Stopping child marriage in time is crucial. Prompt identification will make the process smooth

By Ghasiram Panda

In a recent incident reported in Odisha’s Cuttack district, authorities failed to stop a child marriage despite putting in their best efforts.

The marriage was going on in a temple. It was last minute information to the child line when everything was set for the ritual. The situation was messy.

When the authorities went there to intervene, they faced a hostile situation. The parents and relatives intensely opposed their intervention. Ultimately, the authorities were forced to retreat.

This is not an isolated case. There are many such incidents happening across Odisha where the prohibition authorities are getting last minute call to stop the child marriage.

Bridegroom returning empty and bringing the bride back home unmarried have never been seen as good signs. Also the parents and guardians feel insulted when authorities swoop on them and forcefully stopp the marriage.

Though in many cases marriages are cancelled on the spot because of the fear of police and punishment, situation always remain nasty. Many times these marriages took place later secretly.

In fact, this last minute approach is creating hindrance for a suo motu and sustainable social change process to end child marriage.

Mostly, arranged marriage follows a process. Starting from the initial interactions among parents and guardians to the process of inviting guests and relatives everything goes on openly. Despite all this, the authorities get last minute information.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 says anyone can inform the child marriage prohibition officer (CMPO) on the possibility of a child marriage. Apart from that the local police, 1098 – the child line, child welfare committee (CWC) and the district child protection unit (DCPU) can also be informed. As per Section 13 of the Act, complaint can be lodged before the first class judicial magistrate.

Information can also be given to the respective district collectors, who are the nodal officers for implementation of the Act. There are child protection committees (CPC) in all the gram panchyats.

Irrespective of all these provision, prompt identification of possible child marriages is yet to be possible. The myths around marriage are a major deterrent. Cancelling someone’s marriage is still considered as sinful. On the other hand, ‘kanya dana’ (gifting the daughter – a form of Hindu marriage practices) is considered as goodness.

Besides, completion of marriage of daughters has been considered as a responsibility of the family. The soonest it is done, the family is released from the burden and societal pressure.

So why will anyone be a part of this so called evil practice of stopping a marriage!

Obviously, in this context, anyone informing the authorities to stop child marriage is seen as an antagonist. That’s why the front line workers have not been able to gather courage to transmit the information to the appropriate authorities despite they know everything well in advance.

Whatever may be the consequence, stopping child marriage at any stage is crucial. This protects the child from substantial abuse and exploitation. However, early identification will surely make the process smooth. At present, authorities are responding to information received. This is not adequate.

Ensuring prevention, it is highly essential to build awareness involving all the possible stakeholders like the traditional leaders, priest, temple trust board, tent house owner and the like. The law has mandated this responsibility with CMPOs.

A strong message needs to be percolated down to say that the front line workers are not enemies rather helping the community in understanding and abiding the law. This will give strength to ground force and ultimately ensure more inflow of information.

Still, in any case, authorities attempting last minute intervention should approach the first class judicial magistrate for injunction using the provision laid down in Section 13 of the Act. Child marriage in contravention of this injunction order shall be void ab initio. This will strengthen their move.

Effective enforcement of the law along with operative social consciousness can only ensure a positive change.

(Ghasiram Panda is national manager for Action Aid’s Prohibition of Child Marriage programme)