Why not compulsory licence to stop child marriages?

PTI file photo

The other day, a widowed domestic maid’s 14-year-old daughter eloped with her 18-year-old boyfriend. When the mother tracked down the couple, the boy’s parents had already got the couple married. The girl refused to come back to the mother, saying, “I love my husband. I hate you. I don’t ever want to live with you again.” She accused the mother of having neglected her throughout her life.  

The mother is now faced with several dilemmas. Even if she keeps quiet, thinking, “Let my daughter be happy wherever she is”, she will be guilty of not reporting a child marriage, which is violative of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, passed on November 1, 2006. Or, she can complain to the police and save herself from prosecution. But, if she does so, the police are duty-bound as per the law to take action and put the boy and his parents in jail. The offence of child marriage is cognisable and non-bailable. The police may put the girl in a government shelter home or deliver her back to her mother.  

But what repercussions will this have on the girl’s future? Her marriage may have been consummated already consensually. But Karnataka has even declared her marriage ‘void’ ab initio under the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016.

The chances of someone who values their respectability marrying her, knowing her past, is remote. The one she loves will be in jail, causing her unhappiness. The environment in the shelter home may not be conducive for her proper growth. She may have to go back to her mother, whom she doesn’t like.  All this may make her run away again or drive her to commit suicide. 

The above analysis is not to condone child marriage whatsoever, which is the cause of several social and developmental ills. The whole problem appears to be that, like in many other areas, we are taking a ‘curative’ and not a ‘preventive’ approach to child marriage.  

We have put the onus of preventing child marriages on citizens: the wedding invitation printer, the kalyan mantap (wedding hall) manager, the priest, the caterer and even the photographer are supposed to make sure that the couple  are above the legal age for marriage. How can these persons know whether or not the age certificates the couple produce are genuine? All these citizens are now “punishable with rigorous imprisonment of not less than one year” for allowing a child marriage. The guests who attend such weddings are also liable. 

Very often, child marriage prohibition officers (CMPOs), including the police, come to prevent a marriage just as it is about to happen. Imagine a decked-up wedding hall, the nadaswara blaring, the bride and bridegroom in all their finery, about to tie the mangalya, the parents of the couple all keyed up, and there come the CMPOs and police and put a halt to the entire proceedings in filmi fashion! Imagine the trauma of the bride and bridegroom on this most eventful day of their lives, and the loss of face of the parents before the invited guests and society!  

It is no wonder that CMPOs are reluctant to come and prevent child marriages as they will incur the curse of both families for having stopped an ‘auspicious’ event. Despite giving an undertaking to the officials, parents may take the couple to another place and get them married a few days later.  

Compulsory registration of a marriage is being put forward as a solution for child marriages. But this is again post facto and does not prevent the marriage. Rather than this, should not the preventive approach be ‘compulsory licensing’ before the marriage takes place?

In many countries, both parties must apply to a designated state authority for a licence to get married, present proper documents to prove that they are of marriageable age, etc. A notice is pasted on a notice board for 15 days calling for objections to the proposed marriage before the licence is issued.

Surprisingly, if an organisation wishes to conduct ‘mass marriage’ in Karnataka, the Women & Child Development Department has quite similar mandatory procedures for them to follow to prevent child marriages. The organisations are required to verify the photographs of the couple and proof of age. Tahsildars are supposed to accord permission to the organisers only after verifying the documents.  

Why cannot this procedure be extended to cover all marriages? Tahsildars or child development project officers (CDPOs) can be made responsible for issuing licences to couples wishing to get married by following similar procedures.

The invitation printer, the kalyan mantap manager, the temple or priest, the caterer, photographer, etc., should provide their service only upon production of the licence. This will be the best ‘preventive’ measure for child marriages. It will also save the couple and their families life-long trauma and stigmatisation after the marriage.  

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC Bangalore)

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