Bonded by prejudice: Child brides of Assam
Despite having a law for the past 91 years, practices of child marriages are quite rampant across India. According to the 2018 annual report of UNICEF, 4.8 million adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19 have been victims of early marriage. Meanwhile, Assam has not been spared of the practice as the numbers have been spiking in the past few years.
As per CHILDLINE India Foundation, in 2015 the state witnessed 35 instances of child marriage the numbers went up to 60 in 2016, 572 in 2017, 890 in 2018 and 1075 in 2019.
The Rural Factor
Findings by the NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) reveal that the prevalence of girl child marriage in the age-group 15-19 years is significant in rural areas. In Assam, the ratio stands at 93.4 percent in the rural areas and 6.6 percent in urban pockets.
Cases in districts like Kamrup, Barpeta, Nagaon and Kokrajhar have grown significantly. Barpeta records among the highest cases of child marriages in Assam. The district got 2 reports of child marriage in 2015, 8 reports in 2016, 122 reports in 2017, 185 reports in 2018 and 165 reports in 2019.
Asha (name changed), a student of 10th grade from the district was married a few months ago at the age of 16.
The wedding took place after she was subjected to eve-teasing and mental harassment. Although the student wishes to study further, her parents feared that her dignity will be compromised. Asha obviously did not have a say on the wedding being solemnised.
“They threatened me saying that I will be taken away since I go to school alone. This one time when I was coming back from school, they took my picture and uploaded it on Facebook. After that, they put the blame on me saying that I asked for the picture to be taken. My father says that we are poor people if something wrong happens they won’t be able to do anything. That is why they decided to marry me off,” Asha mentioned while speaking with EastMojo.
Fearing social stigma and the security of their daughter, the parents decided to go ahead with the wedding despite being aware of the fact that marrying off the girl before attaining legal age may lead to legal consequences. Asha’s mother (name withheld) said that they feared that people will start talking about his daughter.
“It will be a matter of humiliation if people get to know about it. If they come to know about something, it will spread like wildfire. They won’t see that she is so young and start saying things like why has she been not married yet; she has grown up. Moreover, we are poor people and we have to stay out for work. At night we will be around but what if something happens in the day,” Asha’s mother said.
Unlike Asha, Sajida’s (name changed) parents were forced to marry off their daughter. The wedding took place overnight after her father was held captive by one Chand Mohammed and his family members. Although the daughter has returned home after the intervention of CHILDLINE, a nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development whose role is to ensure rights and protection of children. Sajida’s parents are still threatened to send their daughter to Mohammed’s home.
“They (the boy’s family) calls me numerous times. My daughter says that if I leave home, my father will have to go to jail. She won’t go until she attains the legal age. But Chand Mohammed has been threatening us that we should either send our daughter or pay the money that they have spent for the wedding or they will hold her father captive at the market and collect the money,” Sajida’s mother (name withheld) said.
While social security has been one of the factors, issues such as financial instability and education also play a key role where parents often fail to understand the complexities that child marriage may lead to. Meanwhile, the involvement of a third party is also another factor that encourages child marriage. Rafikul Islam who has been working with CHILDLINE in Barpeta district since 2015 says that the role of a religious leader whose presence is necessary to solemnise a wedding is another factor that encourages such practices.
“In any society, in order to conduct a wedding, it requires religious representation. A priest or a purohit or a maulana, etc and when it comes to religion we all get easily overwhelmed. Religion affects the illiterate section the most and when a religious leader considers it right and solemnises a wedding so parents don’t give it a second thought”, Islam said.
Islam also mentioned that offenders have found a way to go around the law where they create documents that are used as an alibi and are aided by lawyers.
“People now move to the court and prepare an affidavit irrespective of the age of the girl that says when she attains the legal age she can marry the person she is in love with. These documents are identified by lawyers and are signed by notary magistrates which are invalid documents. Although it mentions that it will take place only after they come of age but rather, they are already living together and use the document as an alibi,” Islam informed.
Rafikul Islam, centre coordinator, CHILDLINE, Barpeta
The Urban Corrosive
Meanwhile, urban communities have also not been spared from the practice of child marriage. There are states and Union Territories which have large pockets where child marriage is still being practiced. The metropolitan city of Guwahati has also been witnessing a spurt such practices. While in 2015 only 1 case was reported, in 2016 the numbers went up to 6, 12 in 2017, 16 in 2018 and 26 in 2019.
However, experts say that the increase in Guwahati is due to growth in the number of reports while the trend has remained stagnant.
“Most cases in Guwahati are not organised child marriage. It is not that the parents are keen to marry off their children but such decisions are being taken to avoid social stigma or after being influenced by people in their society. In most cases it is due to elopement following which in order to avoid any kind of social stigma the parents decide to marry off their children,” said Nirmal Deka, centre coordinator, CHILDLINE, Guwahati.
Despite witnessing a growth in instances of child marriage, very has been seen when it comes to legal action being taken. In order to prevent such practices, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was first framed in 1929. It was questioned and debated on several occasions after which the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 came into force and was implemented on November 1, 2007. Violation of the law would lead to rigorous imprisonment for 2 years along with a penalty that may extend to one lakh rupees. However, stringent action against lawbreakers is yet to be seen. Deka also mentioned that no chargesheet is filed against the offenders that rather encourage such practices.
“Since there is a law there must be a punishment for breaking it. From the recoveries of child marriages that we have done, in my personal experience, I have not witnessed any chargesheet being filed. Also, those involved in such cases have not been brought to justice may be due to this, it has not developed a discouragement among offenders in getting involved in such practices. They are probably under the notion that they might as well get away with it. So, these things are putting a negative influence on others,” Deka mentioned.
Nirmal Deka, centre coordinator, CHILDLINE, Guwahati
Tool for Trafficking
Child marriage is often used as a tool to traffic children to other parts of the country where the child itself or the parents are lured under the aegis of marriage and giving them a better life. Such instances had also been rampant in Assam.
According to the 2018 National Crime Records Bureau, Assam recorded 262 cases of human trafficking and 164 of them were girls below 18years age. 52 of the cases were of Sexual Exploitation for Prostitution whereas 64 of them were forced marriage. Among recent cases, two recoveries were made by CHILDLINE where one of the minors was taken to Rajasthan and the efforts were being made to traffic another minor.
“Those who are involved in child marriage, whether it is parents or a relative or even those who have attended the wedding, the priest who has performed the marriage also has to be booked. There are provisions but as far as child marriage is concerned law has not been able to punish the offenders. If a marriage has been solemnised between a girl who is a minor and a boy who is an adult, it will not be considered as a legal marriage. Their physical relationship will be considered as rape because an under-aged girl cannot give consent to marriage as she is not matured enough to give consent to a physical relationship with a male who is supposed to be her husband. If the husband is an adult, he has to be booked under POCSO Act,” said Sunita Changkakati, chairperson, Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.