What's The Real Reason Behind Assam's Child Marriage Crackdown?
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said that the drive against child marriage will continue till the next assembly elections. The reason: High maternal mortality rate.
Family members wail as Assam Police arrests people involved in child marriage during a massive crackdown across the state, at Hatigaon, in Guwahati. ANI/Hindustan Times
Guwahati: Assam has been witnessing protests since February 3, 2023, as the state police decided to launch its ‘war against child marriage’. In just 24 hours, the police arrested over 2,044 persons who were allegedly involved in child marriages.
The state government has cited the high Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) and Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) as the prime reasons to curb child marriages. The National Family Health Survey that was conducted in 2019-20 and released last year revealed that Assam had an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7%, that’s significantly higher than the national average of 6.8%.
Justifying the arrest orders, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a press conference, “According to a survey by the health department, an average of 31 percent of girls was married off by their families before the legal marriage age of 18 in Assam.
The chief minister said that the teenage pregnancy rate in Assam was also recorded at an average of 16.16 percent in 2022-23 with Barpeta district having the maximum rate of 28.30 percent. Similarly, the rate of teen pregnancy was also recorded as very high in Dhubri and South Salmara districts at 26.8 percent and Goalpara at 23.39 percent.
“Child marriage is leading to pre-mature pregnancies that have been contributing largely to Assam’s perennial problem of high MMR and IMR and that’s why drastic action needs to be taken immediately. So we decided to launch the operation,” the CM said.
He said that the drive will continue till the next assembly elections in 2026.
But why this sudden crackdown?
After all, it is not the first time that the high IMR and MMR in the state have been highlighted. In fact, Assam has been struggling with its high IMR and MMR numbers for years now.
Assam’s Maternal Mortality Ratio: Highest In India
According to a health ministry report, Assam’s MMR for 2014-16 was 237 per 1,00,000 live births against the all-India figure of 130. The state’s MMR for 2010-12 was 328 and for 2011-13 was 300, against the national average of 178 and 167 for those periods.
Similarly, Assam’s IMR, the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, was 44 per 1,000 live births in 2017, where 33 was the national average.
The Sample Registration System (SRS) bulletin of the Registrar General of India (RGI) released last year highlighted that Assam had third-highest IMR in 2019. “In 2015, Assam’s IMR was recorded at 47 deaths per 1000 live births which came down to 44 each in 2016 and 2017. The numbers came down further in 2018 with 41 deaths and 40 in 2019. However, the national average was recorded at 37 (2015), 34 (2016), 33 (2017), 32 (2018) and 30 in 2019,” said the RGI bulletin.
As per the bulletin, Assam’s MMR was recorded at 15.2 percent in 2015-17 in comparison to the national average of 8.1 during the period.
In 2016-18, it was recorded at 14 percent in Assam whereas the national average was 7.3 percent.
Besides, the National Family Health Survey (NHFS) 2019-20 found that the under-five mortality rate (U5MR) in Assam was 31.9 percent whereas it was 39.1 percent nationally.
As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2021, Assam also witnessed an increase in child marriages from 30.8 percent to 31.8 percent during 2019-21.
Following the public anger after the crackdown, chief minister Sarma who is also the home minister of the state, said, “Those (grooms) who have impregnated minor girls will be slapped with charges under POCSO Act as it’s a kind of sexual exploitation of minor girls. Their offence is non-bailable and others will be charged under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and can avail bail.”
POCSO is an Act enacted in 2012 to protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography and trial of such offences are usually done in Special Courts.
Panic, Protests In Assam
The move has triggered a widespread panic across the state as young wives of accused husbands have started protesting and gheraoing police stations, demanding the release of their family members.
A widow, a mother of two, reportedly died by suicide in Mankachar fearing the arrest of her parents for marrying her off before the legal age. The wedding took place in 2012 and she lost her husband to Covid 19 in 2020.
The director general of police (DGP) Assam, GP Singh said, “We are taking a zero tolerance attitude towards child marriages. It’s abuse on the girl child. Those who have impregnated their minor wives will be booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.”
Meanwhile, in Morigaon district, police had to resort to a lathi charge and shelling tear gas to disperse angry family members of the arrested persons in front of the Mayong police station on Saturday.
“We are from poor families and most of the men arrested are the sole bread earners. Since the police have arrested them, we also want them to look after our children,” said a group of women, protesting in front of the Mayong police station.
Senior Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP, Abdul Khaleque said, “It’s a welcome move by the government but they should also think about what will happen to wives and children whose husbands and parents were taken into custody. It must not be such a hasty decision. There is a need for a holistic approach to cure this social evil.”
Khaleque added that since priests and qazis who had solemnized these marriages needed to maintain a register and submit before the district administration and police, the government action must have brought them under scrutiny too.
“What about the government officials who had put a blind eye to this problem or was there a nexus to carry forward the child marriage trend? A high-level probe also needs to be conducted upon them rather than just putting the husband and family members behind bars,” he added.
Congress’s deputy leader and MP from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi, said, “It’s a farce. It is a PR exercise for the chief minister under whose tenure - cases of mafia, crimes against women and elderly, drugs and kidnappings have increased.”
However, the BJP-led government under chief minister Sarma blamed the previous governments for overlooking the menace of child marriage in the state; Sarma was the health and education minister for almost 15 years during the Congress regime before joining the saffron camp in 2015.
“Both education and health department are usually responsible for sensitizing the public about the ill effects of child marriage. Then why did Sarma do nothing when he was in charge of both the departments during the previous government?” asked Lurinjyoti Gogoi, former general secretary of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and chief of Asom Jaitya Parishad, a regional political party.
Miguel Queah, the chairperson at UTSAH (Universal Team for Social Action and Help), an NGO working for child rights in Assam, said, "Now the Assam Police is doing what it was supposed to be doing the moment a complaint was lodged."
So far, state police have registered some 4074 cases related to child marriages and identified some 8134 people as accused.
Till Saturday morning, 2258 persons were arrested including 52 priests and qazis. The highest number of arrests were made in the Biswanath police district (139) where most of the cases were reported in the tea tribe community followed by Barpeta (128) and Dhubri (127), both minority-dominated districts.
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