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The latest controversy around the Chidambaram Thillai Natarajar Temple has brought the issue of child marriage back into the spotlight. The Chidambaram child marriages were alleged to have happened during lockdown. But the phenomena was statewide, say activists. There have reportedly been over 3,000 cases of child marriage all over Tamil Nadu, particularly during the Corona lockdown periods. One of the social menaces that the law frowns upon, child marriage has several implications and dimensions.
Against this background, Andrew Sesuraj, former State convener of Tamil Nadu Child Rights Observatory, in an interview to inmathi.com, said the row has a casteist angle too apart from livelihood perspectives. Delving deep into the socio-legal issue, he said it is quite unfortunate that India, which has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – CRC (in 1992), is still witnessing child marriages. All the more unfortunate that the crime is committed in Tamil Nadu, the home of Periyar, who fought for social justice, he added. Sesuraj is also on a government panel to formulate a Standard Operating Procedure to be followed for ending the bane of child marriages and he added that the guidelines are in the final stage with inputs from across government departments including the police.
While the number of child marriages is pegged at over 3,000, it must be higher as several go unreported, Sesuraj said, explaining that many take place in remote villages. But he cautioned that even in the state capital, Chennai, the regressive practice is not uncommon.
Asked what were the main reasons for the continuance of this practice, Sesuraj said the stranglehold of caste-based endogamy was the main culprit. During the coronavirus induced lockdown which forced the population indoors, and a reverse migration to villages and small towns, poorer sections of society faced the double burden of dwindling incomes and extra mouths to feed. This added to fears of young women choosing on their own their life partners from outside the castefold.
Out of 100 child marriages, two cases barely get registered. If all are punished, there will be concerns over the fate of the girl victim. That is the social dimension of the whole problem
Pointing out that girl children are still considered liabilities, parents rushed to marry their daughters even before the girls were 18 or had completed their school education, Sesuraj added that such ceremonies were cheaper during the lockdown given the restrictions on movement and gatherings.
Asked if the government was ineffective in preventing child marriages, Sesuraj said, “The pandemic was something we had least anticipated. It caught us all unawares. So, the government too, was thrown off the balance.” However, it soon got its act together and cracked down on those involved in child marriages in a proactive manner, he said.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is very clear about preventing the menace and safeguarding the victims. It will award a two-year jail term to all accused of conducting, performing and abetting a child marriage. Not only the parents of the bride and bridegroom but also the purohit who conducted the ceremony and even those who provided all paraphernalia of the ceremony including the owner of the wedding hall will be penalized. The child marriage, even if successfully conducted, will be declared null and void according to the law. Supposing that the girl concerned gets pregnant, the nullification of the marriage will hold good and yet the husband or in case he is also a minor, his parents should do monetary obligations to the girl. That is the law, he said.
However, asked if there had been convictions under the Act, Sesuraj replied, “None.” Out of 100 child marriages, barely two cases get registered. Explaining the reasons for this abysmal failure of the legal safeguards, he said the stigma attached to the girl in the event of an aborted marriage and her uncertain future was the main reason for the lax application of the law. Underlining the social dimension of the problem, he said while the law should be stringent, it cannot turn a blind eye to the likely miseries of the victims even as it cracks the whip on the culprits.
Hence while the social welfare department and the police often stall child marriages, they don’t take immediate action against the organizers of the ceremony. All they do is get an undertaking in writing from them that they will refrain from conducting child marriages and then wash their hands off the social consequences. Asked if families do go ahead with the marriage despite the undertaking, he did not comment.
Given the inability of the law to prevent the problem, we asked what were the other options for the government such as awareness campaigns among school-going girls. Sesuraj said the government was proactive, with government schools having management committees to keep tabs on attendance of the students. If a girl keeps away from the school for a prolonged period, the committee led by the headmaster of the school concerned will probe the case and try to find out the reasons for the girl’s long absence. If any problem is found, it is then reported to the district education officer. In the matter of child marriage, the district-level officer-in-charge has the authority to intervene and take action.
Families of Dikshitars at the Chidambaram temple set a store by their hereditary rituals and beliefs. So, as part of the age-old tradition, they have conducted child marriages
He pointed out that given the government’s campaigns and outreach, students in state schools are more aware and voice their opinions unlike their counterparts in private schools. The former are better educated and familiar with official procedures and options available to them when they face problems, he said.
In Tamil Nadu, more child marriages are reported from four districts of Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and Namakkal. According to Sesuraj, the reason is proximity to Bengaluru. Since workers from these districts routinely move to the metro city for work, they become anxious about their children in the village, often cared for by the eldest girl child. The double whammy of caste rules and economic woes then forces them to get the girl married at the earliest.
Asked about the child marriages conducted in the families of Dikshitars at the Chidambaram temple, Sesuraj said the Brahmins set great store by their hereditary rituals and beliefs. So, as part of the age-old tradition, they conducted child marriages which had been exposed recently, with videos of the rituals going viral. Though the face of the girl child involved was not shown, the exposure has violated the law that mandates victims’ faces and identities should not be shown in the media. The feelings of the child victim have gone for a toss, he regretted, recalling that some media houses were penalised for exhibiting the victim’s photos in the cruel Asifa Ali case in 2018.
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