UNICEF defines child marriage as marriage before the age of 18 and considers the act of child marriage as a violation of human rights.
In India, under The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, girls must be 18 or above and boys must be 21 or above to get married. Unfortunately, this law is rampantly flouted throughout our country,
It is estimated that 47% of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday, according to a 2016 report published by the UNICEF. This makes India the global leader in child brides.
The Supreme Court has termed child marriage as a social evil which endangers the life and health of a girl child. The Court has also suggested that such marriages be declared as void and stringent punishment be prescribed against family members who promote and perform such marriages. But the practice has seen no let-up.
In April 2017, the Karnataka State legislature inserted a sub-Section (1A) in Section 3 of the Act for the state, declaring that henceforth every child marriage solemnised is ‘void ab initio’ (to be treated as invalid from the outset).
The Act now states that every child marriage, whether solemnised before or after the commencement of the Act, shall be voidable by the contracting party who was a child at the time of the marriage.
This makes Karnataka the first and the only state to do this.
The law till now gave only the option of voiding the marriage but stopped short of invalidating the marriage itself.
A bench comprising of Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta, of the Supreme Court, has hailed the Karnataka High Court decision and observed, “Merely because something is going on for a long time, (that) is no ground to legitimise and legalise an activity which is per se illegal and a criminal offence. The least, that one would expect in such a situation, is that the State would not take the defence of tradition and sanctity of marriage in respect of girl child, which would be totally violative of Article 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.”
The Supreme Court also recommended that all the State Legislatures adopt the route taken by Karnataka. The Court wished them to declare child marriages void to ensure that sexual intercourse between a girl child and her husband is a punishable offence under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) 2012 and the Indian Penal Code.
While this is a great step in the right direction, the ground reality will remain the same if the government does not spend time and money in ensuring that this Act is given enough publicity and awareness is created among the people.
“The government needs to set aside a budget to spread awareness with an organised network of officials whom people can contact in times of need. Otherwise, how will a girl know her rights? Prevention, Protection, Provision and Participation are the four pillars of child rights and welfare and need to be implemented at every level,” stresses G. Nagasimha Rao, Director, Child Rights Trust, as reported in Deccan Chronicle.
The need of the hour is to ensure the seamless working of all agencies – police, legislation, and the government in bringing about a much-needed information campaign, and ensure that this abhorrent practice is banished from our society.