What to do when you come across instances of child marriage in Chennai

Child marriages are not uncommon in Chennai. Know more about the existing law against such marriage and how to register a complaint if you hear of one.

Savitha*, a 16-year-old minor girl from Chennai, was to be married off to a 35-year-old man in September of last year. Her parents invited close relatives to the ceremony by handing out invitations. Just as the wedding was about to take place, officials from Childline came to her rescue based on a tip-off from her 15-year-old cousin. He sent a copy of the invitation to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that had once conducted an awareness programme on preventing child marriages in their locality.

Savitha was lucky and was rescued on time. She is now pursuing an undergraduate degree in a government college in Chennai.

But could we leave the fate of children being forced into marriages to luck?

In Savitha’s case, the awareness created by the NGO among the people in the community led her cousin to promptly react and make a timely complaint. However, not many of us know how to register a complaint against child marriage when we come across such instances.

Here is a simple guide on all you need to know about child marriage laws and how we can stop them.

Read more: How flawed eviction and resettlement are triggering child marriages in Chennai

What does the law say about child marriages?

The Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) 1929, which recognises child marriages as an evil, prohibited child marriages of girls below the age of 15 and of boys below the age of 18. In 1978, the law was amended to make it more effective, raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years in the case of girls and 21 years in the case of boys.

The amended law was known as the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929. This Act was aimed only at restraining the solemnisation of child marriages and not its prevention or prohibition and also failed to identify the authorities responsible for preventing child marriages.

In a bid to overcome such shortcomings, the Central Government enacted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006 which came into effect on November 1, 2007.

Drawing from a child in Kannagi Nagar depicting the prevalence of child marriages in the locality.
Drawing from a child in Kannagi Nagar depicting the prevalence of child marriages in the locality. Pic: Swetha D

According to PCMA 2006, a child is defined as a person who, if a male, has not completed twenty-one years of age, and if a female, has not completed eighteen years of age. While child marriages are an offence, solemnisation of child marriages is considered a cognisable and non-bailable offence. The courts also have the power to issue injunctions for prohibiting such instances from taking place.

If the injunction is contravened or, if the child is taken away from their lawful guardian by enticement, force or use of deceitful means or, is sold or trafficked for the purpose of marriage, the marriage will be declared null and void.

What is the punishment for offenders?

Whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years and shall be liable to a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees. The PCMA 2006 also provides punishment for those who permit and promote child marriages.

Hence, it is necessary that every individual who is aware of any child marriage that is going to be conducted or is being conducted or has been conducted, to make sure that they do not permit or promote child marriage by not reporting about it. They can be made liable under the present law and also the Indian Penal Code for abetting the offence.

Offenders could include:
• The guardians/parents of both parties
• Priests
• Relatives/friends of both parties
• Neighbours of both parties
• Community leaders who give patronage to such marriages
• Marriage bureaus/persons responsible for fixing marriages
• Traffickers
• The bridegroom if he is over 18 years of age
• Caterers and other service providers

Who can register a child marriage complaint?

A complaint can be filed by any person, including those who report an incidence of child marriage. This includes:

  • A person who has reason to believe that child marriage is likely to take place
  • A person who has personal information
  • School teachers, doctors, Auxiliary Nursing Midwives, Anganwadi workers, village-level workers, Self-Help Group members, village elders, neighbours etc
  • A parent or guardian of the child
  • The Child Marriage Prohibition Officer or persons appointed to assist her/him
  • A non-governmental organisation that has reasonable information

To whom can you report a child marriage?

The authorities identified for prohibiting child marriage under PCMA 2006 include Child Marriage Prohibition Officer, District Magistrate, First Class Judicial Magistrate or Metropolitan Magistrate, Police and the Family Courts or any person(s) called upon by the State Government to assist the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer.

This could include a respectable member of the locality with a record of social service, an officer of the Gram Panchayat or Municipality, an officer of the government or public sector undertaking or an office bearer of any non-governmental organisation.

The assistance of other government functionaries, including, Child Development and Panchayat Officers (CDPO), District Child Protection Officers (DCPO), District Welfare Officers (DWO), Members of Child Welfare Committees, Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANM), Anganwadi workers and ASHA-health workers can also be sought.

An immediate report needs to be made to:

  • Childline – 1098
  • The Police
  • The Child Marriage Prohibition Officer or such persons as may be appointed to assist him/her
  • First Class Judicial Magistrate or Metropolitan Magistrate
  • Child Welfare Committee or a member of the Child Welfare Committee set up under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 as amended in 2006
  • District Magistrate
  • A First Class Judicial Magistrate is empowered to take suo moto cognisance of any reliable report of information of child marriage.
  • The Child Marriage Prohibition Officers are also responsible for reporting and preventing child marriages.

