Saving India's child brides: Why focusing on prevention can't break the cycle of abuse

The reaction towards the attempt to annul child marriages is unabashedly patriarchal, but both the government and NGOs need to start changing that.
Saving India's child brides: Why focusing on prevention can't break the cycle of abuse
Saving India's child brides: Why focusing on prevention can't break the cycle of abuse
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Farah* is a school-going adolescent whose parents and prospective in-laws considered her old enough to start a marital life. One of her classmates, who had attended a workshop on the effects of child marriage, knew better. She tipped off the central facility of the Childline helpline (1098) with all the details of the wedding, preparations for which were underway. The details were then passed on to the local childline center who collaborated with officials from the department of women and child development, the local police, panchayat secretary amongst others, and stopped the ceremony. The parents of both the girl and the groom were counseled, and eventually, Farah returned to school.

Owing to the efforts of the various government departments and helplines like Childline, among others, numerous interventions have happened and child marriages have been stopped or temporarily postponed. As per the annual report of Childline India Foundation, there were over 18,600 interventions in the state of Tamil Nadu alone.

However, the case of Farah, where the system stepped in before the violation of human rights, is an ideal one. And, in many cases, it doesn’t happen so.  

Dealing with child marriage

In the last one year, close to 200 child marriages were halted in the Vikarabad district of Telangana. But, there were 45 occasions - that the officials know of - when the marriage couldn't be stopped and Aarathi’s* wedding was one such case.

Fifteen-year-old Aarathi belongs to one of the many farm-crisis hit villages of the Vikarabad district of Telangana where child marriage is still not a taboo. Like several others, her family too intended to marry her off due to various reasons including an increase in the dowry amount with every passing year, and the fear that she might attempt to marry someone of her choice.

During the summer vacation after the annual exams, her parents found a match for her, ‘suitable’ in terms of caste, class, and other factors. Both the engagement and the marriage followed quickly.

“It was after Aarathi dropped out from Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) - a government-run residential school - stating health reasons, that officials probed into the case and got to know that she was pregnant. A case has been filed against her husband, parents, in-laws, and the priest for performing the child marriage,” one of the officials handling Aarathi’s case narrated. Some of the accused will be tried under both Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA) and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act because what Aarathi underwent was rape, the official explained.

Using POCSO to book a perpetrator is a progressive step and doesn’t happen in every case. This is because, the IPC section 375 (rape) itself evades the responsibility to protect a child and states that "sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape." In a recent petition in the Supreme Court about the same issue, the Centre mentioned that this exception in rape law is needed to “protect the institution of marriage.”

As for Aarathi, after rescuing her, she was moved to a state home and a medical council took the decision of not terminating the pregnancy, as an abortion would have been a highly unsafe option at that stage. Recently, at the Koti maternity hospital of Hyderabad, Aarathi gave birth to a baby girl who weighed just over one kg.

Aarathi, a child herself, will now have the option of either keeping the baby with her or asking the state to take custody of the newborn. Either way, she will have the support system from the state for both her education and her child.

Exception, not the rule

However, Aarathi’s case, where a child was pulled out of the vicious cycle of further violation of child rights, and where perpetrators will hopefully be brought to justice, is still a rare one. There exist a large number of married adolescents, both girls and boys, who remain invisible except during surveys and census drives.

With 103 million child marriages (report by Child Rights Focus, a knowledge initiative of ActionAid), India holds the infamous distinction of having the highest absolute number of child marriages across the world.

The National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) shows a steep decline in the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before they turned 18 and a considerable decrease in the category Men aged 25-29 years married before the age of 21 years when compared to the NFHS-3 (2005-06), but the numbers are still alarming.

Close to a decade since the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act-2006 came into being and existence of Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 before that, child marriages are far from being a thing of past. The law and its lax implementation along with the society have worked in a collaborative manner to make child marriages an accepted reality, and have given an impunity to the perpetrators of the crime.

