India: India to place new ruling on child marriages

The seemingly ineradicable practice of child marriage in India will face new legal obstacles following a Supreme Court decision requiring marrying couples to register their age and consent with local authorities.
“This has been a longstanding demand of the women’s movement and it’s a great step forward,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, an organisation dedicated to female empowerment based in New Delhi.
When India amended its Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1978, setting 18 as the minimum age for a woman to marry and 21 for a man, lawmakers hoped in vain that the threat of fines and imprisonment would curb under-age marriages.

But, according to a National Family Health survey, 56 per cent of girls in rural India are married before they turn 18. Experts warn that even when the new law is approved, many under-age couples will still marry without registering.

“If the decision is to have any impact on perpetrators, it needs to be backed by legislation and punitive action for those not registering marriages,” said Anu Dixit, a child protection programme officer at Unicef, the United Nations agency.

A further difficulty is that birth certificates, although now mandatory, are rare in rural areas, leaving marriage registrars with little means of verifying the age of girls they suspect to be under 18.

The centuries-old practice has complex and deep-rooted social causes, including the desire to guarantee the bride’s virginity and the need for poor families to keep often ruinous marriage expenses to a minimum.

Campaigners say the Child Marriage Restraint Act is an ambivalent piece of legislation in that it prohibits the solemnisation of child marriages but does not declare them illegal or invalid.

A draft bill before parliament will enable a person who was married as a child to file a petition asking for the marriage to be nullified. The petition must be filed within two years of attaining majority or by a guardian when the petitioner is a minor.

Lawmakers were jolted into action last year after extensive media coverage was given to a social worker whose hands were reportedly chopped off by villagers because she tried to stop child marriages in the Dhar district of Bhopal.

In extreme cases of underage marriage, a prepubescent bride will usually stay with her family until puberty, after which a consummation ceremony is held to mark the start of her new married life and departure for her new conjugal home.

According to civil rights workers, there have been many instances in which prepubescent girls’ in-laws have refused to wait for the onset of sexual maturity, putting children as young as five to work as unpaid servants and field hands.

Women’s groups have also argued that making marriage registration compulsory will improve the legal position of wives who have been deserted by their husbands and deprived of maintenance payments but lack proof that marriage took place.

“Since courts do not admit photographs as evidence of marriage, wives and widows of men living in bigamous relationships have found it very difficult to prove that they were married and to assert their rights,” Ms Kumari said.

By Jo Johnson in New Delhi
Published: February 16 2006 in The Financial Times