Read more: Child Sexual Abuse: Laws and helplines to protect our children and seek justice

How is a child marriage complaint processed?

Step 1:

Child marriage complaints can be made either orally or written, in the form of a phone call, a letter, a telegram, an e-mail, a fax or a simple handwritten note duly signed by the complainant.

N Karunya Devi, an advocate and a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) member of Chennai North, explains that anyone who comes across an incident of child marriage, either before or after the marriage, could inform Childline at 1098, which is the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The information can also be passed on to the non-governmental organisations that work in close association with the community, nearby police stations, One-Stop Centers, the District Child Protection Unit or the CWC members.

Step 2:

The reports of child marriages that the officials receive in Chennai and across the country are of three kinds

Case 1: A child marriage that is to take place in the near future

Case 2: A child marriage that is currently taking place

Case 3: A child marriage that has already taken place

In case 1, upon receiving a complaint, the officials visit the homes of both parties and try to make the parents, the child, guardians, relatives community leaders and other people involved aware that child marriage is a punishable offence. They also seek help from local NGOs to convince the parents. A complaint will also be filed to the police who have powers under section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code to make arrests in order to prevent the commission of a cognisable offence. Further, a complaint will also be to a First Class Judicial Magistrate if parents refuse to concede, seeking an injunction order under section 13 to prevent a child marriage from taking place.

In case 2, the officials report immediately to a Judicial Magistrate for him/her to issue an injunction to prevent child marriage, collect evidence of the marriage taking place (such as photographs, invitations, and receipts of payments made for marriage purposes), make a list of offenders who are responsible for arranging, performing, supporting, encouraging and helping in the marriage or attending it. A police complaint will also be filed at this stage.

If the child is at risk of being forced, threatened or enticed into child marriage, or if there is a risk to the child’s life, the child would be provided with immediate protection and the child will be produced before the CWC.

In case 3, in addition to collecting evidence, making a list of offenders, filing a police complaint and producing the child to the CWC, the following procedures are also followed

  • Ensuring that the child is not subjected to having to repeat her/his statement before different authorities at different points in time causing re-victimisation.
  • Ensuring that the child is not subjected to an unwarranted gynaecological examination and medical tests and every test conducted on the child is after informing the child and her/his parents/guardians/next best friend as the case may be, and on taking their consent.
  • Providing all support and aid including medical aid, legal aid, counselling and rehabilitation support to children once they are rescued.
  • Ensuring that the child is not made to appear in court repeatedly; having both evidence and cross-examination take place on the same day as far as possible.

“Most of the time, we receive information only when the child gets pregnant and reaches the hospital for tests and treatment. The government hospital staff would then inform us. In such scenarios, the police would book a case not only under PCMA 2006 but also under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and other such relevant sections,” says Karunya.

Step 3:

Once the complaint is received, be it in any of the three cases, the officials will rescue the child. Since the removal of children from the custody of parents/legal guardians must be the last resort and taken ‘only in the best interest of the child,’ the child is sent to a government-recognised institution only when there is no other option left.

“In most cases, the child is left with the parents and the officials make regular follow-up visits. Local NGOs are also involved in follow-up assistance to the child,” Karunya adds.

Step 4:

In the meantime, the officials in charge should assess the infrastructural and other systemic needs that can enable justice for victims as well as ensure the prosecution of offenders. This includes interim compensations for the victims and court orders that mandate the education of the child.

“While compensations are a much-needed one, ensuring the child is back in school and continues their education is much more crucial. The judicial system plays an important role in the latter. If a court order is passed mandating a child’s education, no one can object to it,” Karunya notes.

Shortcomings in the system

Despite being prohibited, child marriage continues to happen in Chennai and across the country.

There are many systemic challenges, Karunya explains, “The CWC members who play an important role in rescuing, monitoring and following up with the victims of child marriage hold office only for three years. If a child is rescued at 11 years old, by the time she reaches 18, the third set of CWC members will have assumed office and they might not have a proper handle on the child as much as they do on their current cases. In addition to getting interim compensations, getting a court order that ensures the child’s higher education will help the child in a better way.”

“A government order mandating reservation for victims of child marriage would help these children get at least a basic undergraduate degree,” adds Karunya.

When it comes to child marriage complaints, timely information and proof of marriage play a crucial role. As a member of the public, the part we have to play is simple – being aware of the law and informing the authorities at the right time can save a child’s future.

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