From ‘voidable’, child marriage to turn illegal
The Centre is moving ahead with a proposal to amend an existing law so as to make all future child marriages in the country invalid from the outset, according to two senior government officials familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. Currently, child marriages are valid, but can be annulled on request.
The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for a woman and 21 for a man.
The current law — Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 — recognises child marriage as valid but “voidable” at the option of the minor involved . It is the rare under-age bride that come forward to complain or seek annulment , according to the officials.
To address the inconsistency, the Union women and child development (WCD) ministry has decided to amend the law and make child marriage “void ab initio” or invalid from the outset.
“The proposal has been approved by WCD minister Maneka Gandhi. We have sent it to the law ministry for vetting. Once the law ministry clears it, we will move the cabinet,” said one of the senior ministry officials quoted above.
The Act makes contracting a marriage by a man who is over 18 years of age with a woman under 18 years, a cognizable and non-bailable offence punishable with imprisonment of two years and a fine of Rs one lakh, but recognizes the union as valid.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 326 incidents of child marriage was reported in India in 2016. But government officials concede that the real number could be much higher. According to data from the national Census of 2011, almost a third of Indian women married when they were under the age of 18.
Last year, Karnataka became the first state in the country to amend the central act to make child marriage “void ab initio.”
The Supreme Court cited the Karnataka example while giving an order last October criminalising sexual relations between a man and his minor wife.
Jayna Kothari, executive director, Centre for Law & Policy Research, who, as the counsel for Bengaluru based Child Rights Trust argued for making child marriage void ab initio in Karnataka said that the proposed amendment is long overdue.
“Child marriage is rampant here because the law is completely toothless. It says that child marriage can be nullified by the minor contracting party but it’s impractical to expect a minor to come forward and complain. The minor’s family also hardly comes forward to get the marriage annulled. The marriage becomes a kind of fait accompli (done deal),” Kothari explained .