Above: The prevalence of child marriage is very high in Rajasthan/Photo: UNI
The collector of Bundi has found an innovative way to stop the child marriages and ordered that wedding cards must have the dates of birth of the groom and the bride. Will this stop this social evil?
By Asif Ullah Khan in Jaipur
Rukmani Riar, the collector of Bundi district in Rajasthan, has become a newsmaker of sorts after she issued an order to prevent child marriages held during the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya, which falls on May 7 this year. Riar ordered that the invitation card of any marriage held during this time must have the dates of birth of the groom and the bride and a statutory warning that child marriage is punishable.
Rajasthan is notoriously famous for child marriages. According to a report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the state ranks among the top 12 where the prevalence of child marriage is very high.
How sensitive this issue is can be gauged from the fact that in the run-up to the assembly election in Rajasthan last year, Shobha Chouhan, the BJP candidate from the Sojat assembly seat, promised her voters that if elected, she would not allow police intervention in child marriages in her constituency.
“We have satta (power) and sangathan (state government) at our disposal. We won’t let the police intervene in child marriages,” she said in a video that went viral.
However, it hardly created a flutter in political circles—neither the then ruling BJP nor the Congress bothered to react or comment on this issue.
Given the lack of political will and effective machinery, will the order of the Bundi collector make any impact? Even Riar was not sure about the enforcement of her order.
She told India Legal: “You can’t ensure that everybody will follow these directions because you can’t say that these are ‘legal’ orders. But we know that Bundi has this problem and we are trying whatever best we can do to address it.”
However, she said these directions have been welcomed by society, which has evolved. Now people know such things are wrong, she said.
Apart from the mandatory dates of birth of the bride and the groom on the wedding cards, the district collector has constituted teams of school principals, land record inspectors, gram sewaks, anganwadi workers and “satheen” to keep an eye on such marriages and take prompt legal action against those involved in solemnisation of child marriages, officials said.
Riar said that a control room has been set up to monitor activities in the area such as whitewashing in homes, henna on children’s palms, absence of children from school, playing of bands and booking of priests and vehicles.
Welcoming the move, Prem Kishan Sharma, former president of the Rajasthan PUCL, said it would certainly make a difference, but the problem is such that it needs more effective measures.
He told India Legal: “The order making the dates of birth of the groom and the bride mandatory on wedding cards cannot be enforced because you can’t force someone to get wedding cards printed. For such directions, somebody must have filed a PIL in the High Court.”
He said that instead of such measures, strict vigil and monitoring should be done to prevent child marriages.
Kavita Srivastava, current president of the Rajasthan PUCL, concurred with Sharma and said these directions are not extraordinary as they are part of the Rajasthan Prohibition of Child Marriage Rules, 2007.
She said: “Such orders are routinely issued before Akshaya Tritiya by the district administration to show that it is doing something in this direction. They only come into effect when there is a complaint from someone in the village against such marriages. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.”
Moreover, she added, villagers had become smart and know how to circumvent such orders. “In the areas of Sawai Madhopur and Karauli districts where child marriages are rampant, people have stopped solemnising marriages during Akshaya Tritiya to avoid any trouble. But such marriages take place throughout the year,” Srivastava said.
Mahesh Panpalia, chief executive of Dhara Sansthan, an NGO which promotes community engagement through the distribution of sanitary materials, medicines, educational kits, said: “This is a very positive step as the wedding card culture has infiltrated rural areas.”
Srivastava too said that things had changed in villages. “These days, a wedding card is a must in every marriage for two reasons. First, the gap between a marriage in the city and village has become almost negligible due to TV channels and social media. Even the old-style marriage feast, where people used to sit in lines to eat, has been replaced by the buffet system.
“Second, women have become more aware of their rights as a wedding card is a necessity for the registration of a marriage, which gives women many rights and protects them.”
However, Panpalia said this can be made more effective if the chief secretary of the state issues an order to all district collectors and sub-divisional magistrates (SDM) that the date of birth of both the bride and groom must be made mandatory on the wedding card. “Somewhere the writ of the state has to come into play to make it more effective.”
The chain of command in the district administration should also be enforced fast. “Incidents of child marriages are generally reported by people who are in the lower ranks of the administration, such as patwaris or block development officers. They report it to the tehsildar, who passes on this information to the superintendent of police. By the time the report of a child marriage reaches the collector or SDM, it’s too late. Either the marriage is solemnised or villagers get a whiff of impending action and change the venue.
“This bureaucratic structure is the biggest impediment in curbing child marriages. More effective and strict monitoring at the lower level and passing the information quickly to the higher echelons of the district administration can go a long way in addressing this social problem.”
Dr Kriti Bharti, managing trustee of the Saarthi Trust, which works for the annulment of child marriages, said that child marriage is a criminal act because there is a law against it. Although the orders issued by the Bundi collector did make an impact, like other laws villagers have devised ways to bypass them.
“In most child marriages, wedding cards are not printed and even if they are printed, they get it done from other states or change the wedding venue to a neighbouring state,” she said.
The biggest problem, she said, is the administrative machinery. SDMs and tehsildars are responsible for preventing child marriages, but they’re already overburdened with other work.
The second problem, according to her, is that even if the administration (police) acts swiftly and reaches the place where a child marriage is taking place, they issue a ‘restraining order’ to prevent solemnisation of the marriage.
“However, there is no such section in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which says one can issue a ‘restraining order’. Once the police leaves the place, marriages take place late in the night or at some other venue,” Bharti added.
She also pointed out that no action is taken against the parents or guardians when it is well known that a child marriage is a criminal offence.
“In every budget, crores are allocated for the development of the girl child but not a single penny is spent on creating a separate department exclusively for tackling this issue. Becoming active only for a month will hardly make a difference,” she avers.
However, Dipta Bhog, an activist, said that all such measures just look at the symptoms of early marriage rather than tackling its root cause. She said: “We need to change our approach towards girls and the institution of marriage itself. Unless we do structural changes in our society and stop looking at marriage as a way to control girls and their sexuality, any kind of strictures or advisories will not work.”
—The writer is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times