Home Columns Articles The beginning of a social reform- Child Marriage Restraint Act

The beginning of a social reform- Child Marriage Restraint Act

The beginning of a social reform- Child Marriage Restraint Act

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  •  Ananya Shukla

If we trace back to the 19th Century, we will find that child marriages were prevalent across the world. However, in respect of India, there are certain different theories that we might come across. If we go by the ancient texts, the Manusmriti puts the onus on a father and says that he must marry her daughter before puberty, or within three years of reaching puberty. According to Tolkāppiyam, a Tamil text, the correct age to get married for a boy is sixteen years, and for a girl is twelve years. There is also evidence which suggests that the Muslim invaders introduced this culture of child marriage when they were ruling India, and it further lowered the status of women. The practice was prevalent for a number of reasons that seemed practical to the parents at the given time. Often, the poor parents married off their daughters at an early age to older men, because they could not afford the dowry. Also, it was considered unsafe to have an unmarried daughter of a young age, in the fear that it would attract sexual predators. For a variety of reasons ranging from belief to economic conditions, it had become a prevalent practice to marry off daughters at a very young age. This practice however was not only harsh and unethical, it also compromised with the health and well-being of the children. They were subjected to violent atrocities of the household, early maternal deaths, and the infants born to women of such young age had physical deficiencies.

In the early in 1920s, a social reform began to emerge, it was supported by different Women’s Councils, despite knowing that they would face opposition from their respective religious communities. In furtherance of this social reform, Harbilas Sarda introduced the Child Marriage Bill in the Central Legislative Assembly. Though the British Government was reluctant, they complied under the pressure there was to bring forth a change. The Bill was referred to Committee named the Age of Consent Committee and it was headed by Sri Moropanth Vishvanath Joshi. This Committee presented its report in 1929, and it came into force on the 1st of April, 1930. It made the marriageable age as 14 for girls and 18 for boys, and extended to the whole of the British India. With a later Amendment, it was changed to 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. This Act popularly came to be known as the Sarda Act.  It was the first time in British India that Indian women played an organized role against a social evil. The first time when the Indian women played an active role in the political field. All India Women’s Conference, National Council of Women in India and Women’s India Association were the organizations who fought against the evil of child marriage.

The Act itself was a concise one, and included 12 sections. The aim of this legislation was restraining the solemnization of child marriage. It defined the terms ‘child’, ‘child marriage’, ‘contracting parties’ and ‘minor’. It contained punitive measures for the males who married a child, and the punishment was different for those who were below 21 years of age and for those who were over 21. Any person who was responsible for solemnization of such marriage was also liable for punishment. However, it is noteworthy that despite the aim of the Act, it did not render a child marriage invalid, as it was beyond the scope of this Act. Further, the court could not take cognizance of an offence after the expiry of one year.

This Act was a step towards a much needed social reform. However, this legislation did not turn out to be a victorious one in eradicating the social evil of child marriage. If we go by the statistics, we will realize that it had little to no effect on the number of child marriages. The reason for this failure can be attributed to the reluctance of the British to bring to fore the impacts this legislation aimed at making. The British, in order to maintain their harmony with the communal groups in the country, did not create any awareness and failed to propagate the ethos of this act. This legislation became prey to the infamous ‘Dual Policy’ of the British Government, and as a result was unsuccessful in bringing a social change.

Since the Child Marriage Restraint Act had provisions only for restraining the solemnization of marriage, the present legislation with respect to Child marriages, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 entails a threefold purpose, prevention of child marriages and protection of children from such marriages and prosecution of offenders. It also declares it as a cognizable and a non-bailable offence. Unlike the act of 1929, it also makes such solemnization null and void. If we take a look at the recent times, we will realize that even though we have had laws that prohibit child marriages for 90 years, we have failed to eradicate this evil in its entirety. These incidences of Child Marriages are higher among the socially, culturally and economically backward sections. Even today, child marriages roughly account for approximately 27 percent of the marriages in our country.

However, we are still long way from completely eradicating our Indian Society of this evil, and to do so, it is important that all the stakeholders are made aware of the cons in respect of it. Instead of being driven by religious or political motivations, it is important that we prioritize the well-being of the children and safeguard their rights. India has the highest number of child brides in the world, a swooping 15,509,000. In line with the target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, we are to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030. Going by the numbers, it seems like a far-fetched goal, considering that over 90 years have passed, and we still live in a morbid state of affairs. It is important that active steps are taken to create awareness about the turpitudes of this practice. We may feel that the root of this problem lies in patriarchy, but in practicality, it stems from a place of poverty and lack of education. The Act of 1929 was a stepping stone for India in introducing liberal feminism, and to usher a material change, it is important to persevere in the spirit that it started with.

“The views of the authors are personal