According to National Crime Records Bureau data of 2014, Tamil Nadu tops in the number of child marriages, in which prohibition of Child Marriage Act was invoked against the offenders. While 275 cases were reported across the country in 2014, Tamil Nadu registered about 47 cases.
Marriageable age in India is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. Marriages of children below the said age is an offence under The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The said Act prescribes rigorous imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh to offenders.
Yet, child marriage is brazenly done because of the lethargy of the criminal justice system and the general apathy of the public in dealing with this crime. The child who is the victim is usually voiceless and faceless. The immediate relatives and friends are silent spectators due to ‘civil decency’ and not wanting to poke their nose into another family’s affairs. Little do we realise that the child’s human rights, her rights to live in peace and harmony exercising her democratic choice are being taken away by these marriages. It further results in the girl child being exposed to physical and emotional violence.
Child marriage exposes the child to the vagaries of adult abuse and makes the child vulnerable. It is in order to protect children from such cruelties that The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was enacted. Solemnising, promising or permitting, participating in child marriages are offences under the Act. Judicial Magistrates are empowered to grant injunctions restraining solemnisation of child marriages. Performing the marriage despite an injunction order makes the marriage void abinitio i.e. not valid at the inception marriage itself. But ironically, the Act does not make child marriages performed without such injunction order void abinitio. It only says that it is void at the option of the parties. That is, the child or the parent or guardian of the child can move the court and get a declaration that the marriage is void. This ought to be done within three years of the child becoming a major i.e. before the girl completes 21 years of age.
The Act also ordains the States to appoint Child Marriage Prohibition Officers (CMPO). Tamil Nadu has designated the District Social Welfare Officer at all districts to be CMPO.
There is no infrastructure provided or special officer appointed under this Act which is widely disobeyed. Further as the marriages get stopped the offence is incomplete so the offender goes scot-free as the State does not even book the offender for attempt to commit the offence under the Indian Penal Code and prosecute them.
Child rights are good on paper, India has singed almost all child rights conventions and has enacted laws to protect them, but is reluctant to wield the stick to realise the spirit of the law in reality.
— The writer is Senior Advocate, MHC