Kozhikode: It's high time some preconceived notions are put to rest. A new study, supervised by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has found that the ancient custom of child marriage, unanimously condemned as primitive and discriminatory, has dramatically revived in the southern districts of Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Alappuzha.
These are places where the custom was virtually unheard of two decades ago. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of ever married (EM) girls in Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, and Alappuzha had shown a shocking growth of 78.3%, 64.1%, 65.3%, and 55.6%, respectively. But in Malappuram, which still records the highest percentage of child marriages (0.30%), the growth is near zero, the least in the state. According to the United Nations Population Division, ever married women or men are persons who have been married at least once in their lives although their current marital status may not be 'married'.
The NHRC study, which was done by the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes, also reveals a spurt in child marriages among Christians and Hindus. In a decade, such marriages have shot up 43.3% among Christians, and 40.3% among Hindus. As for Muslims, the growth is 6%.
Former chairperson of the Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights Sobha Koshy said that religion played a very important role when it came to child marriages. According to her, parents irrespective of their religion have this nightmare that their children, especially the girl, will end up choosing undesirable partners once they become 18.
Dr. Anil Chandran S, assistant professor at department of demography, University of Kerala, who had conducted a demographic study into the child marriages in Kerala, said that three factors goad parents into marrying off their child before the legal age. “One is the growth of marriage industry, with event management companies turning weddings into exorbitantly costly gala affairs. With every passing year, the rates shoot up and, and naturally, the parents tend to marry off their daughters at a younger age. The other is the parental fear that their girls might marry a boy from another community. Then comes the issue of love marriages, where the girl and boy tie the knot without the knowledge of their families,” said Anil Chandran.
Ananya Dasgupta, the independent Legal Researcher and Policy Analyst who conducted the study for Terre des Hommes, attributes the rise in child marriages to patriarchal behaviour. “The Gulf money earned by the father or elder brother is usually used to marry off the girl as soon as possible. Their concern is about keeping their young adolescent girls safe. For many, giving their daughter in marriage is the best form of protection available. At work here is the patriarchal notion that every woman needs to be protected by men at all ages,” Dasgupta said.
The study also points fingers at the marriage industry that flourishes in the state. The projection of marriage as a 'fairytale' event attracts the girls also. “This calls for counselling. There has to be close interaction, coordination and follow-up between the teachers, school counsellors, parents and children and the child protection officers,” the report says.
Religious laws contradict Constitution, especially POCSO
The Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act often contradicts with the religious laws in the country, a few of the verdicts supporting the Sharia laws. In July 2017, a special court in Delhi acquitted a man from POCSO charges, though his bride was below 18 years. According to Constitution, The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, child is defined as a person who has not completed 21 years in case of male and 18 years in case of female.
However, according to Sharia law, the girl can perform marriage when she attains puberty, which is generally attained at the age of 14 to 15, the judge who pronounced the verdict in the Delhi court found. Muslim women activists themselves oppose this defence with religious laws. According to activist VP Zuhra, in some cases, the court is misled on the provisions of Sharia law, to help the accused in cases of child marriages, which is clearly an offence in the country. “This is clear misrepresentation of law as well as facts. A girl, below the age of 18, is considered minor and her marriage under any circumstances is illegal,” she adds.
Legal expert and former member of the child rights commission Nazeer Chaliyam says that Sharia laws are applicable only in civil cases, like marriage and divorce. “Marrying an under-aged girl is a criminal offence, and that can not be judged under the religious laws. If a man marries a girl below 18 years, the marriage is not nullified, but the crime stays. The marriage in such cases are not pronounced void, so that the girl can claim inheritance as well as maintenance later,” he adds.
Malappuram shows a positive trend
Interestingly, Malappuram is bucking the trend. The success story of Malappuram district in preventing child marriages should serve as a model. This district was always blamed for pushing the child marriage graph upward in Kerala. The strong intervention of agencies like the District Child Protection Unit, the Child Welfare Committee and Childline encouraged the reporting of such cases, which were then quickly acted upon. In 2016, coordinated action thwarted 72 child marriages. In 2017, 181 cases were prevented.
The introduction of Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2016, helped in spreading the message properly, says Malappuram Childline coordinator Anwar Karakkadan. With the introduction of Integrated Child Protection Scheme in 2014, child marriage prohibition officers (CMPO) and child development project officers (CDPO) were trained in census collection and were made aware of the rules governing child marriage in the state. Apart from this, the chief judicial magistrate in Manjeri issued an official memorandum on March 9, 2017 directing all magistrates in the districts to issue urgent and timely orders in this regard. It also directed that magistrates shall also take follow-up by calling for action taken reports from police.
With home visits, training, awareness campaigns, swift action, the district saw effective cooperation of government departments in tackling a social menace. Malappuram district child protection officer Geethanjali said that it was the exemplary work done by the 29 child marriage prohibition officers that had done wonders for Malappuram, “We have 258 child marriage prohibition officers in Kerala, who are child development project officers in their respective areas. However, I feel the CDPOs in other districts should be given more intensive training,” she said.
Tribal communities in Kerala, a different tale
According to the 2011 census, Kerala has a total population of 3,34,06,061 of which the tribal population is just 4,84,839, i.e. 1.45%. So, it is unlikely that child marriages within the tribal communities are behind the State's soaring child marriage graph. Tribal gender equations were always different from the rest. They allow their young adults to cohabit once they attained puberty. The tribals are open to their boys and girls staying together as partners once they reached puberty. In fact, children born from such unions, out of wedlock, are cared for by the community. Though this has been an age-old traditional practice, the implementation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) made any such cohabitation and sexual contact a criminal offence. This has resulted in many tribal youths ending up in jails for marrying minor girls.
In October 2016, in Wayanad, 20 men were arrested under the POCSO Act for marrying girls below 18 years. An RTI query by human rights activist Dr PG Hari revealed that 20 tribal youths were slapped with rape charges and put in jails. Following this revelation, activists formed a committee to oppose arrests in the name of tribal marriages. Acknowledging that tribals had to be dealt with differently, the Social Justice and Women and Child departments initiated a sensitisation programme among tribals about POCSO. There was also an unofficial understanding that tribal youths would not be arrested until the tribal belts in the state were sufficiently aware of the POCSO Act. If an illegal tribal union was detected, the man is now let off with a warning. The girl, however, will be transferred to a Nirbhaya home, the government shelter for victims of sexual abuse. The idea is to protect the girls till they are 18 years of age and also to educate and empower them.