It is difficult to defend child marriages even though this tradition goes back hundreds of years and is even sanctified with ancient religious codes.
However the sudden decision of Assam government to crack down on the practice and arrest of over 2500 males who have married girls below 18 years – the permissible age of marriage – is not the solution to the problem.
It is true that reformation must be brought in and regressive customs must be phased out even if these have been prevalent in the society since time immemorial.
Scriptures of various religions provide for child marriages. Travellers to ancient India too had recorded prevalence of such a practice in different communities.
Yet the manner chosen by Assam chief minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma in ordering mass arrests is no solution to the problem and can lead to more misery and hardships for the victims of child marriage.
The figures released by the United Nations regarding the prevalence of the practice worldwide are staggering. According to its report the world has an estimated 650 million women married before the age of 18 years.
About a third of them were less than the age of 15 years when they were married. It estimates that over 16 per cent of the girls upto the age of 18 years are currently married. The figures show that it is a gigantic problem.
India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of such women. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, lack of awareness and religious extremes are some of the major reasons for early or child marriages.
While incidents of child marriage are reported from across religions, a vast majority of such cases are reported from the Muslim community which proportionately has a higher percentage of poor, illiterate and religiously orthodox population.
Hindus and Muslim personal laws do not explicitly prohibit child marriage. Under the prevalent laws, marriageable age for females is 18 years while that for males is 21 years.
It would be interesting to note that in 1927 the Legislative Council of India had raised the marriage age of female from 12 to 14 years.
After independence the age was raised to 15 years in 1949 and to 18 years in 1978. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 stipulates imprisonment of two years and a fine of Rs one lakh or both for those violating the law.
While there can be no defence of child marriages or the need to usher in reforms, the method chosen by the Assam chief minister to tackle the problem makes little sense.
Incidentally Assam is among the worst performers when it comes to child and women empowerment.
As per the 2011 census, as many as 44 per cent of women in Assam were married below the age of 18 years. The track record of the state pertaining to poverty and illiteracy is also among the worst in the country. In fact it has the worst Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) in the country.
According to the National Family Health Survey report, 32 per cent of women in Assam are married below the legal age of marriage much more than the national average of 25 years.
The data also shows that nearly one fifth of women in the state had never been to a school. Almost all indices in the survey reports show that Assam was an under performer when it came to women empowerment and literacy.
Arresting all those who have violated the law would be a gigantic task and selectively targeting a section of the population could be counter productive.
The current crackdown includes arrest of men who had been married over the years. Putting them behind bars and leaving their spouses and children to fend for themselves would be a worse solution to the problem.
Before carrying out such a hunt, which many believe is targeted towards a particular community, the government should have carried out a prolonged and effective campaign against child marriage.
It should have worked sincerely to spread literacy and awareness among the poor and deprived. It should invest in improving these standards instead of taking punitive action against families which mainly belong to poor categories.
It would have been better for it to warn future violators of strict enforcement of law rather than add to the misery of families, particularly the wives of the violators, who will be left to fend for themselves.
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