Void vs Valid child marriages

“Ideally, all child marriages should be canceled and treated as invalid, and the culprits prosecuted, but we surely have a long way to go in the aspect of providing the kind of resources needed and changing the societal mindset for the same. We are not there yet, but it is not impossible,” says Kondaveeti Satyavati, Secretary, Bhumika Women's Collective which operates out of Hyderabad. Bhumika works on issues related to women and children and provides them with legal and psychological support among other things.

Satyavati is talking about the law (PCMA) which doesn’t consider all child marriages as void by default, a marriage that is treated as invalid without the need of legal proceedings. Instead, a provision to make marriages voidable was put in place.

The handbook released on PCMA by Ministry of Women and Child Development (and others) explains the difference between void and voidable marriages in simple terms.

Child marriages will be declared null and void (from the beginning) “if the injunction (an order) prohibiting a child marriage from taking place is violated/contravened or, if the child is taken away from their lawful guardian by enticement, force or use of deceitful means or, is sold or trafficked for the purpose of marriage.”

All the rest of the child marriages “are voidable and can be annulled (Section 3 (1), PCMA, 2006). As per the act, a petition can be filed in the district court to annul the said marriage.

“If at the time of filing a petition, the petitioner is a minor, the petition may be filed through his or her guardian or next friend (who must be an adult of 18 years or more) along with the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer.” Also, the “petition may be filed at any time but before the child filing the petition completes two years of attaining majority.” (Age of majority for girls is 18 years and for boys is 21 years.)

Although highly debatable, this provision to annul a child marriage, instead of treating them as void ab initio, was supposedly put in place to ensure that the victim of early marriage doesn’t face further discrimination in the forms of abandonment among other things. Also, without the necessary services to support the stringent implementation of the act, it would have become extremely easy to misuse a clause which treats all marriages as void by default.  

“It is a depressing reality. On one hand, there is a deepening rural crisis, and on the other, there are these age-old traditions, illiteracy, and beliefs. The combination of all these factors pushes child rights to take a back seat. The resulting situation is that once a marriage happens, people in the system itself have a soft-corner and turn a blind eye towards it,” Satyavati says.

The first legal annulment of a child marriage

Satyavati’s observations come from decades of experience as a women's and children's rights activist. She understands the ground realities where the mere existence of a law doesn’t translate to empowerment and upliftment of rights.

Corroborating with Satyavati’s observations is the fact that even as the PCMA came into force as early as 2007, the first known legal annulment of a child marriage happened in the year 2012 in Rajasthan.

“In 2012, a girl approached me requesting that her handing over ceremony (to in-laws) be stopped. The girl was scared because she had heard a lot of negative things, including that a suicide that had happened at the in-laws' place. Initially, we postponed the ceremony, but the girl was particular about a permanent solution, which is when I started looking into the law and found the annulment clause. I didn’t have much idea about how to proceed because there was no precedent which I could follow,” explains Kriti Bharati, founder, Saarthi trust about her first case. The achievement found a place in the Limca Book of Records too.

Since then, Saarthi trust’s focus has been more on the curative parts of the marriage and less on the preventive aspect. The trust has helped around 25 minors from Rajasthan with marriage annulments, and 24 petitions are currently pending at the court.

When asked if the annulment is a time taking process, Kriti says that it all depends on the case.

“In some cases, both the parties agree after counseling and in others, they don’t relent. So, the time needed depends on several factors. There have been instances where we annulled two marriages on a single day, and also those when one annulment took more than a year,” she says.

One of the girls helped by the trust is now on her way to getting a degree in engineering, and another is pursuing MBBS. The trust also provides shelter and further support to children who need it.

However, behind all the achievements is the grim reality of problems faced by the children wanting an annulment, and Kriti Bharati herself. This has partly to do with what is acceptable behaviour and partly, the complete indifference of most of the upholders of child rights towards promoting annulment as an option.

“From threats of violence to abuse and even death, the reaction towards the attempt to annul child marriages is unabashedly patriarchal. But these are expected when one works against the accepted norms and traditions. What worries the activists on the field is the complete lack of strategy on the part of government institutions when it comes to promoting or handling annulment,” Kriti notes.

