Since February 3, when Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma started his campaign against child marriage, thousands have been arrested in the state under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). In a state where almost 86% of the population is rural, what’s noteworthy is that Assam has among the largest proportion of rural women — roughly 74% — who have not completed 10 or more years of schooling. Since lack of education and poverty are said to be the primary reasons behind child marriages, it’s not surprising, that 33.4% of women in Assam get married before the legal minimum age of 18. This is much higher than the national average of 25% and third highest in the country, after West Bengal (48.1) and Jharkhand (36.1).
The widespread police crackdown on child marriage has caused havoc in the lives of people. Affected women have decried the arrests of sole providers of their families. Two cases of suicide have also been reported from Assam. The controversial move has drawn huge outrage, with eve the Guwahati High Court questioning the inclusion of charges under the tough law to protect children from sexual crimes. Experts have also doubted the legality of applying POCSO in child marriage cases. The trigger behind the government’s crackdown on child marriages, which chief minister Sarma said will be intensified is apparently the state’s poor performance in certain health indicators like maternal and infant mortality rates. Child marriage has been identified as a prime reason for this.
There is another reason, according to media reports, why the Sarma government has begun an extensive crackdown on underage marriages. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 revealed that while Assam’s total fertility rate (TFR) – the average number of children born per woman – is 1.9%, below the national average of 2, the TFR among Muslim women is 2.4, though it has come down considerably from 3.6 in 2005-06. However, there have been concerns among people in Assam about the possible change in demography in the state because of higher fertility rate among Muslims and illegal migration from Bangladesh. As the crackdown against child marriage has affected the 14 Muslim-dominated districts out of the 31 districts in Assam, many have criticised the government’s move as a targeted action against Muslims.
The chief minister has, however, denied the charge, saying the crackdown has been neutral and no particular community has been targeted. Justifying the action, Mr Sarma has pointed out that teenage pregnancies accounted for nearly 17% of over 6.2 lakh pregnant women last year in the state. The question is, why has action been initiated under POCSO and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) on past offences? Criminalising men with retrospective effect for marrying minor girls makes little sense because under PMCA, the way to make a marriage voidable is a nullity petition in the district court “by a contracting party to the marriage who was a child at the time of the marriage”. It is pertinent to ask which married woman would be interested in filing such a petition?
The minimum age of marriage in India is currently 18 for women and 21 for men. However, the minimum marriage age for Muslim women, under the Muslim Personal Law, is when they attain puberty and 15 years is presumed to be that age. According to an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in July last year, a Muslim girl of 15 years age is competent to enter into a contract of marriage with a person of her choice under the Muslim Personal Law. However, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has moved the Supreme Court against the high court order. The National Commission for Women has also filed a petition in the apex court to make the minimum age for Muslim girls the same as that of persons belonging to other religions. The matter is pending before the court.
Child marriage isn’t particular to Assam but is common among the most deprived and marginalised communities in India. It is also not exclusive to the Muslim community. In fact, irrespective of religion and in spite of laws, child marriages are still rampant in India. Apart from Assam, other states with more than 20% of rural women in the age group of 20 to 24 who were married before 18 years include West Bengal, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, Telangana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha. For Uttar Pradesh, the proportion is 17.9%. Interestingly, except Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the proportion of rural women with 10 or more years of schooling in the states listed above is less than 40%.
On the other hand, states like Jammu and Kashmir (with 68% Muslim population), Kerala, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have less than 10% of rural women married before 18 years, with Jammu and Kashmir having the lowest at 5.3%. Similarly in Kerala, with almost 27% Muslim population, the proportion of rural women in the 20 to 24 age group who were married before 18 is only 8.2%. In the states listed above, the proportion of rural women with 10 or more years of schooling varies between 46 and 75%. This means there is no community or religion factor in child marriages, which is also validated by the 2011 Census – 84% of the 12 million children (7.8 million girls) who were married before 10 years in India were Hindus and mostly from rural India.
Over the decades, what has reduced child marriages – from 54% in 1992-93 to 23% in 2019-21, according to NHFS surveys – is not coercive action but education, income and empowerment. As educational and economic development is uneven across the country, percentage of underage marriages differ from state to state. More than concern, whether politics is behind the Assam government’s crackdown on child marriage is not hard to guess. But coercive action will not end the menace of underage marriage, as it does not address the structural reasons such as poverty and illiteracy.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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