Assam cabinet on January 23 gave its nod to the state police to crack down against child marriages across the state amidst disturbing information compiled on the ‘menace’ under National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5).
“The crackdown will begin immediately and will be carried out within 15 days. The crackdown would be neutral and secular, no particular community would be targeted,” Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters after the cabinet meeting.
“Men who marry girls below 14 years will be booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act,” Sarma said.
The state has a high rate of maternal and infant mortality and the primary cause is child marriage.
“The state has an average of 31 per cent of marriages in the prohibited age. Men marrying girls in the age group of 14-18, will be tried under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and necessary steps will be taken against them under this law,” Sarma said.
“A Child Protection Officer will be appointed in every village and it will be the duty of the Gram Panchayat secretary to file a complaint against any child marriage taking place in their area. The issue of appointment of child marriage prohibition officers has been overlooked since the Act came into force back in 2006. However, now, this will be a priority in our governance so that we can do away with this menace within five years,” he stated.
The deputy commissioners and superintendents of police have been sensitized on the matter through video conference, he said.
“Assam government had taken inspiration from Karnataka, the only state in the country which has appointed child marriage prohibition officers. Karnataka has prevented about 11,000 child marriages and booked as many as 10,000 couples,” he further said.
“A big factor behind incidents of maternal and infant mortality rates in our state is child marriages. Hence our cabinet decided that legal action under the POCSO Act will be taken against anyone who marries a girl under 14 years of age. Child marriages are illegal and even a husband can’t have sexual relations with a girl below 14 years of age,” he said.
The decision was taken after the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) carried out between 2019 and 2020 showed 31.8 per cent of women aged between 20-24 years in the state were married before the legal age of 18 years, which is higher than the national figure of 23.3 per cent.
“NFHS-5 showed that 11.7 per cent of women aged between 15-19 years who were married were already mothers or pregnant during the period of survey (compared to the national figure of 6.8 per cent). It shows that child marriages are happening at an alarming rate in Assam,” he also said.
The figure was the highest for Dhubri district, where 22.4 per cent of married women aged between 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant and lowest for Charaideo district, where it was 3.8 per cent.
The NFHS-5 showed that 50.8 per cent of all women in the Dhubri district between 20-24 years got married before they turned 18. South Salmara at 44.7 per cent recorded the second-highest number of child marriages while in Dima Hasao it was 16.5 per cent.
“Action will also be taken against parents who encourage child marriages and priests who conduct them,” Sarma added.
As per NFHS-4 carried out in 2015 and 2016, the percentage of child marriages in Assam was 30.8 per cent against the national figure of 26.8 per cent. The percentage of women IN Assam between 15-19 years, who were mothers or pregnant, was 13.6 per cent against the national figure of 7.9 per cent.