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Child marriage ban: Activists cautious amid government crackdown in Assam

Rabbi Calra

Child marriage ban: Recently, a woman who had married just three months ago committed suicide in Kamar Pada village in the South Salmara district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. In a similar case in the state, a 27-year-old woman, mother of two killed herself on February 4. She hanged herself, as she feared her parents would be arrested, as she was married before the age of 18. In yet another recent case from the Cachar district in Assam, a 17-year-old girl committed suicide as her parents refused to allow her to get married to the boy of her choice, out of fear. Another 23-year-old woman from the state’s Dhubri district reached the police station and threatened suicide, as her husband and father were arrested in a child marriage case. 

Clampdown in Assam

Such cases are on the rise in the state as a major human-rights concern has emerged with the recent decisions of the state government to launch a crackdown against child marriage. The provincial government has declared strict actions against persons involved in cases of child marriage. It has used the legislation under the Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (POCM) to validate the action. According to POCSO, any person below the age of 18 is defined as a child, hence the marriage of any such individual is considered a child marriage. 

The state police were directed to arrest those involved in acts of child marriage. A committee was also formed to rehabilitate the victims of such cases. The crackdown was launched on February 3, 2023, and more than 3000 people have been arrested till February 13. 

On February 9, while interacting with the media, the Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma said that more than 8000 individuals have been identified as offenders of child marriage. About 4000 of these victims are aged and suffering from various health issues and would be let off with a warning. However, the state police would arrest over 4000 individuals identified. 

The POCM defines any person below the age of 18 as a child and the spouse of a child can be penalized as per the POCSO. The POCM clearly prohibits the marriage of a girl below the age of 18 and a boy below 21. 

Child marriage ban laws

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, and the Indian Majority Act of 1875, both have the same definition of a child. Sections 3 and 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 penalize sexual intercourse with a child and stating the child to not have sexual autonomy. 

However, Muslim Personal Law has a separate definition for the above and it validates the marriage of any individual who has reached puberty. In the absence of evidence, the law considers any person above the age of 15, to have reached puberty. The recent arrests made by the state government have not only evoked the age-old debate of Muslim Personal Law and the Indian Constitution but have also spread panic among several residents of Assam. 

Activists rue human rights violation

Several child and woman rights activists have termed it as a failure of the law implementation agencies, under whose noses such marriages had earlier taken place and nobody reported such incidents. Now, while most of the individuals who had been married as children are adults and are into several years of marriage are being treated as offenders. Sunita Changkakoti, Chairperson, of Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) claimed that after the “strong message sent out by the state government, people are now discussing the law about which many were unaware that resulted in child marriages”.

Meanwhile, the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation has welcomed the Assam government’s “exemplary action against child marriage”. The foundation however demanded that the state government must provide special financial assistance, legal support, and full rehabilitation to the victim. KSCF has appealed for a fresh scheme that will fully support the victims and an immediate release of Rs.2,000 per month from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund as financial assistance to every girl whose husband has been arrested.

Commending the strict action by the Assam government, Managing Director of Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, Rear Admiral Rahul Kumar Shrawat AVSM, Retd said, “Our organization appreciates the strong action by the Assam government to eliminate and penalize child marriages in the state. The action by the state government is the first ever stringent step by any state government in the country to protect children, we also appeal to the state government to look at the human aspect involved in this situation. As young girls are victims of child marriage, the state government must take consider our proposal compassionately to provide immediate rehabilitation and compensation to the victims to reduce their pain”.

Fixing accountability in child marriage ban

This has raised a question about the well-being and psychological health of the children born out of these marriages and what they are witnessing in the name of the implementation of the law. Child marriage was and is still a regular occurrence in rural areas across India. Such cases often go unreported due to the social setup surrounding the families indulged in this act. However, it is high time the responsibility of reporting such marriages is fixed so that situations like present-day Assam can be avoided. 

What about the children born out of these marriages?

A major concern that has arisen is related to the children born out of these marriages and is the approach by the Assam government, the solution. Sharing his views on the current situation in Assam, Rao Narender Yadav, Founder, of Children Unbound Foundation said, “It is important to understand that marriage, if and when it happens, is legal and the children born out of the wedlock are legal as well. Although the law prohibiting it is in place, still, the practice of child marriage is prevalent in various states in our country. As a collective society, it is important to understand the cause behind the practice and why certain strata of the society indulge in such practice. The focus should be on addressing those issues and spreading awareness about the issue”.

He further added, “Such socially sensitive issues can be addressed by proper education and creating a social movement around it which discourages people from such practices. Such crackdowns would not help in solving the problem that exists at a larger level.”

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