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17 Oct 2019, Edition - 1556, Thursday

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Coimbatore

Continuing child marriages defeat PM Modi’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign

Vidyashree Dharmaraj

Sad, shocking, but true: Child marriages continue without let or hindrance despite having been declared illegal in the country. What’s more, even the grooms in many instances are below 21 years (the minimum marriageable age allowed for men), The Covai Post discovered during its investigation into the malpractice near Coimbatore.

And more pathetically, the scourge of child marriages, with grooms double or triple the age of the brides, continues unabated.

Ascribed to traditions, culture, and utter disregard to established laws, the society at large is still tolerating the child marriages – especially in the rural belts surrounding cities and towns in the country.

If we take our own city of Coimbatore, just a few km outside the city limits, there have been cases of child marriages conducted against the will of the girl. But more shocking are a few case studies, we at The Covai Post discovered during our special focused investigations into the practice that is as old as Sati. Fortunately, the practice of Sati is almost discontinued and over the past couple of decades, there have been no recorded instances of Sati from anywhere in the country.

But when it comes to child marriages, the malpractice continues across the country.

Only when the marriages go horribly wrong do the unlawful marriages come to light, as was the case of two recent instances from in and around Coimbatore.

Either the young brides have gone missing as marriages had failed or there have been instances of girls committing suicides.

We at The Covai Post tried to get to the root cause of this societal disease and spoke to experts and government officials regarding the issue of child marriages and how they are failing the girl child, completely destroying the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Are the existing laws not enough? Do we need newer, stronger laws?

Oh no, proper implementation of the POCSO Act is enough, but even the law enforcers continue to look the other way. Even when cases are brought to them, the law enforcement agencies try and discourage the victims and get them to accept a solution through counseling – which often helps the alleged violator of the law.

A senior official of Child Welfare Department in Coimbatore told The Covai Post on condition of anonymity that “there are several minor brides forcefully wed. the cases are not reported because of the non-cooperation of the police department. Both the parties are counseled to settle matters amicably.”

Though the POCSO Act is stringent and can serve as a deterrent, they are used to scare the victims that eventually result in cases going unreported. Which is why many minors are forced to continue with their ‘married life’.

Need counselors in police stations

What is needed urgently is posting counselors to handle child bride victims in every police station, before the cases are forwarded to law enforcement process. The counselors should educate the victims and their relatives and dissuade them from going ahead with the nuptial union and block attempts made by the groom’s side.

Added to the malice of child marriages, there is a phenomenon of minors eloping with minor boys. Some end up marrying, but some don’t. Though such cases may not come under the Child Marriage Act, the young girls do bear children. Some of these girls develop complications and are admitted to Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital.

According to the Dean of CMCH, Dr K Ashokan, adolescent girls who conceive out of wedlock present themselves with delivery complications. There are referral cases from the rural PHCs and maternity centers where they are registered for pregnancy and the hospital goes by the age of the girl as registered in the primary centers. So even if there is discrepancy it would be difficult to ascertain if the pregnant girl was married young and is she is below 18 years.

Can POCSO Act deter child marriage?

Yes. The POCSO Act can be used to create awareness on the consequences of child marriage because the stringent Act comes into force if the girl who is married or sexually misused is below 18 years (even if the boy involved is also a minor below 21 years). R Sundar, District Child Protection Officer, said that for effective implementation of the POCSO Act, the village level and block level officials must be pro-active and prevent the marriages from taking place.

In most cases, villagers are not aware that it was illegal to perform child marriages as the community accepts it as a norm. Schools should be sensitized to alert Social Welfare Department or Child Helpline whenever they notice absenteeism or drop out. Similarly, the hospital should inform if teenagers consult for pregnancy. Many a time there is not enough information from these referral centers and cases get reported in a scattered manner with police, child helpline and social welfare department thereby complicating compilation of data on child marriage cases.

Victims volunteer due to lack of awareness

Nitya* (16) has just completed Standard 10 with a score of 237/500. She does not want to study any further. She is determined to work with her to-be-mother-in-law in a spinning mill in Pollachi, a town located 45 km away from Coimbatore, after she gets married to her son who is at least 16 years older than her.
Orphaned a year ago after she lost both her parents to Tuberculosis, Nitya is under the care of her uncle in Pollachi, who has been advising her to study further and not get married but in vain. The Covai Post caught up with her at Native Medicare Charitable Trust which engages in counseling, educating and rehabilitating victims or possible victims of child marriage.
A 32-year-old man who Nitya is bent upon marrying is a daily wager at a construction site. She told The Covai Post that the man she is wanting to marry is her second cousin and they had fallen in love, earlier when she used to visit their house during school vacations. His parents, especially the mom was more than willing to get the 30 plus-year-old man married to the minor girl.

“Our family does not consider it wrong. Even if my parents were alive, they would not have objected because they also lack awareness. We are not aware that we are on the wrong side of the law. Several girls in the family have got married early,” she said. The girl had also recently consumed cow dung powder in an attempt to take her life when she had an altercation with her uncle because he resisted the marriage.

The social workers at the NGO expressing concern over Nitya, said that there were several girls like Nitya who made wrong choices, get married early and end up taking their lives or run away from home as marriages fail. Several complications during delivery of the teenage mothers have been reported but lessons never learned, NGO activists said.

Children of HIV + survivors pushed to marry early

In the case of Ramakka* , a HIV positive social worker, who has survived with ATR treatment for the last 8 years, her eldest daughter was married away by her own brother at the age of 17 fear that the mother would die soon. Ramakka contracted HIV from her husband who was employed as a supervisor at a check post in Mysore. Her husband passed away soon after he was diagnosed positive. Though the couple was positive both the girls were tested negative.

Now as a social worker, she is engaged in counseling girls against getting married early. “Domestic violence post marriage is also often reported because most girls are unprepared for family life,” she told The Covai Post. There are several stories where those with HIV get their children married before the marriageable age for the fear, they might themselves die before taking care of their children.

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