Following an outcry that it would encourage child marriage, the Congress government in Rajasthan has decided to recall a piece of legislation passed recently by the state Assembly that effected a change in the marriage registration law. The change was in respect of the age of the bride and groom vis-a-vis the requirement of compulsory registration of a marriage. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is The Amendment Passed By Rajasthan Assembly?
On September 17, the Rajasthan Assembly passed the Rajasthan Compulsory Registrations of Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021, to bring in changes to the law of the same name that was passed in 2009.
Section 8 of the amended Act says that the parents or guardians of a bridegroom who is younger than 21 years and a bride below 18 years “shall be responsible to submit the memorandum, in such manner, as may be prescribed, within a period of thirty days from the date of solemnisation of the marriage to the Registrar".
The state government said that this amendment was necessary to effect a Supreme Court order on registration of marriages, but activists and opposition politicians slammed the amended clause, saying that it will promote child marriage.
“If someone is married off as a child and then they become adults and have children, and if there is property or legacy of the parents or grandparents, then there shouldn’t be an obstruction. So the Supreme Court had said that be it anyone who gets married, the registration is important. In line with that sentiment, a law was passed here and a nationwide controversy erupted that this law will promote child marriage,” CM Ashok Gehlot is reported to have said after the announcement that his government had asked Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra to return the Act, which reports last week had, however, said that he had put on hold.
The passage of the Bill was accompanied by strident protests and a walkout by opposition BJP MLAs, who accused the state government of enabling child marriage through the amendment. The 2009 version of Section 8 had said that parents or the guardians would need to mandatorily register a marriage where both the bride and groom were aged below 21 years.
But Isn’t Child Marriage Banned In India?
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, outlaws child marriage in India, prescribing punishment for entering into or facilitating the union of underage persons. Section 9 of the Act says that an adult male aged above 18 years will be liable to face rigorous imprisonment of up to two years and/or fine of up to Rs 1 lakh for contracting a marriage with a child of under 18 years. The same punishment is laid down for performing, conducting, directing or abetting a child marriage.
Punishment is also to be visited upon a person for promoting or permitting child marriages as a parent or guardian or in any other capacity, the Act says, clarifying that no woman though shall be punishable with imprisonment.
The Act does not, however, make a child marriage illegal right from the outset, but lays down that it is voidable at the option of “the contracting party who was a child at the time of the marriage". A petition for the annulment of a child marriage, the Act says, has to be filed by the child or on her or his behalf within two years of them attaining majority. The age of majority for males is 21 and 18 for females under the Act.
If neither of the parties in a child marriage approaches the court for such annulment within the period laid down for it, then such marriage is deemed to be valid.
What Did The Rajasthan Govt Say?
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had written to the Rajasthan government asking it to review the amendment, saying that it would have a “serious impact on the physical, psychological, and social state" of minors.
However, the Rajasthan government has maintained that it had brought in the amendment to give effect to a Supreme Court order that called for compulsory registration of marriages.
“The new bill does not in any way dilute the stringent provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The registration of child marriage will not infringe the right to void the marriage given to the bride and groom in the Act,” the state government had said, adding that it would, in fact, help in the annulment of child marriages as the requirement for compulsory registration would bring to light such cases.
However, activists pointed out that such a purpose may not be served by the amendment since courts could seek a marriage certificate as a requisite for entertaining any plea regarding the annulment of a child marriage, which may not be available as the guardians would likely have desisted from obtaining one for fear of facing punitive action. However, even the 2009 Act made registration of any marriage compulsory.
Despite legislation and a social movement against the practice, child marriages continue to be performed in the country. A 2017 Unicef report said that “one in three of the world’s child brides live in India", adding that about one in every four young women in India was married or in union before their 18th birthday.
The report notes, however, that “the practice of child marriage is less common today than in previous generations" and that India’s “progress is strong compared to other countries in South Asia".
It said that over half of child brides in India live in five states: UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh with UP being home to the largest population of child brides at 36 million. Rajasthan was found to have a high prevalence of child marriage with the report saying that 36 per cent of the women in the state who were aged between 20 to 24 years, were first married or in union before they turned 18.