Empowerment is the path to stopping child marriage - Hindustan Times
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Empowerment is the path to stopping child marriage

ByVidya Reddy and Sannuthi Suresh
Feb 18, 2023 07:50 PM IST

Recent reports are glimpses of the chaos unleashed by Assam’s drive against child marriage. But a police crackdown may not achieve the desired goals

An 18-year-old woman succumbing to postpartum haemorrhage because she was forced into a home delivery due to fear of arrest. Teen mothers not showing up for routine ante-natal check-ups. A 27-year-old woman dying by suicide over fears that her parents will be arrested because she got married before turning 18.

National Family Health Surveydata shows that child marriage is dipping steadily, even if in states such as Assam it remains higher than the national average. (PTI) PREMIUM
National Family Health Surveydata shows that child marriage is dipping steadily, even if in states such as Assam it remains higher than the national average. (PTI)

These reports are glimpses of the chaos unleashed by Assam’s drive against child marriage. There is no refuting that child marriage is a practice that is harmful for the health and well-being of girls, and must be prevented. Yet, our work at the intersection of the Prevention of Child Marriage Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Pocso) makes it crucial to introduce nuances in intervention, and highlight the importance of society-driven changes rather than punitive action.

Child marriage in India has been outlawed for close to a century. Yet it continues because it is seen as the best option to secure a girl’s future, safety and so-called honour, and reduce the economic burden on the family. Its drivers vary between communities, and look different across regions. Social mores, the centrality of marriage, laws regulating the division of property, and a need to control women’s sexuality contribute to this.

But a police crackdown may not achieve the desired goals. Research published by civil society organisations Girls Not Brides and Save the Children reiterate that laws alone are insufficient and may even be the least effective way of combating child, early and forced marriage. Governments use laws to respond to social issues without sometimes putting in place policies to support social change and address root causes. This can mean that the priority is to stop a marriage from happening, rather than protect girls who choose not to marry or who are already married.

Punitive approaches can lead to unintended negative consequences for girls, boys and their families – as was noted by the Gauhati high court earlier this week. Girls can be punished for not reporting incidents they are victims of, families and children may face social stigma and mental distress associated with putting family members in prison, and families and communities can be destabilised. This includes economic stresses on families and the complexities of reclaiming dowry payments and returning the bride price; girls’ separation from children and custody issues; criminalisation of consensual sexual relations (and elopement) between adolescents (something we’re seeing in Pocso cases), and the imprisonment of consenting adolescent boys and girls.

Can a crackdown also be seen as a tacit acknowledgement of a State that has not been able to provide families with other aspirational ways of life, or the services and schemes to achieve them? Rather than using its resources to make finishing school a comfortable, affordable and attractive option – United District Information System for Education data shows that dropout rates at the secondary level in Assam (20.3%) are higher than the national average (14.6%) — the authorities chose a more disruptive option.

In his response, the chief minister said that for an evil to end, a generation may have to suffer. But trauma from exposure to adverse events — parental incarceration, suicide, poverty and violence — tends to pass on. Intergenerational trauma may be long-term for the very community that this initiative is hoping to help. Loss of life, livelihood, organising money for bail, hiring lawyers, and spending time in jail are going to push families further into vulnerability. What will be the possible reduction of work days and human resources? It may only drive the practice underground and beyond the reach of a focused redress.

Even if the legal framework dictates a timely resolution, an already overloaded system may not have the ability to deliver. Despite having 17 special Pocso courts, the pendency in the state stands at 95.3%. It may only end up driving marginalised communities into further vulnerability because they will spend time in court hearings rather than holding down jobs.

So, what can be done? Last year, the Tamil Nadu Police issued a circular at the insistence of the Madras high court which ensured that the law is set in motion and takes its course, but without the threat of arrests when the girl is between 16 and 18. This approach which takes into account the narratives of the people involved, allows for optimising policing by recognising the drain of resources from indiscriminate arresting, and transgressions are addressed but with dignity to the people.

National Family Health Survey data shows that child marriage is dipping steadily, even if in states such as Assam it remains higher than the national average. But strategies to address child marriage must empower girls, mobilise families and communities, provide services, and implement just laws. These strategies are interlinked and mutually reinforcing – and can shift the emphasis from compulsory marriage towards the education and employment of women.

Vidya Reddy and Sannuthi Suresh work at Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, Chennai

The views expressed are personal

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