A veteran journalist who enjoys looking at the quirky side of life

R K Nair

The politics of child marriage

| Updated on October 18, 2013


India's stand at the UN Human Rights Council was viewed with apprehension by the intelligentsia in Kerala. Many see it as yet another example of appeasement politics.

A recent diplomatic omission that did not receive the media attention it deserved was India's failure to co-sponsor a global resolution floated by the UN Human Rights Council against child marriages. The resolution, which sought to include child, early and forced marriages in post-2015 international development agenda, was co-sponsored by a cross-regional group of 107 nations, many of them poor and developing countries where such marriages are common.

India, which has the dubious distinction of hosting the largest number of child brides -- 24 million, which is 40 per cent of the 60 million worldwide -- blamed extreme poverty for the prevalence of child marriages and argued that the practice should be allowed to die a natural death by removing its root cause, that is poverty. Surprisingly, India also sought clarity on the term 'child, early and forced marriage' even as the resolution sought to outlaw the marriage of girls aged below 18 years, which is also the legal age for girl's marriage in India.

The wrangle over semantics and the stand taken by India at the UN forum have touched a raw nerve in Kerala, where the issue has been raging for months. Some orthodox Muslim organisations are planning to move the Supreme Court to get exemption for Muslim girls from the purview of Child Marriage Law in order to enable them to get married before attaining 18 years.

A few months back, the State Local Administration department headed by a Muslim League minister had stirred a hornets' nest by issuing a circular directing local bodies to register marriages of girls aged above 16 years and of boys below 21 years. It was rescinded a fortnight later following public outcry and threats of litigation.

According to surveys conducted across Kerala, Muslim girls themselves are overwhelmingly against early marriage. But that did not prevent a group of orthodox Muslim organisations from resolving to approach the apex court seeking relaxation in age limit for the marriage of Muslim girls. According to these Muslim bodies, Shariat laws permit the marriage of girls on attaining puberty.

"Such retrograde arguments prove that their proponents are on the side of the predator, not the prey," says M.N. Karassery, a Muslim scholar and commentator. "The Child Marriage Law was passed way back in 1978. Why have these organisations suddenly woken up after 35 years?" he asked.

It is widely believed that the trigger for the sudden outrage was the recent controversial marriage (and divorce a few days later) of an underage inmate of an orphanage in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district to a UAE national. The pernicious practice of Arabi kalyanam (the marriage of local girls from poor families with Arab men) was thought to have ended decades ago.

The police was forced to act against the victim's parents and orphanage authorities for forcibly marrying her off to the Arab who "divorced" her after honeymoon and fled to the UAE. The public outcry and police cases against the perpetrators seem to have incensed the religious leaders who want to get rid of such "inconvenient" laws.

Coming as it does in the wake of these developments, India's stand at the UN Human Rights Council was viewed with apprehension by the intelligentsia in Kerala. Many see it as yet another example of appeasement politics and want the government to uphold the rule of law for the physical, mental, educational and economic well-being of women and girls.

Published on October 18, 2013

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