CAUGHT UNAWARES: A May 2004 file picture of child brides and their grooms at a mass marriage in Kurgodu of Bellary district. Photo: The Hindu archives
Bangalore: The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 1998-99 states that 46.03 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18 in Karnataka. But the number of child marriage cases registered in the country in the same year was as low as 56.
How do so many child marriages escape the notice of law even though The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929?
This question becomes more pertinent in a State that brought Child Marriage Restraint (Karnataka Amendment) Act in 2004 to make anti-child marriage laws more effective.
This question has been raised in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN).
The case, first of its kind in Karnataka, draws from evidence of child marriages in Bijapur and Bagalkot districts, documented by Rural Education and Child Health Society of India (REACHS-I).
Interestingly, most of them were solemnised in mass marriages conducted by religious institutions, often attended by political leaders and officials.
Significantly, one of the mass marriages cited in the Public Interest Litigation - at Javalageri village in Sindhanur taluk in May 2006 - was attended by Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.
K. Boodeppa of Rural Education and Child Health Society of India says that he has documented evidence of child marriages since 2004 in the two districts, including video footage.
His organisation has appealed to the Chief Minister, State Women's Commission and other offices concerned several times seeking that age proof should be made mandatory in all mass marriages.
"But child marriages continue and the administration turns a blind eye to them," Mr. Boodeppa says.
The petitioners have sought a clear policy guideline on prevention of child marriage and a survey to quantify the extent of child marriages.
In one crucial reference, they have stated that the parents of the children married should not be prosecuted for the crime since most of them come from poor backgrounds. "Some of them do not even know it is illegal. Awareness is abysmally low in these drought-hit areas," Mr. Boodeppa says.
Sheela Ramanathan of the Human Rights Law Network, who visited some of the villages where child marriage is rampant, points out that it also has to be seen in the light of fears about a girl child's safety.
Schools far away
"Schools are far away in many of these villages and people feel that it is not safe to send their girl children to them," she says.
Parents prefer to "shift the burden of safeguarding the girl child to the husband". Ironically, girls married off early face other risks to their health owing to early pregnancies.
They also often become victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
The petition states that child marriages amount to violating an individual's "Constitutional right to life, health, dignity and opportunity to develop".
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