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The remedy for child marriages - Deccan Herald
The remedy for child marriages
By Kathyayini Chamaraj, March 13, 2017
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Manjula (all names changed) was married at 14. Her husband, who was 22 years, used to drink and beat her. He also had a mistress and once even tried to kill Manjula. She left him and is now living with her parents and doing wage labour.

"I didn't know that I could get the marriage annulled. I do not want anyone else to suffer the way I did," she cries. Lakshmi, married when she was 11, is now divorced and is doing casual labour. "Having had no education, I have no skills to do anything else", she says. Savita was married at 15. Her husband died in an accident after giving her two children. "Since my in-laws do not help me, I am living separately. I am working and educating my children all by myself," she says.

These stories of abuse and denial of rights to development were shared by victims of child marriage at a recent consultation called by the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR). What was striking was that hardly any government scheme had reached these struggling girls. The KSCPCR has now initiated a campaign to end child marriages in the state within five years, which was flagged off by the chief minister on January 21.

Almost 200 years after great social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy fought against child marriages, it is tragic that his dream is not yet realised as about 23.2% marriages in Karnataka are still of under-aged children.

As a result of a PIL in the Karnataka High Court questioning continued child marriages despite the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act (PCMA), 2006, a committee was set up under Justice Shivraj Patil, which gave voluminous recommendations and an Action Plan in 2011.

Several impediments plague the effective implementation of the Action Plan. Though thousands of Child Marriage Prohibition Officers (CMPOs) have been notified, a police officer stated at a recent consultation called by CETROC-K (Consortium Ensuring the Rights of Children - Karnataka), "I was not aware until now that I am a CMPO". Also, the police often refuse to file an FIR as they consider child marriage a trivial issue.

The CMPOs often keep passing the buck to other CMPOs and do not arrive in time to stop marriages. They often fail to get injunction orders from the district magistrate to stop child marriages. They fear the wrath of the community, as most communities support child marriage.

Many elected representatives, with an eye on votes, ask officials to let the marriage continue and not "be an ill-omen in an auspicious event". Some of them advise parents, "Sign the undertaking that officials ask for, that you will not conduct the marriage. You can always conduct the marriage somewhere else later". And this is what most parents do. Some religious leaders have also justified child marriages saying that 'dharma' is above 'law'.

Even if a child is rescued and placed in a shelter, not enough is being done for her education and rehabilitation though money is available under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). Most children are also not aware that they can get their marriage annulled. But, even if they knew it, such victims would rarely want to do it as no one else may come forward to marry them later.

A glaring lacuna is that no CMPO is punished for failing to perform their duty. The Patil committee had recommended that strict circulars be issued that penalties will be imposed on recalcitrant CMPOs, but this has not been implemented.

Though official committees have been set up at grama panchayat, taluk and district levels to review cases of child marriages, most of these committees are not meeting at all. Elected representatives too do not have this issue on their agenda during their meetings. During Children's Grama Sabhas, child marriage is often not discussed.

One of the problems is that vulnerable girls are not being identified and brought under the ICPS to prevent and pre-empt their early marriage as recommended by the committee. The need to empower adolescents with awareness of the law and on the ill-effects of child marriages was expressed by several NGOs.

However, the real cause is that education is compulsory only till the age of 14 years. High schools being far away, most girls dropout after the Class 8. Among several other reasons, parents fear for their safety at home when they are both away at work and hence get them married.

The best remedy, whether for child marriages, child trafficking or child labour is compulsory education until the age of 18 years. But it is essential to introduce a vocational stream at the secondary education level so that children with no aptitude for academics can learn a skill and start earning at 18 years.

Girls thus engaged in schools would be safe, they would gain enough confidence to say 'no' to parents trying to get them married. An assurance that the girl would become an earning member of the household rather than a burden would enhance her value in the eyes of her parents and thus delay her marriage.

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC, Bengaluru)

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