Times of India Interview with HRLN Bihar State Coordinator on Child Marriage

Times of India, in their special edition New Hope magazine, recently interviewed Advocate and HRLN Bihar State Coordinator Vikash Kumar Pankaj on the issue of child marriage in the state. You can read the full article below.

 

'Vikash Kumar Pankaj is the state co-ordinator for Human Rights Law Network and president of Bihar Health Watch Forum. He has been practicing law since 2008 at the Patna High Court. Apart from routine criminal, matrimonial and service matters, he has been extensively occupied with several pro-bono litigations involving different facets of human rights such as HIV+/AIDS and health rights, prisoners’ rights, rights of differently-abled persons, right to education, women and child rights, right of the third-gender and LGBT community rights. Interviewed by Frank Krishner.

You have taken up many cases for Human Rights Law Network. Do you come across any cases involving child marriage and dowry?

Being a practicing lawyer I do come across cases of child marriage and dowry, the latter being more frequent and rampant, but both are social evils which need to be eradicated tactfully and zealously.

Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) is also pursuing and supporting a PIL since 2015 at the Patna High Court to take different steps to end the practice of child marriage in the state. It’s not a secret that Bihar tops the chart of child marriages in the country.

The Government of Bihar appears to be taking the elimination of underage marriage seriously. As a lawyer, can you tell us some of the strong points of the existing laws and rules in Bihar, to help ordinary citizens tackle this problem?

It’s a much awaited and a long overdue step by the state government. Recent studies by UNFPA suggest that Bihar has the highest national average of underage marriages in the country, at around 40%. This may surprise you, but Goshwari block of Patna has the highest percentage of child marriages in Bihar i.e. 66.6%.

Let’s look at some key laws. At present the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) 2006 is a comprehensive legislation incorporating different provisions dealing with and prohibiting child marriages in the country. It declares child marriage a non-bailable offence with rigorous imprisonment, which may extend to two years or with fine up to Rs 1 lakh, or both.

What is the legal recourse if anyone is confronted with a child marriage situation in their family or neighbourhood?

The PCMA has the answer. Any person having information regarding incident of child marriage before or after it has been solemnized can file immediate report or inform the police or the Child Marriage Protection Officers. The CMPO is the sub-divisional officer of the area. You can also dial Childline – the toll-free number is 1098 – and pass on the information. They will act speedily. You can inform any First-class Judicial Magistrate or District Magistrate or Child Welfare Committee.

Do you know that a man who marries an underage girl is legally a rapist? The Supreme Court’s recent judgment read down the Exception 2 of Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which defines ‘rape’. It makes sexual intercourse by a man with his wife aged under-18 years as ‘rape’, and henceforth any incidence of child marriage can now squarely attract stringent and penal sections of rape. I strongly feel that the steps taken by the state government need to be backed by the unequivocal intention and support of its law enforcing agencies.

If a boy or a girl is being forced into an underage marriage, can lawyers help? How?

Yes, the judiciary and lawyers have a greater role and responsibility in eradicating the practice of child marriage, which they have been performing courageously and meticulously since ages. Judiciary needs to be credited for its pivotal role in combating such evils through its different pronouncements and asserting the PCMA 2006 above the Personal Laws governing marriages in different faiths. This means that you cannot use a religious or social sanction to justify underage marriage.

The root cause of the problem is that most of the cases of child marriage do not reach the courts.

Are the loopholes which allow those going in for child marriage, or dowry in marriage, to continue with the practice?

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 declares a child marriage as voidable, that is on discretion of the victim, after attaining the age of majority. What this means is that if the victim (usually the victim is the girl, but it can be a boy also) reaches the marriageable age, she can withdraw the complaint, or be pressured to remain in the marriage.

This needs to be amended and declared void ab initio, meaning that the child marriage is void from the beginning.

Further, the litmus test in the case of underage marriages is the proof of age of the victim. It is common knowledge that even today the date of birth can be easily manipulated based on different documents issued by school authorities, municipality, etc. This is a major lacuna in the current law which brings the prosecution, the agencies and civil society on the back foot. In order to prevent such manipulations, it is important that medical examination of the alleged under-aged party should be made mandatory.

It’s really necessary that the provisions of the Bihar Marriage Registration Rules 2006 should be implemented in true letter and spirit, and consequently, registration of marriages should be compulsory.'

Source: Hope Magazine, Times of India, January 2018

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