; or
- where the marriage took place; or
- where one stayed last with the other party.
Domestic violence, dowry, adultery are some of the most frequent pitfalls of child marriage. Countering this social evil has become a major challenge of contemporary times. Organizations like UNICEF, CEDAW have been tirelessly working to curb the spread and occurrence of child marriage. The Government of India is also committed to developing strategies and actions plans to counter child marriage.
The current law as it stands is, in fact, an upgrade on the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Stricter punishments, more comprehensive provisions have indeed been a step towards a better tomorrow. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of underage marriage in boys, dropped from 9.64% to 2.54% while the number of girls married before 18 years of age, dropped from 2.51% to 2.44%.
True, these figures portend a hopeful future, but given the complex socio-cultural circumstances in India, there is a lot left to be done in order to overcome this problem.
Check out this simple explainer to know more about the law on child marriage.