New Delhi: Child rights and women’s rights activists from around the country gathered in Delhi to discuss possible changes the government is considering to the child marriage law in India.
The status quo so far is that the act of getting two minors married is illegal in India, but if two minors have already been married and no one has stopped them, then their marriage is not seen as void before the law because that could marginalise the children further. The marriages can be made void, however, if either of the children ask for this.
News reports in November said that the government is looking to make it mandatory to report child marriages. There have also been reports that the government would make all child marriages void. In 2010, a petition in the Karnataka high court pleaded that child marriages should also automatically be declared void.
“There has been a drop in early marriages over the last few years. There is also a drop in the fertility rate and an increase in woman’s education,” says Madhu Mehra, the director of Partners in Law and Development. “Overall the trend is encouraging and it seems like girls are delaying marriage and pregnancy. Yet the law is suddenly being strengthened to penalise adolescent girls and boys who may also be in consensual relationships.”
Her organisation has released two reports recently, about why young girls elope and how the Prevention of Child Marriage Act has been used. They looked at several case studies as well as nine years of case law of the Act.
“We saw that the law is being used by parents when they want to stop a consensual relationship between their daughter and another boy. At such times, they use the law against the boy. But we see very few cases where the actual government officer appointed to stop child marriages brings cases to the police. What does this say about the social realities of people? Families are not keen to use the law in actual cases of abuse of their daughters,” she says.
Grassroots workers also talked about how the law against child marriage is clashing with the law against child abuse. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, also asks for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse cases.
The activists and lawyers concurred that the feature of mandatory reporting in the POCSO Act has resulted in the law blurring the lines between consensual sex between adolescents by treating all sexual expression of adolescents as an automatic crime.
“Due to mandatory reporting, we see the boys are being pushed into the criminal system for punishment and the girls are being sent off to shelter homes. This makes both of them even more vulnerable. If the girls are pregnant, they are in an extremely precarious situation as they wont be able to access physical or mental healthcare,” says Arti from the NGO Prerna.
Khushi from ENFOLD in Bengaluru says her work puts her in the way of girls who need healthcare, abortions or post-abortion care, who find themselves in a risky situation because of the stigma the law gives on making them all seem involved in a criminal act. “This makes young girls seek out unsafe abortions, for example,” she says.
Pragyna from Anandi in Gujarat, says that they began seeing a trend in some districts of a sharp spike in cases of abduction being registered. When they studied the FIRs, they saw that it is mainly parents filing cases of abduction of their daughters. They had, significantly, not been filing cases of their daughters going missing. “But not all of these cases were of abduction, some of them were actually of adolescents of the same age eloping because their families were not allowing them to marry. Here too, the girl’s families often use the law to penalise the boy in order to stop their daughters from marrying as per their choice,” she says.
The activists all concurred that the way the law is being used in the name of protecting girls has detrimental impacts on both girls and the boys. It robs both of their choice, autonomy and agency, stigmatising them, and pushes them into the criminal system.