SUBHABRATA DUTTA, Editorial, The Statesman, Monday, March 20 2006
The violent attack on a social activist on account of her campaign against child marriage recently rocked the Rajya Sabha. The incident occurred in Rajgarh village in the district of Dhar, Madhya Pradesh. Members of the Rajya Sabha expressed deep anguish. This was the latest in a line of incidents. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Rammohan Roy and Mahatma Gandhi faced stiff opposition because of their progressive ideas and reformist zeal.
In Hindu society it is believed that a girl should be married before she attains puberty. In the Muslim community the tradition exists. The tradition of child marriage continues in some Christian families in Kerala.
It is more prevalent among scheduled caste and scheduled tribe families. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have the highest number of child marriages. Every year a large number of girls get married on the day of Akhya Treetia”, an auspicious day for marriage. The practice is not confined to any particular caste, creed, religion, place and time.
The problem of child marriage is complex. A combination of factors such as religious, social, economic and educational is responsible. First, there is an important link between illiteracy and child marriage. In the state where the literacy level is very low, the practice of child marriage is carried on with impunity. Secondly, the desire of elders and the community as a whole prevails on parents who succumb to pressure to get their daughters or sons married at an early age. Thirdly, child marriage is practised as a relief from anxiety, particularly in case of girl child. When the daughter grows up (14 years and above) the anxiety of the parents increases.Through child marriage, they try to escape from the responsibilities of the girl’s education, development activities and social needs.
In the opinion of social scientists, child marriage is an integral part of the wider practice of female seclusion through their subordination to men and deprivation of equal access to social and material resources. In a patriarchal set-up, the future of female children is vested in the hands of male members of the family. The girl child has hardly any right to exercise her choice to choose her partner. Moreover, India was invaded by different foreign nations. In a frantic bid to protect the girl’s chastity the custom of child marriage was adopted.
Child marriages have a negative impact. They adversely affect the education of both the child bride and child groom. The boy soon gets involved in the family trade or occupation instead of pursuing a career. The girl is equally involved in performing stereotyped roles as a housewife. She may find hard work harming her physically. In short, child marriage leads to discontinuance of education and inadequate socialisation along with physical and psychological damage. Because of low educational level, they do not have maturity and skill. Consequently, the girl child fails to be a mature housewife with an individual personality which finally results in adjustment problems.
In a bid to put a check on the practice of child marriage, Rai Sahib Harbilas Sarda introduced a bill in 1927 to make child marriage a grave offence. This Bill was passed in 1929 and came to be known as “Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929”. This Act was popularly called the Sarda Act which prescribed the minimum marriageable age for girls (14 years) and boys (18 years). In 1978 the Sarda Act was amended to raise the minimum marriageable age of the bride to 18 years and of the bridegroom to 21 years. Other personal laws and enactments are there such as the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 which has an impact on the problem of child marriage. Some states have adopted some measures to tackle this problem.
Gujarat amended the state’s Act by inserting a section which gives power to the court to issue an injunction to check the practice of child marriage. It also makes a provision for appointing a “Child Marriage Prevention Officer” for proper enforcement of the legislation.
The fight is not only against a grave offence but a social institution that tends to violate the rights of the child. Legislation will, to some extent, succeed in reducing the number of child marriages. But no legislation will suffice if attitudes do not change and protection of the rights of the child is not accepted as a definite commitment. Attitudinal change of the family members and the community has a positive influence in curbing this evil practice.
Secondly, literacy level should be improved. For, higher level of literacy can influence human perceptions about the desirable age of marriage both for girls and boys. Thirdly, a campaign should be undertaken to educate the people about the socio-economic implications and biological repercussions related to child marriage.
Status of girls
This campaign should be integrated with other measures for socio-economic prosperity, education and improving the status of girls in society. “The Kishor Balika Yojana” in Tonk district of Rajasthan provides an example. The scheme aims at enhancing the education, health and nutritional status of girls. It educates girls for family welfare, home management, childcare problems, awareness of their rights, protection against diseases, unwanted and multiple pregnancies, economic empowerment etc. This scheme also helps raise their decision-making habits about social and educational matters.
Fourthly, in November 1995, the National Human Rights Commission recommended introduction of a system, on a priority basis, for compulsory registration of marriages along with the date of birth certificate. It also suggested that the Sarda Act be amended to make the offence cognisable, non-bailable with trial being held in sessions court.
Fifth, media, both electronic and print, should publicise the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and the punishment involved. Finally, social activism, legal measures and strong political will would help along with the active cooperation of panchayati raj institutions.