Saturday, January 17, 2009

Child Marriages in India are legal

UNICEF opines that 40% of child marriages in the world happen in India (link). At the outset, child marriage is supposedly illegal in India, but the marriages are legally valid - go figure that one! Well, what it is effectively saying is that parents or adults can be jailed for conducting a child marriage, but once the children are married, it cannot be annulled or dissolved just because they were children when married - they have to go through what's allowed or not allowed by the Indian divorce law (there is a small 2-year window of opportunity soon after becoming a major thanks to an act of 2006 - I wonder how they expected 18-year olds to file a void petition!). The underlying reason for the paradox was to protect the woman (girl), make sure she gets alimony and property rights, but this UNICEF news link goes on to explain why child marriage eventually harms women in so many ways. Another example of laws based on fallacy and shallow thinking, and societal unwillingness to take on liability for bad marriages.

Ban on child marriages is difficult to enforce - at least, according to one chief minister of an Indian state. There is a case of one woman officer from the Indian Administrative Service (that is a lot of authority) who bravely tried to stop a child marriage and almost lost her hand to the wedding mob. The elected chief minister tried to explain it is difficult to enforce due to the centuries old culture in many communities, rather than react by taking aggressive stance. Can't blame him entirely, but baby steps and different policies to prevent, enforce, change the culture should have been initiated. In fact, this confirms such reactive laws banning something or making it a crime are a fallacy, under false hopes of fixes, without deep thought to identifying the real underlying problem. The law commission lists a boat load of reasons why child marriages happen, and recommends some steps in this 2007 report, such as making any marriage under 16 legally void, but I don't believe these are laws yet (See link for a good blog on this report).

The Supreme Court has recently directed all marriages be registered. This is a good first step in prevention. Obviously, it has to be followed up by proper age checks during the time of registration. There will of course be false representations, so the system of registering births need to be in place. Enforcement should include stiff penalties and imprisonment for parents,relatives, corrupt officers that indulge in this process. Finally, education, employment of girls should be encouraged, so the culture eventually changes. Empowerment by virtue of sensible and flexible laws to get out of marriage, crisp guidelines get some form of win-win settlement and move on, quickly implementable without court drag should happen.

Interestingly, the law commission report mentions "...Texts like Manu Smirti which state that the father or the brother, who has not married his daughter or the sister who has attained puberty will go to hell are sometimes quoted to justify child marriage...". Unfortunately, it has misinterpreted. The key point Manu Smriti is trying to emphasize is that the father or brother should actively pursue a marriage for the girl - not so much about the age limit of puberty. See my blog on "Mr. Gurumuthy's views on Social Security", that mentions some parents deliberately delaying their daugher's marriage and trying to live through retirement with her income. That is the type Manu Smriti is trying to address. Moreover, Manu Smriti was written based on the prevailing situation at that time, when life expectancy was so low that early sex, marriage and reproduction was desired, so many years of education was not required for survival etc. Also, Smritis were meant to change, as opposed to Shrutis that were anchored philosophies. Swami Vivekananda said (link),"...
the Vedas being eternal will be one and the same throughout all ages, but the Smritis will have an end. As time rolls on, more and more of the Smritis will go, sages will come, and they will change and direct society into better channels, into duties and into paths which accord with the necessity of the age, and without which it is impossible that society can live".
So no point faulting Manu Smriti for not making the changes needed for today! Too bad UNICEF needs to wait for those sages who can deliver.

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