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Call to make child marriages voidable

Staff Reporter



Girija Vyas

MUMBAI: One of the biggest lacunae in child marriage legislation is that marriages of underage persons are “not voidable” and they are “recognised,” Girija Vyas, chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW) said here on Monday. She was addressing a seminar on child marriage.

“Moreover, the children [from such marriages] are legitimate. Then there are personal laws governing marriages,” Ms. Vyas said. Her term with the Commission is set to end next week.

Ms. Vyas pointed out that 73 per cent of the marriages in Madhya Pradesh were of underage persons making it the State with the highest number of child marriages. Rajasthan came second, followed by Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and even some districts in Kerala.

Ms. Vyas drew attention to the rising rate of crimes against women. Data for 2005 and 2009 show that the number of reported rape cases had gone up from 18,349 to 22,000, cases of kidnapping from 15,000 to 26,000, dowry deaths from 6,000 to 9,000, molestation cases from 34,000 to 39,000 and those under section 498 A of the Domestic Violence Act shot up from 58,000 to 90,000.

While there were instances of the Act being misused, “in a situation of inequality, there is no alternative to 498A,” she said.

Ms. Vyas stressed the need to strengthen State Women's Commissions. Members were still to be appointed to the Women's Commission in Maharashtra. Ms. Vyas said she would be taking up the matter with State Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

On the issue of the minimum age of marriage, Ms. Vyas said during consultations the northern States sought reducing the age while the southern States wanted it to be increased. “The Commission is of the opinion that age should not be under 18.”

Mumbai-based lawyer Jaya Menon called for compulsory registration of marriage. She said child marriages needed to be made void ad initio or at the outset, so that it was not left to the child to go to court and annul the marriage, as was the case now.

Gynaecologist Dr. Sejal Desai pointed to the high incidence of pregnancies among girls as young as 14 years of age and their serious health implications. “We have won the World Cup, but we have a long way to go where women's health is concerned. Abortion is the major cause of death among girls between 12 and 15 years,” she said.

Prof. Prabha Desai of Sanmitra Trust, an organisation working with sex workers in Mumbai, spoke of the link between child marriage and sex work. She said there were specific castes spread across India such as the Bedias and Nats in the north for instance, who were engaged in sex work.

Marriages among them became “an excuse to initiate a child into sex work.” She called for a special component in women's policy and for an alternative means of earning for sex workers so that they in turn did not push their children into the same profession.

The Bharatiya Bar Girls' Union president, Varsha Kale, said the need to eradicate the “nath utarna” ceremony, an adolescent's initiation into sex trade, as much as child marriage.

She said a survey had found that girls made to perform this ceremony were all below 15 years.

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