Why so scared of annulment?

“Annulment of a child marriage as a legal recourse is something most people are not aware of primarily because it is hardly advertised. For instance, the Information Education and Communication(IEC) material like posters or handouts using which government is trying to educate people about how child marriage is banned doesn’t include information about annulments,” says Rubina Phillip, Child Protection officer, Girls Advocacy Alliance-Mahita.

Even in the material that the NGOs are producing, it is hardly written that child marriage is voidable. And since it is not widely publicised, one has to open the bare act and go through the law to know the procedure. It ends up becoming a complicated process, Rubina says.

With the kind of practices and lack of information in place, it is a gross underestimation of the existing realities to expect a child, a victim of marriage, to walk into a court and get his or her marriage annulled.

“Somewhere, people believe it is a good thing for the girl, since she gets ‘settled’, since the husband is working and they believe that he will take care of her. If a child is trafficked, many are willing to provide legal support and everything. But, in the case of a child marriage, we don’t treat the child as a victim,” Rubina adds.

Annulments are not easy

At one of the high-schools in Maddur Mandal of Mahabubnagar district, Devi’s classmates started looking for her on the school campus. Devi is a tenth standard student at the school and her parents had married her off during the summer vacation. Till two weeks after the school reopened, Devi attended the classes as if nothing much had changed for her.

The NGO Bhumika takes an active part in empowerment activities at the school and engages with the children at regular intervals about various issues including reproductive health. Two years ago, the school had close to 15 children who were married off while still at school. A media campaign shook up the authorities who then took up a series of activities in the villages to create awareness about the laws and punishment. The teachers and the headmaster actively take part in all these and even counsel the guardians of the children.

While the numbers have come down, the parents who are determined to marry their children off, have devised ways for the same. This year, as soon as the board exams got over, five students of the same school were married off and their education discontinued. The school can’t have a say once the children have completed class ten.

“Since Devi is still a student, we encouraged her to attend school. When the children are removed from school after marriage, we counsel the parents to send them back. I remember seeing Devi with all the adornments of a married woman, but attending the school regularly till a couple of days ago,” says the headmaster.

Devi’s classmate comes up to inform, “She was sent away to live with her husband and in-laws.”

The reporter asked if the school will consider helping Devi with getting the marriage canceled. The headmaster shook his head: No.

“We will report it to get the child back to school, but getting her an annulment is impossible. In villages, people still don't understand the difference between an annulment and a divorce and you can’t blame them for that because there is hardly any awareness or examples to look up to. Once a girl is separated from the husband, she becomes further vulnerable to abuse. We have seen several cases where men attempted rape on a girl who left her husband, or tried to push her into prostitution. We won't dare to put a girl through that,” the headmaster says, and then walks to Devi’s maternal home to enquire about her.

Devi’s mother leaves the domestic chores midway and rushes to talk. A 28-year-old, she herself was pulled out while she was still in upper primary school and married off before she attained puberty. Devi’s grandmother, Lakshamma*, joins us in the conversation.

“When I got married, I was so young that my husband carried me on his shoulders. I must have been six or seven back then. I waited till my grandchild was tall enough to be able to handle responsibilities of children and household. There might be a law, but it won’t protect or feed the girl, a husband will,” she explains nonchalantly.

When asked what she will do if the girl wishes to get separated, Lakshamma says, "It is marriage. It happens once in life and her marital life has begun already. If she goes against our word, you can keep her and raise her as your own. Will you?"

Lack of services is hurting children

For children like Devi, marriage, despite all the sessions and activities on empowerment, becomes a dead end because of lack of services. Even a dozen or more programs about empowerment without the support system to fall back on will only add to Devi's lack of agency in decisions about her life.

“The lack of annulments should be treated as both a social and legal problem. One one hand, there is a deep social stigma attached to it. And on the other, it is a legal hassle. There is a lot of work to be done. Being empowered, being in control of certain things is not there in villages yet,” explains Rubina about the difficulties.

