Though outlawed, child marriage persists in Karnataka

Teenage mothers in a village in Bagalkot district. PHOTO/SHAILAJA

What is an abortion?” Pallavi, 14, sounded curious. The recently betrothed girl was intently listening to Asha, who was a year older than her. Asha had returned to stay with her parents a year after her marriage as her husband complained that she behaved differently and didn’t ‘respond’ to his needs. This was after Asha had suffered a miscarriage.

There were over 30 adolescent girls in the room, all victims of child marriage. A few of them huddled around Pallavi and engaged in a low-pitched conversation. Within minutes, Pallavi stood up and said in a pleading but firm voice, “I want to continue my education. Please do something to stop my marriage. I don’t want to have a child so early. Why do the daughters become a burden for the families once they start to menstruate?”

In Tulasigeri, like in any other village of Bagalkot district, girls generally drop out of school after Class 7, only to enter into marriage. Fourteen is the age when their right to education is curtailed, not just because of the physical changes but also due to the lack of availability and access to high school education. 

As might be expected, Bagalkot is among the 100 districts in the country with a high incidence of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. According to The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2016, one in every six marriages in the state is child marriage. Most child marriages are followed by teenage pregnancy, depriving the girls of basic education and self-reliant life. The survey also indicates that the average number of adolescent mothers in the 14 districts of the state is more than the national average of 7.9%, with Mysuru topping the list at 17%. 



Though its prevalence is high in north Karnataka, particularly in the border districts, child marriage persists in all districts — both in rural and urban areas. The practice is mostly found in socially and economically disadvantaged communities in rural areas. Poverty, migration, illiteracy, tradition, family pressure and fear of sexual violence are the major causes of early marriages. In most marriages, the groom is in his early 20s and the parents get him married to ensure that he doesn’t ‘get into bad habits’.

Administrative complacency

The situation doesn’t seem to have changed even after the state government passed The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act 2016, in 2017, which set a precedent by declaring that all marriages of minors are void. “The reason is simple. The rules have not yet been framed to implement the Act. How can the Act be effective without a framework?” Anand B Lobo, a former member of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told DH.     

Let alone the Karnataka Amendment, the implementation of The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA) has not been effective in the state due to the lack of a proactive approach. There are over 55,000 child marriage prohibition officers (CMPOs) appointed by the State government as directed by the PCMA. From Anganwadi supervisors to deputy commissioner and directors of various state departments, these officers at various levels of the administration have the power to approach the court with injunction order to prevent child marriage, to make it void, and to ensure the safe custody of a child. “They are either not aware of their responsibility or see it as a burden. While officers at the taluk level and above are least bothered about these cases, village-level officers either don’t see it as a problem or fear the wrath of fellow villagers if they try preventing a marriage,” said G N Sinha, director of REACH organisation, the ChildLine nodal agency in Bagalkot.
 


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While the current CMPOs have to be empowered and sensitised towards the issue, women’s rights activists feel that child marriage prevention is now everyone’s responsibility but no one is doing the job. They believe that having designated officers who are guided by the judiciary will help address the situation.

In Karnataka, ChildLine 1098 Services work closely with the Department of Women and Child Development, police and other government departments and get SOS calls to prevent child marriages regularly. “We get the maximum number of calls from February to May,” said G N Kumar and Shailaja from Bagalkot ChildLine Collab agency.

“Everyone knows about child marriages, but there are no proper preventive measures. We get the information at the eleventh hour and coordination becomes difficult. Moreover, stopping a marriage on the wedding day has social and emotional impacts on the families, particularly on the bride. Convincing them at that time becomes difficult. Most of the times, marriage is organised in one place while the girl would have grown up and studied in another place making it difficult to get age certificates from the authorities,” said Shailaja.

