Guwahati: The Assam Cabinet on Monday decided to book men who marry girls below 14 years in the state under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.
Assam has a “high” rate of maternal and infant mortality and the primary cause for that is child marriage, the CM said.
“We have decided to make the campaign against child marriage a priority in governance and we hope to end it in the next five years”, Sarma said at a press conference after the Cabinet meeting.
The state has an average of 31 per cent marriages in the “prohibited age”, Sarma said.
POCSO Act of 2012 defines a child as an individual under the age of 18 and it criminalises sex between an under-age child and an adult.
A husband cannot “touch” his wife if she is below the age of 14 as this amounts to sexual offence and the male partner is liable to be sentenced to life imprisonment under POCSO Act in Assam, Sarma said.
Asked about the legal action if both partners are below the age of 14, the chief minister said that in that case the marriage will be declared illegal and the boy will be sent to a juvenile home as minors cannot be tried in court.
Those 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, he said.
The legal age for marriage is 18 years for women and 21 for men.
The police have been directed to conduct a massive crackdown against child marriage, carry out an awareness campaign against the problem, and take legal action against those who are violating norms in this regard, the chief minister said.
The Gram Panchayat secretaries will be designated as Child Marriage Prevention (Prohibition) Officers and it will be their duty to file a complaint against any child marriage taking place in their area, Sarma said.
A massive drive against child marriage will be launched in the state and the police along with the district authorities have been asked to investigate the cases and counsel people against child marriage.
Dhubri with 50 per cent cases and South Salmara with 44.7 per cent top the list of districts with a high rate of child marriages.
“We minutely analysed the National Family Health Survey data of 2019-20 and found that 11.7 per cent of girls are burdened with early motherhood and though the state is doing well in other health parameters, maternal and child mortality is a matter of concern”, Sarma said.
“This is a neutral and secular action. It will be carried out across the state and is not targeted against any community. There is no need to give any political colour to it”, he said.
The Karnataka government has already engaged and appointed Child Protection Officers and ‘this has been an inspiration for us. They have prevented 11,000 child marriages and booked 10,000 cases’, Sarma said.
Welcoming the chief minister’s announcement, All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) president Rejaul Karim Sarkar expressed hope that it does not remain a mere policy decision.
“We are working to end child marriage in the minority-dominated areas and had submitted several memoranda to them but did not get any response from the authorities”, he said.
Just asking the police to file cases will not solve the problem but all sections of society must be involved to campaign against child marriage so that the people are convinced that it is a wrong practice.
“Educational facilities in the backward areas must be improved as this alone can bring awareness among the younger generation who will then refuse to get married below the permissible age, he said.