When it comes to issues of gender discrimination, India’s cupboard has several skeletons.
One more tumbled out recently when a teenager in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, said she would move court to annul her marriage that was conducted by her parents when she was 11 months old. According to a report, Santadevi Meghwal, now 19 years old, was also slapped with a penalty of Rs 16 lakh by a panchayat for standing up to her parents’ decision, even though her father is supporting her cause now.
While child marriage is banned in this country, it is not ‘void’ and has to be dissolved, should either partner wish to do so. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) defines child marriage as one in which either the girl is under 18 years or the boy is below 21.
According to the 2001 census, there are 1.5 million under-15 girls who are married. Of these, 20% or approximately 300,000 are mothers to at least one child.
Even though the census also estimated that the average age of marriage has risen to 18.3 for females, the practice is still widespread in Rajasthan, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. All these states have an average age of marriage below the legal limit of 18 for females.
Child marriage has very dire implications for population stabilisation as adolescent brides are likely to have high fertility and a number of unwanted pregnancies. States where child marriage is most prevalent are also where there is the highest population.
The other aspect of the Meghwal story is the role that the panchayat played in it.
The Rajasthan government must find out how and why it imposed a fine on the girl and punish its decision-makers for their obscurantist and illegal stand.
In fact, the PCMA says there have to be prohibition officers at the village level and that a local panchayat member or an NGO worker can be appointed by the state government to assist these officers. With panchayats like this, the proper implementation of the law will be a huge challenge.
By ostracising Ms Meghwal’s family and imposing a fine, the panchayat is not only flouting the law but is also guilty of moral turpitude.