NEW DELHI // The decision by the government of Rajasthan state to register all marriages, including weddings of children, has outraged social activists who believe the state government's move could encourage the practice of child marriages in the region.
Kavita Srivastava, the secretary of the People's Union of Civil Liberties in Rajasthan, said that although child marriage has long been banned across the country, the new measure might lead to many people believing that child marriage is no longer illegal and could encourage families to push more children into marriages. The Rajasthan home minister, Shanti Kumar Dhariwal, said registration of child marriages was necessary.
"Do you know what can happen if, following a child marriage, the couple get children and then one of the spouses die? Will those children be counted as legitimate if their parents' marriage had not been registered? What proof will such a wife have if a husband dies, how will she claim any property? So, registration is needed even for child marriages," he said in January in reaction to activists' complaints.
The Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages bill was enacted in 2009, but went virtually unnoticed until activists raised their concerns. The centuries-old tradition of under-aged marriage has been going on with impunity in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states despite federal and state government attempts to curtail it. A federal government survey four years ago found that 45 per cent of Indian girls were getting married before turning 18 while 30 per cent of boys were doing so before the age of 21.
A more recent study among young married women in five states, including Rajasthan, conducted by the Population Council of India revealed that about half of the women surveyd had married before they were 18. One-fifth of the total had been married before they were 15. "Not only did marriage occur at young age, but it was also often arranged without the participation of young people themselves, particularly young women," the report said.
The Rajasthan bill seeks registration of all marriages and says the pair or their parents, in case they are under 21, are responsible for registering the marriage within 30 days. Activists say the bill will not help curb child marriages in the state and is contradictory to the original law of registration of marriages. "The [federal] Act of 2006 bans child marriage by stipulating a bride's minimum age to be 18 and the groom's 21, but the Rajasthan government in its latest bill now asks the parents or guardians to register their children who are getting married," Ms Srivastava said.
"As per the [federal] act, child marriage is illegal across the country. How possibly can you register a child marriage, which is illegal in the first place? The Rajasthan bill is contradictory to the 2006 act." Pradeep Sen, the home secretary of Rajasthan, said that because the rules pertaining to the act were not yet framed, it should not be construed that the state supported child marriages. However, he said the reality on the ground could not be ignored because child marriages took place in many communities in the state.
A Unicef report on child protection said that in 2007 the number of child brides in India was 24.5 million and they constituted 38 per cent of the world's total child brides. Child marriage is practised equally by Muslims and Hindus. In Rajasthan, on the auspicious day of Akha Teej or Akshaya Tritiya, which falls some time in April or May according to the Hindu lunar calendar, when the sun and moon are believed to be at their most benign positions, hundreds of Hindu infant brides and grooms, some as young as two years, are married off.
Despite rising literacy levels and legal prohibition, experts say, social tradition keeps child marriage alive. Poverty dictates that parents marry girls off early to free themselves from the responsibility of feeding them. Culture demands a girl's speedy marriage lest she disgrace the family name by having premarital sex. Therefore, some are sceptical that any law will alter marriage patterns in some Indian communities.
"No matter what the law is, if it is not in accordance with their custom, then they will certainly not accept it," said Naveen Mahajan, the district magistrate of Ajmer in Rajasthan. firstname.lastname@example.org