M A I N   N E W S

Stop child marriages, SC directs SPs
Legal Correspondent

New Delhi, March 21
Concerned over the social evil of solemnising thousands of child marriages across the country every year, even in a state like Kerala, the Supreme Court has issued direction to the Collectors and Superintendents of Police (SPs) in every districts to take immediate steps to prevent the illegal practice.

"…Collectors and SPs of all districts in the states shall make endeavour to prevent child marriages as far as possible and preferably in cases where mass marriages take place" on certain festivals, a Bench of Mr Justice S. B. Sinha and Mr Justice S. H. Kapadia in a recent order said, while hearing a pending public interest litigation (PIL) on the issue by NGO, Forum for Fact Finding Documentation and Advertisement (FFFDA).

Taking serious view of the callous attitude of authorities towards the social evil, enforcing the Child Marriage Restraint Act effectively and avoiding prosecution of the offenders, the court took note of the Union Government's submission that a Bill for making the law more stringent in respect of child marriage had already been introduced in Parliament.

Since the process for passage of the Bill would take sometime as the government had sought views of general public on the issue, the court said it was hopeful that till the legislation was passed, it would be the responsibility of Collectors and SPs to take effective steps to deal with the menace.

The research paper annexed with the PIL by NGO counsel and senior advocate Colin Gonsalves indicated towards a "disturbing" scenario about solemnisation of thousands of marriages of children aged between 9 to 17 years in various states, particularly Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh every year.

The NGO has sought the direction to each state to make registration of marriages and divorce compulsory, registration of adult marriage simpler after verifying the age carefully, strict action against the officials including Collectors and SPs, Executive Magistrates, Panchayat Pradhans and Patwaris for failing to initiate prosecution against persons solemnising the child marriages in violation of the law.

It said the states be directed to take action also against public figures who take part in such functions, held on the occasions of certain festivals in which mass child marriages were organised.

The social evil was so deep rooted that even in a progressive state like Kerala, which boasts of hundred percent literacy, the marriages of teen-aged girls had been registering an alarming increase, specially among economically distressed parents FFFDA said.

It said a survey conducted by the "Joint Women Programme" in 2002 showed that parents in Kerala, marry off their 12 or 13 years daughters often to much older men and there are several instances that such girls have become mothers at the age of 14. The sample survey of the state indicated that 19 per cent of 1,232 girls married between January and June 2000, were barely in the 11-13 years age group, while the percentage for 14 and 15 years age group was 7 and 13 per cent respectively, it said.

If this was the state of affairs in a progressive state like Kerala, the situation in educationally backward states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh could easily be imagined, the NGO said.

Quoting the figures from the National Family Health Survey, the PIL said the percentage of women who married before attaining the age of 18 years was as high as 71 per cent in Bihar, followed by Rajasthan (68 per cent), MP (64 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (62 per cent), UP (47 per cent), Maharashtra (46 per cent), Karnataka (45 per cent), West Bengal (41 per cent), Haryana (40 per cent), Gujarat and Assam (37 per cent). Percentage figures ranged between 10 to 24 in Himachal, Punjab, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu.

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