Vasudeva Sharma, executive director of Child Rights Trust, said, “We don’t have the absolute number of child marriages in the State. The only data available is the number of complaints received or the marriages prevented. Sadly, the administration believes that child marriage is a thing of the past.” On the contrary, social workers say that 90% of child marriages are solemnised clandestinely within months of their prevention. Still, the government is yet to acknowledge the problem.



“Many a time, we need to motivate and convince the CMPOs that they are doing the right thing. Many still believe it is not good to stop a marriage as it is like ruining the lives of two persons and the status of their families,” Shailaja said. She also narrated incidents of the rescue team being deceived by changing the marriage scene to that of a religious ceremony, showing a slightly older girl as the bride and by producing a fake age certificate. If nothing works, they intimidate the team.

Poor law enforcement

Mass marriages are the preferred occasions for families to get their minor daughters married. After several campaigns, now there have been strict rules to prevent minors from tying the nuptial knot. The organising committee has to get the documents verified and seek the permission of the tahsildar 15 days before the event. But there are several instances of the organisers breaking the rules. The law specifies that the birth certificate or school certificate is the primary document to verify age. No wonder agencies that create fake certificates thrive in the marriage season.

“The minors who are rescued are accommodated in a suitable shelter for a period of three months. Then the child is given to the custody of parents after they pledge that they won’t commit the offence again. Those who don’t have parental care remain in these homes,” said Kumar. Lack of a proper follow-up system makes child marriage prevention efforts futile as officials and activists have precious little knowledge of what happens to the child after the marriage is called off.

The Act directs punishment to the groom who is above 18, and to whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets such a marriage. “But you can count such cases on the fingers of one hand,” said Sharma. In Bagalkot, of the 138 complaints received last year, FIR was not filed even in a single case. No one, even the CMPOs who are designated for this, comes forward to register a complaint.  A few cases have been registered in some districts where the officials have shown a high level of conviction. But very few cases reach a conclusive stage and even those that do, take a long time. The recent judgement of JMFC Court Yelburga announcing punishment to the groom and the bride’s parents is one such rare instance where justice prevailed, but only after six years.

“The Amendment specifies that the police can suo motu register an FIR, but they never do. In many cases, police stations become a place of settlement or reconciliation. I’ve been a witness in a couple of cases and we lose hope when the hearings stretch for years,” said Susheela, a child rights activist and the director of Spandana organisation in Belagavi. Susheela also narrated how witnesses turn hostile after a few years and the victims are coerced to withdraw the case.

The child marriage victims in the State are protected under three landmark Acts: Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 and The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act 2016. But the administration seems to have failed to put them in perspective to ensure a better life for the daughters of the land. They are not commodities, they have every right to live a dignified and secure life. Are we listening? 

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‘Will to act, commitment to perform make a difference’

Justice Shivaraj V Patil 

As the chairman of the core committee relating to the prevention of child marriages in Karnataka, appointed by the state government as per the direction of the Division Bench of the High Court of Karnataka, I had conducted 13 consultation meetings in different district places where child marriages were prevalent. While appreciating the government for passing The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016, which was based on the recommendations made in my report, I suggest to the government that law enforcing agencies are to be activated and suitable directions should be given to make honest and committed efforts to implement the law, and Government orders and policies to prevent child marriages. In addition, wherever and whenever offences are committed, cases must be registered, properly investigated, effectively prosecuted and trials to be completed.

In this process, if some persons are convicted and punished, it will act as a deterrent. The framing of rules is important and more useful. However, within existing system work can be carried on. The will to act and commitment to perform can make a great difference. 

There is a need for cooperative, coordinated and collective efforts of ever vigilant civil society, dedicated NGOs, honest and committed law enforcing agencies, proactive judiciary and meaningful and active media, in preventing child marriages.

Basically, there is a need to change the mindset of the people. People should be made to adopt law emotionally and not merely by the letters of the law. Besides creating awareness among the people, there is a need to sensitise field functionaries for the effective implementation of laws relating to the prevention of child marriages.

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Though outlawed, child marriage persists in Karnataka

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