For instance, to be aware that the District Legal Services Authority can be approached for help is one thing, and to be able to approach them is quite another. Once she left for her marital home, Devi hasn’t met any of her friends. None of them have a way to reach out to her. Expecting her guardians to step in and ask her about what she wants is not realistic as they were the ones who married her off in the first place. In such situations, dedicated systems to follow-up on a case-by-case basis, and reach out to the children whose marriages have been solemnised, could help.  

No focus on children’s agency, consent

Efforts are also needed to create more awareness about consent in marital relationships and agency of a child over their life.

“Most of the focus for all of us working in the field of child protection is about the age, which is merely a number. Just because a child reaches the age of 18, it doesn’t automatically translate to him or her being able to decide what they can do with their life. Almost no work has been done on this aspect yet,” explains E Venkatesh, Childline district coordinator of Vikarabad.

What Venkatesh says, is important in the context of the belief - held both by government and NGOs - that “fear of elopement” results in parents marrying their children off at an early age.

Satyavati, from the Bhumika organisation, calls the "fear" a “shoddy justification for child marriages and parents not being ready to accept that children might take independent decisions eventually.”

Elopement is a policing parlance used to define a marriage of two consenting persons, irrespective of their ages, against the wishes of their parents. The number of such child marriages has increased in the recent past according to officials, and special drives are being taken up during the seasons when more of such “elope marriages” happen.

There is no doubt that child marriages, whether or not born out of consent, are a violation of child rights. Even in such a case where two minors might have married of their own will, the marriage is still considered valid and needs an annulment unless the officials spot it and issue a cancellation certificate themselves.

Should child marriages be void by default?

Although annulments are the curative approach to child marriages, over time, considering the debates and data related to child marriages, there have been recommendations to make all child marriages void by default.

In 2014, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recommended: “Automatically void all child marriages and ensure that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) also applies to child brides.” The committee also made a note about the tardy implementation of the law and recommended: “Ensure that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) is implemented without exception.”

The recommendation doesn’t come without evidence. Although it can’t be refuted that there have been numerous efforts in preventing child marriages, from both government and the civil society, the efforts to prosecute the perpetrators have been extremely lax.

No one files an FIR

As per the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 293 cases were filed and 53 persons convicted across India under the PCMA in 2015. The number wasn’t much different in earlier years either. In 2014, 280 cases were booked under the act and 49 persons were convicted.

For perspective, out of the 45 child marriages that couldn’t be stopped in Vikarabad, on only four occasions (four FIRs) have cases been filed in 2015-16. This translates to action being initiated against the perpetrators of the crime in only 8.89% of the total number of cases. Also, only five out of these children continued their education after marriage.

“We intervene and stop the marriage. On occasions when a marriage has been solemnised, a letter is forwarded to the district officials along with evidence, but a FIR isn’t registered in most cases. This data too is limited to the number of cases intervened and followed up by us,” the childline coordinator of Vikarabad, Venkatesh explains.

At the national level too, the number of cases filed under PCMA isn't actually representative of the crime rate. As per NCRB, the crime rate of child marriage is 0.1, i.e, one in a million child is a victim of this practice. However, even as per data available from the various government sources itself, this is not reflective of the reality. For instance, consider this report by Child Rights Focus, a knowledge initiative of ActionAid which has analyzed the data on child marriage from the Census 2011 and some sample surveys. In its analysis, the report found that over 3,600 new cases of child marriage are added every day in India which is 2.5 child marriages per every minute.

Even though poverty and lack of resources have been used as a justification to not file cases against the perpetrators of the crime, experts point out that every other crime attracts punishment and prosecution except the various violation of child rights and it is mere hypocrisy.

‘Not enough people’ is a blatant lie

Most importantly, thanks to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (PCMA), there is no dearth of human resources who are supposed to be working on this issue.

