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India child marriage arrests leave families without breadwinner

Pinku Das Sarkar, 15 years old and already pregnant after her marriage last year, is at a loss for what to do after her husband’s arrest on February 2 in a controversial police crackdown on child marriage in northeast India.

He is one of more than 3,000 men, priests and Muslim leaders jailed in the state of Assam last month on charges of violating the country’s widespread laws against early marriage.

“It was 11 p.m. and we were about to sleep when four police officers came and took him away. I didn’t know what was going on. I cried all night,” Sarkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she sat outside her brick and bamboo home in Radhanagar, a village in Assam’s Nagaon district.

“I really don’t know what to do,” said Sarkar, who relied on the small income her 26-year-old husband earned selling sugar cane juice from a cart.

Criminalizing those who are already poor is not the best way to deal with a social problem.

Through Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ: Center for Children’s Rights

Marrying under the age of 18 is illegal in India, although nearly a quarter of married Indian women marry before the age of 18, according to health data collected between 2019 and 2021.

But tremendous progress has been made in recent years to stem the tide of child marriage.

As recently as 2005-2006, 47 percent of women married before age 18, and women’s rights campaigners say better access to education for girls and awareness campaigns in communities where the practice is culturally accepted has pushed numbers down.

However, police action to address the problem is rare. By 2021, fewer than 2,000 people were arrested across India for arranging or participating in child marriages, the latest official crime data shows.

Assam’s crackdown has been condemned by women and poverty reduction campaigners, who say it unfairly punishes poor families who marry off their daughters due to financial pressures, leaving thousands of families without their main breadwinner.

“Punishing those who are already poor is not the best way to deal with a social problem,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ: Center for Child Rights, a nonprofit organization.

“These young pregnant girls are without any help and their main support is gone,” she said.

Dozens of campaigners petitioned the Gauhati High Court in the state’s main city, calling instead for girls’ access to education and sexual and reproductive health information to help prevent child marriage.

Uncertain future

A few miles from Sarkar’s home, Gulsona Begum said her guard husband was imprisoned on February 7, just two weeks after they got married, saying his arrest had left the family destitute and facing an uncertain future.

“My father-in-law is physically disabled and we have no source of income now that my husband is in prison,” Begum said at her home in Amlipukhuri village.

She said she was 18, but police say she is still a minor and has no documents to prove her age.

“Now that he has been arrested, he will most likely lose his job,” she said. “We manage to eat for now with the help of our neighbors and relatives…but I don’t know what will happen to us.”

Fearing arrest, several men have fled to neighboring states, leaving their teenage wives at home, villagers said.

Radha Rani Mondal, right, with her daughter-in-law Mampi Biswash in their slum in Morigaon district of Assam. Mondal’s 20-year-old son was arrested on February 4 and her 17-year-old daughter-in-law is pregnant. She spent her last 500 rupees ($6) to hire a lawyer, to whom she still owes $250 (File: Anupam Nath/AP)

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma defended the state’s approach, telling reporters on Tuesday that no instances of child marriage had been reported since the police operation began.

He said that of the 3,047 people arrested so far, about 251 have been granted bail.

Questions have also been raised about whether the crackdown targeted Assam’s Muslim community, which accounts for about a third of its 34 million population.

Most of the arrests took place in districts with large Muslim populations, human rights lawyer Taniya Sultana Laskar said.

Sarma, a prominent figure in India’s ruling Hindu Nationalist Party, has said action is being taken against people regardless of their faith.

He cited the state’s maternal mortality rate of 32 percent among girls married before age 18, which is higher than the country’s average of 23.3 percent, according to government health data.

Mutual support?

Back at Radhanagar village, Sarkar’s father-in-law said his son’s arrest had forced him to question his decision to encourage the marriage as he believed it would be a mutual support for the two families.

“Pinku’s mother is a domestic worker and… lost her husband when she was young. We didn’t have a wife in the house after my wife died. So it was a solution to both of our families’ problems as I saw it,” he said.

“I understand that child marriage is wrong and I now feel helpless seeing Pinku sad all day long. At my age, I can’t even find work easily. I worry what will happen when the child comes,” he said.

For now, some neighbors have helped her by taking her to the hospital for a scheduled pregnancy checkup.

But she said she missed her husband. “His presence gave me support. He is my strength,” she said.