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Coming of an age
GAYATRI ARORA | 24 Feb 2011

Stop child marriage,stop this horrible practice,let them live their childhood. Nirma,a twelve year old village girl from Bundi in Rajasthan who refused to be forced into marriage,opting to study and be equipped to make a living first.Girls,both in rural

Nirma,a twelve year old village girl from Bundi in Rajasthan who refused to be forced into marriage,opting to study and be equipped to make a living first. Girls,both in rural and urban India,often say this. But it makes no difference.They get married at puberty,because teenage mothers and venture out ot make a living only when greatly distressed,often after being deserted by their husbands.

So,what made little Nirma different form thousands of little girls forced into marriage around the country?Ironicallly,it was the fact that she was and the warden stuck up for the girl when she opposed her family's command,and sought police protection.Most children do not have such support to resist being forced into unwanted and often illegal safeguard our interests are sparingly used against social custom and if there is a religious angle Hindu,Muslim Or tribal-God forbid! We stutter nervously prohibitions of Child Marriage Act,2006 and look away hastily as children are married off,often with much ceremony as in the mass child weddings of Rajasthan during Akha Teej.

For 80 years,we have been struggling to ban child marriage.Yet,even today half the women in India are married off before the legal age of 18,largely because we have not had the political will to criminalise the practice.It's safe to sacrifice the human rights of millions of our girls than to fight outdated treaditions.Given this instituionalized escapism,the law commission's recent recommendations bring hope.They ban all marriages of children below 18,whether male or female.All marriages below 16 are nullified even in marriage.Besides,all marriages have to be registered.At present,registration is optional,underage marriages are valid,and only sex with recommendations are an important step towards preventing paedophilia and child marriage.A child bride has her childhood snatched form her,is denied into an adult role of sexual relations,maternal duties and family responsibilities.Robbed off her freedom and dignity,the child faces domestic violence and sexual abuse and is more likely to die in childbirth.Often,visiting Arabs "marry" underage Indian girl for sex,then give 'talaq' and leave.

Fearful of holy cows,the law is lost in a maze of grey.for example,How does our reconcile section 376 of the IPC that makes sex with under 18 a crime with the fact that child marriages are valid?How many 12 years-old are denied education or awareness of their rights and living within regressive social customs are expected to sue their husbands for staturtory rape?Besides,Indian women aer treaditionally programmed not to acknowledge marital rape.

Under these circumstances,we need to be more decisive.Children affected by forceful child marriages need to be protected,but unless the law is made enforceable,social customs will not change.Lowering the marriage age of boys from 21 to bring it at par with girls at 18 also makes sense.At 18,an Indian is accepted as an adult,irrespective of gender.One can vote,drive and stand for elections.Surely,someone mature enough to run the country is mature enough to run his own life.

Compulsory registration of marriages would help , too. It will clash with religious personal beliefs,but we need to face that constructively.Our democracy gurarantees certain human rights.We are a signatory to the International Convention of the Rights of the child,which defines a child as anyone under 18.Sure,fixing that age of reason is somewhat arbitrary,but it can't be absurd.For us, a child is adult enough at 14 to work in hazardous industries,yet not adult enough to have a drink till 25!coming of age can be ritualistic,tied to religion and custom,or it can be secular,involving responsibilities of civil society.Since marriages signifies coming of an age in both categories.Let us try and balance the two in our laws and personal beliefs.