'Very Important Issue': Supreme Court Reserves Judgment On Plea To Curb Child Marriages

Debby Jain

10 July 2024 9:36 AM GMT

  • Very Important Issue: Supreme Court Reserves Judgment On Plea To Curb Child Marriages

    While reserving judgment on an NGO's plea seeking due implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, the Supreme Court today remarked that programmes and lectures aimed at creating awareness do not really bring about a change on the ground-level."Registration of FIR is one aspect. But at the social level, what can be done?" Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud asked the Union of...

    While reserving judgment on an NGO's plea seeking due implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, the Supreme Court today remarked that programmes and lectures aimed at creating awareness do not really bring about a change on the ground-level.

    "Registration of FIR is one aspect. But at the social level, what can be done?" Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud asked the Union of India. When Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati (for Union) referred to certain awareness programmes carried out by the government to create awareness, the CJI commented: "they don't really change things on the ground".

    The matter was before a bench of CJI DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala, Manoj Misra which, while reserving judgment, called on the counsels for the petitioner-NGO and Union to place before it some concrete suggestions that could be put forth to governments as guidance.

    To recap, when the matter was heard in April 2023, counsel for petitioners informed the court that the issue of child marriage continued to persist. In response, Additional Solicitor General Madhavi Divan urged that there was a bill pending since 2021, as per which the women's age of consent for marriage was to be raised to 21 years.

    After hearing the counsels, the Court had directed the Union to file a status report, elucidating:

    1. The data collected from various states bearing on the nature and extent of child marriages;

    2. Steps taken to implement the provisions of the Prohibition of Child marriage Act 2006;

    3. The policy formulated by the Union government to effectuate the purpose of the Act.

    "The Union of India should also engage with the State governments in order to apprise the court on the compliance by states of the provision of Section 16(3) for the appointment of the child marriage Prohibition officer. Affidavit shall also clarify whether the officer so appointed or given other multifarious duties", it had further said.

    Today's hearing began with ASG Bhati apprising the court that the status report called for had been placed on record. The same provided state-wise data of 29 States/Union Territories on the number of child marriages reported, number of cases of child marriages prevented, number of cases in which FIR was registered, etc. for the past 3 years.

    "[Data would show that] problem is severely high in some states...", the ASG submitted. She drew the court's attention to the fact that 5 states/Union Territories, ie Dadar and Nagar Haveli, Ladakh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland reported zero cases. On the other hand, numbers were high in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana.

    Education and Skill Development Is The Way Forward: Union

    The ASG asserted that there was a significant improvement in the child marriage statistics compared to the years 2006-07: "There is a 50% reduction...from 47% child marriages to 23% child marriages".

    On the CJI questioning about conviction rates, she answered: "It's a multi-pronged approach. The prosecution...experience on the ground is that it's not the most effective amelioration or solution. So efforts have been of awareness, training, capacity building at one step...then incentivizing".

    Emphasizing the importance of the Union's programmes, the ASG further stated, "we have to work towards wholesome education and opportunities, skill development for young girls and women. That is the only way one half of the population will really be able to contribute as nation builders and get out of these social evils in an effective manner."

    In this regard, she referred to government schemes/programmes including - Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samridhi Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Mission Poshan 2.0, Swachh Vidyalaya Mission, etc.

    "If their (young girls' and women's) role can be freed up from caregiving to some productive activities, that is where the wholesome change will happen", said the ASG.

    States Giving Additional Charge To District Magistrates, SDMs, etc.

    The ASG also informed the court that most states give additional charge to District Magistrates, etc. to deal with the issue of child marriage. One state however, ie Andhra Pradesh, has outrightly said it gives no such additional charge.

    "The experience is, when additional charge is given to people like District Magistrates, Sub-Divisional Magistrates, Tehsildars, Patwaris, etc...they are in a position of power and authority. Their word carried weight. It may not be completely ideal to have people only with the charge of child marriage prohibition".

    The submission however was countered by the counsel for petitioners, who argued that Child Marriage Protection Officers were contemplated by the Act for a purpose, looking at the scale of the problem. If additional charge is given to District Magistrates, etc., they would neither have the human and monetary resources, nor the time, to monitor the issues.

    We Don't Know The End Result Of Prosecution, Schemes Put Onus On Girl Child: Petitioners

    The counsel for petitioners was heard arguing that no data was available regarding how many prosecutions led to any kind of conviction. "We don't know the end result of these FIRs...we should atleast know where these prosecutions are leading." Notably, the CJI also enquired the ASG about the conviction rates, but it was informed that those statistics were not part of the affidavit/status report. 

    The counsel for petitioners further claimed that there were certain states which were "severely plagued" by the issue and that there was no congruence between the numbers available.

    "All these schemes are putting onus on the girl child. Unfortunately, this is not what is perpetrated by the girl or the boy. There are 17.1% boys also who are forced into child marriage at this point...23.3% girls and 17.1% boys. The entire onus is on girls...to educate them, empower them, give them water...but they do not address the issue. This is not something happening on account of the girl child, it is happening to them".

    Petitioners' Suggestions On How To Address Issue Of Child Marriage

    Hearing the counsel for petitioners, the CJI requested her to give some concrete suggestions at the social level: "You have made a very significant point. It's a very important issue...It is not just the question of prosecution of child marriage. What can we do as part of our remit to give some guidance to the governments? We would like you to formulate".

    In response, the counsel informed that the Act provides for Magistrates to pass judicial orders around the time when mass-level child marriages are likely to take place, like Akshay Tritiya. She suggested that CMPOs can do a field-level search to go and see whether these orders are being actually implemented.

    A second suggestion which fell from the counsel was that NALSA can direct district legal services authorities to do field-level enquiry: "NALSA can train lawyers that are there in the legal services authorities".

    Thirdly, it was suggested that the working of the schemes targeting child marriages be analyzed to see if anything needs to be changed.

    Giving the counsel time to file a brief note, and asking ASG Bhati to place on record a note regarding steps being taken by the government as well as ideas for the way forward, the court reserved its judgment.

    "[Place the note] without being adversarial...we are not here to criticize anybody. Understand the social issue...We will formulate something, it's a very important issue" CJI said.

    Case Title: Society for Enlightenment and Voluntary Action and Anr. v. UoI and Ors. WP(C) No. 1234/2017

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