"Need Outright Ban On Child Marriage": New Rajasthan Law Sparks Concerns

Passed last week in the assembly, the bill has led to a huge uproar in the state and those fighting against child marriages and girls who had been victims of child marriage say this is a retrograde bill.

The bill, activists say, legitimises ostensibly child marriage. (Representational)

NGOs and social groups working for women's rights and against child marriage have written to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, objecting to the state's Marriages Amendment Bill 2021 that has said that all marriages including those of minors must be registered. In the case of minors, the bill says, their parents or guardians must register the marriages.

Passed last week in the assembly, this has led to a huge uproar in the state and those fighting against child marriages and girls who had been victims of child marriage say this is a retrograde bill.

The question is, by making registration of all marriages compulsory in Rajasthan including the marriage of minors, is the Rajasthan government giving backdoor legitimacy to child marriages in the state?

The government says it is following a Supreme Court directive which says all marriages should be registered and it's securing the rights of child widows and even children born of child marriages.

But what do girls, who were forced into underage marriages, have to say on this?

NDTV spoke to Pooja Jandu in Jodhpur. Pooja was barely 12 when she was married off along with her older siblings in Jodhpur. She was too young to understand what was happening and too scared, she says, to resist in the presence of so many elders.

Now 20 years old, Pooja is struggling in court to get her marriage annulled. She wants to be a martial arts expert and live life on her own terms.

She says by marrying a child off at a young age, whether you ask her or not, in the eyes of society you make her somebody's bride, a part of another family.

"I was married when I was 12 years old. I tried to say no but the community elders, the 'Panch Patels', pressurised my family. My in-laws wanted to take me away right away to their home but my father resisted saying I was too young. Then too the community leaders tried to pressurise my family saying they will fine us if we don't comply. The government must put a stop to it. If you allow a child marriage to happen, you become a wife whether you like it or not," Pooja says.

Community panchayats are known to play a regressive role in child marriages, often forcing parents to marry children off early and then levying huge fines on them when they refuse to send underage brides to their marital homes.

This was the case of Santa Devi who was married when she was just 11 months old. When she decided to move for the annulment of her marriage in 2015, the caste panchayat in Jodhpur levied a fine of Rs 16 lakh on her parents and decided to socially boycott them for not honouring the marriage.

Girls like Roopa, now 19 years old, have resisted child marriage and won. When Roopa was 15, her parents in her village called Khokhsar in Barmer wanted to get her married with her two older sisters but she mustered the courage to resist, finally convincing her parents to let her study.

Today, she works in a hospital and is happily married. She says a ban on child marriages must be an outright one.

"Child marriage must be stopped. How many girls have their lives ruined because of child marriage? There should be an outright ban on it," she says.

Her husband, 22-year-old Rama Ram, says young boys are as much a victim of child marriage as young girls. He was engaged when he was 12 to a 1-year-old girl. Luckily, the engagement was called off and Rama Ram says he is now happily married to Roopa. She works as an operating theatre technician in a hospital and he is a veterinary compounder.

"Young boys also suffer underage marriages. They can't complete their studies or find a job. They get bogged down with family responsibilities early. So boys are as much victims of child marriage as girls are," he says.

Activists like Kriti Bhati who have prevented 1,500 child marriages from taking place in Rajasthan and annulled over 43, says the new act, by making it compulsory to register all marriages including those of minors, is a step backwards.

"Women are considered like property and men have a right over their women in our society. By allowing the registration of child marriages, you are further putting a stamp on it. You are also endorsing sexual offences with minors, teenage pregnancy and a host of other problems," she says.

The government on the other hand thinks that by registering all marriages, they are merely protecting the rights of the children who are part of a social practice that still exists in Rajasthan. The Child Rights Commission Chairperson Sangeeta Beniwal points out that the government is not validating or encouraging child marriages at all.

"If someone is a child bride, and for example, gets widowed, then how does one ensure they get rights in their married home? What about children born out of child marriages? This is to protect the rights of women it's not to encourage child marriage in any way," she says.

The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) survey 2015-2016 has shown that the rate of child marriages has come down in Rajasthan from 65 per cent (In 2016 ) to 35 per cent. But activists say that's because a number of child marriages remain out of the government radar.