BENGALURU: A pat on the back from the Supreme Court has brought Karnataka into focus for its amendment to The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The amendment, brought about in the state, not only declares all marriages of girls under 18 years to be void ab initio (null from the beginning), but also gives suo motu powers to the police to register cases of child marriage and also enhances the punishment to offenders.
But stopping child marriage through stringent legislation would be a narrow view that will not have any positive impact in the long run. The Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD) and associated agencies in the field, like its own Child Marriage Prohibition Officers, are unable to prevent many marriages simply because they do not get to know about it.
Take the case of Bagalkot. It is the home turf of DWCD Minister Umashree and has the dubious distinction of being the district with highest number of child marriages along with Davanagere, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.
Anthony C, who works with Anthyodaya, an organisation working in Bagalkot to prevent child marriages, says “It is not that people are unaware that child marriage is illegal, but that does not stop them from conducting it. They try to evade detection by conducting weddings in the night or in their fields or changing the venue at the last moment. In some cases, they have removed all jewellery on the girl after marriage. Our people have been almost assaulted for trying to give information about child marriage. Anganwadi workers who inform us are especially at risk, since they live nearby. The only thing we can do is reach out through counselling with the help of local leaders and repeated interventions for prevention.”
In the last three years, he says at least a 100 child marriages have been stopped in Bagalkot and he shudders to think about those they never heard about. “They do not need to register marriages before the girl turns 18. Cases are registered but I have not seen a single person go to jail. So people are confident nothing will happen to them,” he says.
Kavita Ratna, Advocacy Director with Concerned for Working Children (CWC) was on the draft committee that worked with Justice Shivaraj Patil who gave a report on child marriage, which eventually resulted in the amendments to the Act.
“One of the best ways to prevent it is to talk to the children. When we were interacting with the children, we realised that they wanted alternatives. If they are not going to get married, then what is the alternative. Whether it is education or employment, they needed to be informed. For this purpose, we consulted all the departments and compiled a list of all schemes and scholarships available and added it to the report. I am not sure if it was implemented,” she says.
The situations revolving around child marriages are complex. It is not just tradition, but also about poor economic condition of the girls’ families, attempt to avoid sexual abuse (especially if they live in slums), adolescent love, inheritance among others. Kavita points out that the most vulnerable districts are the ones that are economically backward. Stringent punishment or non-registration of such marriages is not going to deter such cases.
“Using legislation should be the last option. It needs to act as a deterrent. We need to be talking to not just the girls but also the boys in schools. The thinking that a girl should be married once she attains puberty should change. Also, issues like where a girl thinks she has to be dependent on the man, providing alternatives like skill development if they do not do well at school, talking to the boys and such should be addressed.
A long-term strategy is required along with the legislation and some of the DWCD awareness programmes like posters and leaflets are primitive,” says Nagasimha Rao, Director of Child Rights Trust.
Interestingly, a DWCD official claimed that they do not collect child marriage statistics and go by the National Family Health Survey data. National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) says Karnataka has registered 23.2 per cent child marriages among girls. Of this, 17.9 per cent were in urban and 27 per cent were in rural areas. The last NFHS survey was conducted in 2005-06 and said 41.2 per cent of girls had been married between 15-18 years of age. NCRB puts child marriages in Karnataka at 44 (2014); 35 (2015) and 51 cases in 2016. This data reflects the number of cases where complaints are registered by the police.