India’s religious leaders hail drive against child marriage

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India’s religious leaders hail drive against child marriageReligious leaders, including Christians, have hailed the move to curb child marriages in India's northeastern state of Assam, amid international agencies reporting millions of child marriages in India.

Police in the state of Assam launched a crackdown against child marriages on Feb. 3 and rounded up more than 3,000 people, including Hindu and Muslim priests who officiated the child marriages in the state, bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

“We appreciate the step taken by the state government to eradicate child marriages,” Bishop Albert Hemrom of Dibrugarh in Assam told UCA News on Feb. 14.

One-third of the world's 650 million child brides live in India. Of the country’s 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before turning 15, says a UNICEF report.

Bishop Hemrom said the Assam government should have planned its action with greater care as among those arrested were adults who were married when they were as young as five or six years old.

The prelate also expressed concern for the people who are being arrested as they will be lodged in overcrowded prisons, which lack basic facilities like clean water and toilets.

"The worst affected are going to be women," he said.

Bishop Hemrom said that the Catholic Church fights against the social evil of child marriage.

"We have started an awareness program at the parish and diocesan level. We should collectively fight against this practice," he said.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam who belongs to the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, on Feb. 13 tweeted: “Our crackdown against child marriage has entered its second week with 3,015 arrests made so far."

He asserted that the drive would last till the next state elections in 2026.

"The drive against this social evil will continue. The positive side is that now people are coming out and surrendering before police,” Sarma said.

Opposition parties have termed the arrests of teenage husbands and their family members as an "abuse of law" for political gain.

The Muslim community in Assam has long faced discrimination in the multi-ethnic state.

Appreciating the drive, Father Rajesh Lakra of St. Stephan Catholic Church at Rumalgaon in Tinsukia district said, “It’s a good step. We are creating awareness among our people in every way possible about the harmful practice of child marriages.”

Anand Baba, a Hindu leader, on Feb. 12, along with child activists and healthcare workers, started the campaign in Tinsukia and organized a seminar on the ill effects of child marriage.

Addressing people mostly from the tea garden community, Baba said, “We must eliminate this practice completely from society.”

We should educate our girls to help them get equal opportunity in society, Baba told the gathering.

Assam has a high maternal and infant mortality rate in India. Some 31 percent of marriages in the state are in the prohibited age group, according to reports by the National Family Health Survey.

The state government has said that those who are married to girls below 14 years of age will be booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.

In a landmark 2017 judgment, India's Supreme Court ruled that sex with an underage wife constituted rape.

The Indian federal government in December 2021 raised the age for marriage of girls to 21 irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Some groups have appealed against the move in the Supreme Court of the country.

Under India’s Muslim personal law, which governs the institutions of marriage and divorce, adoption and succession in the nation's Islamic community, girls can get married once they attain puberty.

Although illegal, child marriage is prevalent in many parts of the country, mostly in the villages, due to patriarchal customs, lack of education and poverty, social workers say.

By Bijay Kumar Minj