On January 23, Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the State government would launch a State-wide drive against child marriage under the Prohibition of Child Marriage (PCMA) Act, 2006 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, 2011.

Those who married girls belonging to the age group of 14-18 have been booked under PCMA and those who married girls below the age of 14 have been booked under the POCSO Act. This comes at a time when the State is lagging behind on key healthcare indices due to high infant and maternal mortality rates. This article sheds light on these key data points to look at the importance of such a wide scale drive.

One of the major problems that Assam has had to grapple with is that of rampant child marriages, particularly in the char areas. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) for 2019-21, 32 per cent of girls in Assam were married off before attaining the legal age of 18 years.

In comparison, the national statistic stands at 25 per cent. This rate is alarming as child marriage victims come from the most marginalised sections of the society and suffer from several health concerns. The same survey also found out that 12 out of 100 child brides were either pregnant or had already become mothers.

As per the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) portal, the teenage pregnancy rate of Assam for 2022 stood at an alarming 16.8 per cent. This statistic becomes even more concerning when we compare it with key healthcare statistics.

Lagging indices

For decades, Assam has lagged behind in important healthcare indices such as infant and mortality rates, which also result in a low human development index (HDI) rank. In the case of maternal mortality, the State has a rate of 195 deaths per one lakh live births for the years 2018-20.

Although there has been a decline from 2016-18 when the rate was 215, it is still significantly higher than the current national average of 97 deaths per one lakh live births. This high rate of maternal mortality is due to the various health complications that emerge during the pregnancy of underage mothers. It is also noteworthy that most underage mothers also come from economically weak backgrounds and do not get adequate nourishment and care.

Not only does teenage pregnancy adversely affect the health of mothers, but also lead to complications for the child. As a result, Assam has the highest infant mortality rate in the North-East with 36 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2020. This is alarmingly higher than the national average of 28 deaths per 1,000 live births. All of these healthcare concerns prompted the State government to take decisive action against child marriage.

In 2020 and 2021, only 138 and 155 cases of child marriage were registered by Assam Police, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Within 24 hours of the government’s move to crackdown on child marriage, over 2,000 people were arrested.

As of today, a total of 4,268 cases have been registered, 3500 of which were reported by civilians. Among the 6,777 accused identified, 3,170 have already been arrested. It proves that the government’s strong handed approach has been successful not just identifying but also booking perpetrators. The government’s proactive policy has also converted this drive into a Jan Andolan which is seeing immense public participation.

The critics

However, this move has attracted significant criticism from intellectuals. Noted academics have argued that child marriage is common in India and that crimes related to child marriage must not be penalized as criminal offences. It is also argued that societal problems such as this should not be treated with coercion but through generation of awareness.

However, the problem of child marriage is not a mere breach of law. It is a breach of a girl child’s fundamental right to choice, in addition to being a hazard to her health and well being. Moreover in many of the cases, the girl isn’t mature enough to give consent. There have been serious cases of rape in issues related to child marriage. During the mass drive, the police also arrested a perpetrator who had kidnapped a girl child and raped her in 2019, later marrying his victim. Such offences should not be taken lightly in a civilised society. In such cases of severe crimes, it is imperative that the government sets a precedent of deterrence.

In addition to this, it is not that the State government is not taking preventive measures for generation of awareness. The State Cabinet passed an order to appoint the Secretary of each Panchayat as a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer under Section 16 of the PCMA, and empowered the officer to lodge a police complaint in cases of child marriage occurring under the officer’s village.

In Cachar district, a pilot initiative has been launched where village-level meetings called Bal Panchayats will commence to generate awareness among the people about the ill effects of child marriage.

As India embarks on her journey towards Amrit Kaal, a societal menace such as child marriage must be curbed both through law enforcement and through education. In this regard, Assam has paved the path for other States to follow in dealing with infringement on a girl child’s rights through an iron hand.

Deb is chief economist, CM secretariat, govt of Assam; Barooah is student of political science, Ashoka University