Don’t Make Child Marriage a Vindictive Agenda against Muslims, Hindus & Tribal Communities – The Issue is Much Deeper

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Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan & Bharat Bachao Andolan

Mumbai, 13th February 2023: The Assam government’s vindictiveness and the open targeting of child marriages within the Muslim, Hindu, and Tribal community reeks of their anti-Muslim and hatred for the poor. We state this, as the overwhelming number of those arrested are from the Muslim community and come from very poor backgrounds.

Instead of focusing on the demands for amendments to the Prevention of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA, 2006) which Muslim women have been demanding so as to end the ambiguity within sections of the Muslim community on the issue of child marriage, the ill-advised actions of the BJP-led government of Assam will only strengthen the hardline conservative and patriarchal forces within the community and society. These draconian steps will only actually hamper the process of social reforms.

We also condemn the stand of the AIMPLB which believes that as per the Muslim personal law, every girl who belongs to the Muslim community is allowed to marry after she attains the age of 15.

Here it is important to note that in the recent case in the Supreme Court, whilst adversely commenting on the Haryana High Court marriage of the 15 year old Muslim girl, the SC did not strike down or annul the marriage. The SC decided to intervene, as it realised that even within the judiciary, there was a lack of clarity on implementing the law in this matter.

Thus, the actions of the BJP-led government in Assam go against the SC position and are illegal, immoral, and politically motivated on communal lines.

They can’t arrest men and family members for child marriages that have already taken place, especially in instances where the couple now have children as well. It’s as if the Assamese government has suddenly remembered that a law against child marriage exists & that it needs to be implemented overnight.

They also cannot simply forget that the law exists for all communities and not just Muslims, as the practice of Child Marriage, is true for all communities. What the government is doing is the targeted hounding of the Muslim community.

Reports from Assam state that more than 2100 families have been arrested, and the numbers could be far more higher.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 provides that the minimum age of marriage is 21 years in case of males and 18 years in the case of females. According to this law, the time period for filing a petition to annul the child marriage must be filed within two years of attaining majority (i.e. 20 years of age). If annulment of the marriage could also be considered as punitive action, then why resort to mass arrests?

Annulment of marriage could have sent a strong message to society instead of an aggressive, intrusive action like arrests.

It would be interesting to see if the governments of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan decide to strictly implement the law, then a great percentage of the population of these states would be behind bars, in some instances, even half the population.

Child marriage in India must come to an end & we state this categorically and emphatically. Again, it is also linked to the critical issue of maternal and infant mortality. India has improved it’s maternal mortality ratio (MMR) — number of deaths per 100,000 live births to 97 deaths per lakh in 2018-2020. This is down from 103 deaths per lakh in 2017-2019. This is a considerable improvement from the 130 deaths per lakh in 2014-2016, as the latest data released by the office of the Registrar General of India showed.

On the regional level, Assam continues to have the highest MMR (195) but has improved its own performance over the years. If data shows improvement, why the sudden massive arrests, if not but for a communally motivated agenda?

The elimination of child marriage by 2030 remains a priority under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality, which Kerala is near to achieving without punitive actions on citizens

The crisis within the Muslim community is again due to the fact that the AIMPLB & other conservative male dominated Muslim organizations have refused to undertake the progressive reforms on the issues of gender justice, that would have empowered the community and especially women.

The AIMPLB and all other Muslim conservative organizations must categorically state that they accept the PCMA, 2006. They must further affirm that they do not accept child marriages as the norm and will conduct a movement for social reform to prevent these practices, which are harmful to the girl child and women.

Our demands are the following:

1. Stop the arrests and harassment of men, women, and families who have undergone child marriage.

2. Amend the PCMA, 2006, to unambiguously include the Muslim community in its application.

3. Based on the Kerala model, implement schemes and programs for improving the maternal and infant mortality rates.

4. Instead of targeting and hounding families who have already married as children, the focus must shift to prevention through awareness, education of girls and women, and men as well.

5. After the Assam government has created social awareness through a sustained media and community outreach programme, then they could set a cut-off date, stating that after which any child marriage will face the due process of law.