Implementing legislation the knotty issue
Forty per cent of the world’s child brides live in India, where 43 per cent of girls in the age group of 20-24 are married before they turn 18, according to a UNICEF report. Child marriage is prevalent across the country and is higher in rural (48 per cent) than in urban areas (29 per cent) despite legislations banning them.
India’s social reforms started with Raja Rammohan Roy, who opposed Sati as well as child marriage during the British Raj. He along with Lord William Bentinck brought an end to Sati on December 4, 1829 in Bengal Presidency, but child marriage was still prevalent.
The first marriage act was passed in 1872. It fixed 14 years as the minimum age for marriage of Indian women and 18 for men. It was only in 1929 that a legislation forbidding child marriage was put in place. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 popularly known as the Sharda Act, prohibited marriages of girls below 18 years of age and boys below 21.
The punishment for anyone who performs or directs a child marriage ceremony was imprisonment of up to three months and a possible fine, unless he could prove the marriage he performed was not a child marriage under the Act. The Act was amended in 1940 and 1978 to strengthen the law, yet child marriages continue in India.
Sarah Ramya, manager of CRY (Child Rights and You), an NGO, says even though the country made progress on indicators related to education, health and employment opportunities, the percentage of women married before the legal age of 18 still remains very high.
In order to prevent child marriages, the government brought into force a more progressive legislation - the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA) repealing the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929, which aimed at restraining child marriages rather than prohibiting them, she says.
It also provides for annulment of a child marriage and gives a separated female the right to maintenance and residence from her husband if he is above 18 or in-laws if he is a minor until she is remarried. This Act came into effect in January 2007, Sarah adds. Different states are vested with powers to formulate rules for implementation of this legislation. The National Plan of Action for Children 2005 also includes goals on eradicating child marriage. One of the notable initiatives taken by India towards protection of children has been the establishment of a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2006 for proper enforcement of child rights. (Concluded)