The age-old practice of child marriage is gaining popularity in the district of Koppal. It reports all-time high, 124 cases of child marriage, children as young as 10-years-old are getting married, at an age when they should be with their mother, she becomes the mother.
Radhika (name changed) a 16-year-old girl, married off at the age of ten, recalls the ceremony vaguely; married to a much older partner. She remembers her father at the ceremony and another older man, with whom she got married. This year, at the age of sixteen, she was taken to her husband’s house to consummate the marriage. The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) rescued her on the pretext of taking her to her husband’s house and brought her to Bal Mandir.
CWC is a government organisation whose sole purpose is to deal with matters pertaining to children in need of protection and care. The committee is formed to look after such children in each district. CWC rescues the children and keeps them at the hostel known as Bal Mandir which is under supervision 24X7. Radhika is not the only child in Bal Mandir, there are forty-three other girls like her who have been saved by CWC this year. The cases of Child marriage are rising, a total of 124 cases were reported between April 2018 to April 2019 while 118 cases were reported from April 2019 to February. In the last six months, seventy-eight children were saved by the Child marriage prevention unit in Koppal district. Out of the seventy-eight cases, seventy-six were minor girls and two were boys. Eleven cases were filed as F.I.R. which was later taken by the CWC.
Not everyone is as lucky as Radhika, Aisha (name changed) 15-year-old dropped out of school as she was to get married in the next few months. Aisha’s relatives insist that she is 17 years old and eligible for marriage while Aisha claims to be 15-year-old. She is an orphan and looked after by her relatives who think marriage will end her daily life problems. Aisha is not the only girl who is seen as a liability. In the district, there are many child marriages that happen under the nose of police and CWC.
Gangappa, a resident of Gangavathi, said, “Parents get their children married in the early morning to escape the police radar. They complete the ceremony and wind up before dawn. They also organize mass weddings where many children are married at once. People are finding ways to escape the law. Hence there are many unreported cases of child marriages.”
Since the inception of CWC in 2011, it has saved more than 500 children from the evils of child marriage. There are other NGOs who work with the same motive of saving children from child marriage. Even after these efforts, the cases of child marriages are rapidly increasing every year. Yamuna Bestar, a member of CWC, said, “There is a steep rise in child marriages and this can be attributed to the fact that people are more aware now. Previously cases were not reported because it was a norm in society. Now people from all walks of life inform us about any such cases near them and we take necessary action.”
The government replaced the child marriage restraint act, 1929, which proved to be ineffective, with the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. Under the act, child marriage culprits will be imprisonment for two years and/or fine of INR 1 lakh. It defines a male below 21 years and a female below 18 years as a minor.
Radhika, currently, in Bal Mandir, said, “My name is Radhika, I’m 16-year-old, I’m in 10th class. I want to become a Kannada teacher and teach primary school children.” On being asked why she was here, she replied, “I’m here because of child marriage, for my protection, I’m kept in Bal Mandir. I talk to my mother often, she calls me and asks about my wellbeing.” Lastly, she said, “My friends are studying in school and I want to continue with them.”
CWC will keep her in the hostel for a week after which her family will be counselled. After counselling, the family members will be granted her custody on the promise and signing a bond which states that she will be married at the age of 18 or above. Dishonor of the bond means jail time and a fine up to 2 lakhs. A total of 66 out of 565 cases have been solved by counselling. A total of ninety-one cases of marriages were solved since 2011 by educating the parents.
Nethravati, a counselor, informs, “I’m working as a counsellor in CWC for the last two years, last year CWC rescued more than 200 children from getting married. The average age of the rescued girls is 12, most of the children rescued are a girl. We get information about the child on childline (1098) or from Zila Mahila Shanrakshakna, Anganwadi supervisor or a police station. The rescued cases are registered, medical check-up, counselling, protection is provided to them.
In case the child is already married, the police lodges FIR (First Information Report). In both cases, once the child is rescued after a week, a meeting is held with their parents.”
Counsellor further explained how the process ensures that the family doesn’t break their promise. There have been few instances where families dishonor the bond and married off their daughters which resulted in serving jail time or fine depending on the severity of the case. Few cases have also been charged under the POSCO act. Out of 34 cases of dishonor of bonds three such cases have been charged under POSCO.
The state is witnessing a rise in teenage pregnancy and school dropout, the dropout rates in the Gangavathi taluk is as high as 41 per-cent in the secondary level. The teenage pregnancy, it has risen from 37.6 per-cent to 46.3 per-cent, according to the NHFS 2015-16. Experts argue that school dropouts are one of the main factors in child marriage. If the child continues to study there is very little chance of her getting married.
CWC ensures that age proof is required for such marriages, the couple who wish to get married has to get permission from the DC office. The DC office doesn’t issue the permit if they don’t have a school certificate or birth certificate. In case the couple doesn’t have age proof, CWC refers the case to the District Hospital for age estimation for marriage. The Koppal district hospital is the only hospital in the district that issues age certificate for marriage. The cases are referred to Dr. Dana Reddy, district Surgeon at the Hospital who handles cases related to age estimation.
Dr. Danna Reddy, explains the process, “Once the request is sent to us for the age verification, it undergoes through, dental, orthopedic and radiology checks and in some cases the forensic department gives their opinion regarding age. We have explicitly warned doctors to not issue age certificates to underage (21 for male and 18 for a girl) if the couple wants age certificate from us, they have to get an application from the D.C. office.”
The medical report is issued by the hospital, based on forensic, radiologist and orthopedic, the report states that the person is above the age of 21. The district hospital then gives the permit certificate that the individual is eligible for marriage.
He also explained the ills of child marriage and why it’s hard to convince parents not to get their child married at an early age. The girl who gets married below the age of eighteen, her body is not ready for pregnancy, she herself is a child and is weak for conceiving a child. If someone gets married at the age of eighteen, we prescribe her not to conceive a child until 21-year since one has to be healthy to deliver a healthy baby. If one gets married before the age of eighteen and conceives a baby, there are high chances that the child will get anemia, suffer malnutrition.
Yamuna Baster, commented on the rise in cases of child marriage, “We see over the years the cases of child marriage are increasing, this just cannot be attributed to poverty, people who are well off also get their children married at an early age. Hence, lack of awareness is the main reason. No parent wishes ill for their child, if they would be aware of the ills and evil of child marriage, the practice would surely stop.”
Ravi Pawar, an expert on the subject, said, “If we don’t acknowledge the problem then it becomes very difficult to curb it. There is a difference in the data of NGOs and the Government on child marriage. The number of cases is much higher as most of the cases go unreported. The government alone cannot bring about a change and we have seen that changing the 1929 Act with the 2006 Act has not served the purpose. One of the main reasons behind the rise of child marriages is the lack of awareness and poverty. We have seen after drought and flood the cases of child marriage increase but we have also registered cases where the families were well off. The lack of awareness and change of mindset is what will stop child marriage. No amount of jail time or penalty will stop it, people will find an alternative. Educating the general public about the ills of child marriage will stop the practice as we have seen in some cases.”