A training coordinator of Bhumika who works in three highly vulnerable Mandals of Mahabubnagar points out that “It will be a blatant lie to say that one is not aware of a certain child marriage that has been solemnised. With every village having a child marriage prohibition committee of at least 10 members, it is almost impossible for a marriage to happen without the knowledge of the officials.”

The training coordinator is talking about the clause in PCMA which necessitated that each state frame its own rules for the implementation of the act. Most states formed the rules eventually and those rules included the appointment of CMPO “to prevent child marriages, ensure the protection of the victims as well as prosecution of the offenders.”

In Tamil Nadu, the District Social Welfare Officer of each district is a CMPO. In the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Village Administrative Officer, Panchayat Secretary, ICDS Mandal level supervisors, Tahsildars, Child Development Project Officers, Revenue Divisional Officer and Collector, everyone is a CMPO within their jurisdiction. Apart from a CMPO, every village is expected to have a child marriage prohibition committee with the headmaster or local school teacher as one of the members of the committee.  

In what can be termed as an irony as well as a reflection of why the prohibition of child marriages goes much beyond appointing officials and forming committees, a school teacher from one of the Zilla Parishad High Schools of Vikarabad district has a FIR against him for marrying a 16-year-old. He was recently suspended by the Collector.

Good practices to look up to

Senior officials like the Vikarabad collector D Divya, have shown several examples, where they made it clear that child rights are their priority. Even though sporadic as of now, such acts go a long way in encouraging good practices for the protection of children.

In Mahabubnagar too, in the recent past, the senior officials in the government have pulled up their act and there have been tremendous, concerted efforts, to first sensitise those working as the protectors of children.

The “collaborative policing” program initiated by Rema Rajeshwari, Superintendent of Police of Mahabubnagar, is making waves for its positivity and wholesome approach.

“Collaborative policing is nothing but taking the help of all the concerned departments. Most of the time, the first distress call is received by the local sub-inspector. Because we receive such information, we have made it a point to train our SHOs to be more sensitive to this issue. However, police alone cannot stop the child marriages. So, what we did is integrate the services,” Rema Rajeshwari explains.

Even though there is a department specifically for child and women related activities, there have been several activities and awareness campaign initiated by the department in coordination with all the concerned department heads.

“They have the system in place, but then whenever police are in the picture, the implementation and the kind of enforcement is quite good,” Rama Rajeshwari explains. The reason? “It could be fear,” she says fairly. “People do respond to a police officer,” she observes.

Apart from the existing procedures in place, the department also started a campaign called Balyaniki Raksha, in June 2016. This was an effort to protect children from all sorts of abuse, and child marriage was one of the important modules of the project.

“After a couple of rounds of meetings, most departments started responding positively. We received over 3500 calls and could really stop lots of weddings in the first phase,” Rema Rajeshwari explains enthusiastically.

Bhumika awareness campaign in school. File photo from Bhumika Women's Collective.

Reaching out to people crucial

Apart from the various efforts to create awareness among departments first, and the extensive community outreach programmes, in a special event, over 2400 religious leaders - priests, pastors, and maulanas from the district - were called to an event where the legal provisions were explained to them. It was made clear to them that they can land up in jail for performing a child marriage.

“There has been a 65% reduction in the child marriages after the efforts of the last two years,” the senior police officer adds.

Despite the lapses that caused many child marriages to still take place, and despite the lack of improvement on the legal recourse part in the district, such models could be improved upon and replicated across the state with changes according to the local dynamics. And not just in Telangana, there have been successful models in the prohibition of child marriages which are hardly known, except to the heads of the organisations or government departments, and efforts have to be made to popularise them.  

In a utopian world, every child marriage would be treated as the beginning of a series of violations against the child: child sexual abuse, child labor, violation of the right to education, the right to freedom and liberty, and sexual, reproductive freedom. Until then, the disastrous combination of poverty, patriarchy, and procedural lapses will have us all watching silently as marriages keep bringing doom upon the child rights.

*Names changed to protect identity

Main image derived from Parekh Cards [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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