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The worrying case of child marriages in Kerala

By Venu Muruvelil
November 10, 2015 10:53 IST
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Venu Muruvelil reports on the Outrage over thriving child marriages in Kerala as the state government looks the other way.

Time was when marriage of Muslim girls to Arabs, known popularly as 'Arabi Kalyanam' (Arab wedding), was common in North Kerala. Under-age Muslim girls in orphanages in Malappuram district were particularly targeted by the Arabs. But such marriages broke up within days of consummation and led to wanton exploitation of girls.

In one such incident, a UAE citizen married a 17-year-old girl from an orphanage in Malappuram and left the country after two weeks, divorcing her by telephone with a triple talaq. In another case, a Saudi Arabia national disappeared four days after marrying a girl in Nilambur. These incidents triggered an outrage over child marriages in Kerala.

But in spite of legal ban on marriage of girls below the age of 18 and social awakening against the practice, child marriages are on the rise in the state.

According to Census 2011 figures, there are 23,183 married girls below the age of 15 years in the State. The Census data also show that as many as 10,175 children were born to these child brides in the State.

The Muslim-majority Malappuram, the most populous district in the state, accounted for the highest number (3,615) of married girls below the age of 15, followed by Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Kannur. Thrissur has the lowest number of child marriage cases.

Ironically, though these marriages are illegal, they enjoy the support of the local community, including politicians and religious leaders.

Consequently, it has become a difficult task for the administration to detect and stop child marriages.

Such marriages also easily escape the law as the authorities are unable to gather prosecutable evidence due to lack of cooperation by the families and religious leaders.

So convictions in child marriage cases are very few and far between.

However the state social justice department claims that in spite of many hurdles, its effective intervention could stop a significant number of child marriages.

The department claims that it could prevent consummation of nearly a 100 marriages in 2014.

Kerala government has woken up to the issue in the wake of reports about rising incidents of child marriages. Child Marriage Prohibition Officers are now given full powers to prevent child marriages.

The government has also directed civic bodies and NGOs to sensitise the community and society about child protection laws and about the need to prevent under-aged marriages.

But the government is hamstrung by the fact that the issue has assumed religious overtones with many Muslim organisations expressing their opposition to the Child Marriage Act on the ground that it contravenes the Muslim personal law.

The issue kicked up a row when the social welfare department under the Indian Union Muslim League, part of the ruling United Democratic Front, issued a circular instructing marriage registrars to register Muslim marriages even if the parties have not attained 18, the age fixed by the Child Marriage Act.

Interestingly, though most Muslim religious organizations and clerics defended the circular, many Muslim women came out opposing the circular.

The CPM and its student outfit, the Students Federation of India, campaigned extensively across the state against the move by Muslim organisations to legally challenge the minimum age of marriage.

Kerala Women’s Commission also condemned child marriage.

Under pressure from different quarters, the government decided that only underage marriages that occurred before June 28, 2013 could be registered.

But this has not helped to put an end to the practice of child marriages in the state.

Kerala tops in many human development indices, but its achievements in the social sector are dwarfed by the rise in child marriages in the state.

Also Read: Can lavish weddings be banned by law?

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Venu Muruvelil
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