Poor understanding of maternal, infant mortality rates & misuse of law behind Assam child marriage crackdown

State’s poor health performance lies in larger developmental issues; Prohibition of Child Marriage and POCSO Acts being misinterpretated

By Akhil Ranjan Dutta
Published: Monday 20 February 2023
Under instructions from Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state police have reportedly arrested 3,041 people, including 93 women, in 4,074 registered cases. Photo: @himantabiswa / Twitter

Assam’s crusade against perpetrators of child marriage is making headlines. However, the crackdown is based on a poor understanding of the causes of maternal mortality rates (MMR) and infant mortality rates (MMR). The laws being used to book perpetrators behind bars are also being misused. 

Under instructions from Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state police have reportedly arrested 3,041 people, including 93 women, in 4,074 registered cases. These arrests happened in less than a fortnight, following orders on February 3, 2023. 

Read more: Why Assam’s drive will weaken the movement against child marriage

It was also reported that more than 8,000 were named as accused in FIRs. The government invoked the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act for those who had married girls below 14 years of age and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, for those who had married girls in the 14-18 years age group.’ 

Child marriage was attributed to the alarmingly high MMR and IMR in the state. Nationally 23.3 per cent of women between the age group of 20-24 were married off before attaining the age of 18, revealed the National Family Health Survey-V (NFHS 2019-21).  

The state reported an increase in child marriages from 30.8 per cent to 31.8 per cent in 2019-21. The NFHS survey conducted in 2019-20 also revealed that Assam had an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7 per cent, as against the national average of 6.8 per cent.  

The teenage pregnancy rate in Assam has been as high as 6.16 per cent in the year 2022-23, according to the Assam CM.

The districts with Bengali Muslim majority populations reported a higher rate of teenage pregnancy, with Barpeta district having the maximum rate of 28.30 per cent, followed by Dhubri and South Salmara districts at 26.8 per cent and Goalpara at 23.39 per cent.

“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. 

The prevalence of the MMR and IMR has been truly alarming in the state. Assam had the third-highest IMR in the country in 2019, found the Sample Registration System (SRS) bulletin of the Registrar General of India (RGI).

A gradual decline in both MMR and IMR was noted in recent years but still much higher than the national average. 

Read more: National Girl Child Day: Without HER, there is no tomorrow

Assam’s IMR was recorded at 47 deaths per 1,000 live births, the 2015 bulletin found. It came down to 44 in 2016 and 2017.

The state recorded 41 deaths in 2018, reducing to 40 in 2019. However, it was still higher than the national average, which was recorded at 37 (2015), 34 (2016), 33 (2017), 32 (2018) and 30 in 2019. 

The state’s MMR was recorded at 15.2 per cent in 2015-17 as against the national average of 8.1 during the same period, the bulletin found.

The increase in child marriage, as reported by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), made Assam’s case more alarming. The state witnessed a rise in child marriages from 30.8 per cent to 31.8 per cent during 2019-21.

Against this background, the Government of Assam resorted to the POCSO Act, 2012 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2016. 

However, two larger questions need to be addressed to cross-examine the assertions made by the government in dealing with the issues of MMR and IMR in the state.

The first one is the very pretext of the MMR and the IMR that have been cited as the legitimate ground to wage war on criminals that indulged in child marriage and thereby caused harm to women’s health. 

This assertion cannot be read independently of what has been happening in Assam under the incumbent regime. The way the police actions have been undertaken so promptly against perpetrators of child marriage appears to be immature child politics.

MMR and IMR are larger issues and Assam’s poor performance lies in larger developmental issues. Poor healthcare, nutritional deficit and a failure to temper scientific knowledge about birth control have led to high MMR and IMR rates.

Child marriage is not confined only to the targeted community, that is, Muslims of East Bengal origin. The government has been complicit in this regard to other communities, particularly the tea tribes in the state.

The much-celebrated Population and Women Empowerment Policy of Assam (PWEPA), 2017, took note of the entirety of the challenges confronted by the population.

From poverty and illiteracy to flood, erosion and climate change, all these factors contribute towards the declining quality of human life in the state of Assam and contributing to the recent population explosion. 

Read more: Teenage pregnancies in every 3 of 5 child brides, finds CRY

The prevalence of a higher rate of IMR and MMR was attributed to demographic and development complications, highlighting issues like constraints of livelihood sources, unemployment and illiteracy along with child marriage.

A series of reports published by different government agencies, including by think tank NITI Aayog, has exposed the poor state of human security and sustainable development in Assam, where the state has performed the worst in the categories of health and well-being among the major states in the country.     

The second one is the misinterpretation and the misappropriation of the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and the POCSO Act 2012 in cracking down the child marriage.

Neither of the Acts empowers the police to indulge in mass crackdowns to curb child marriage or punish those who have supposedly indulged in child sexual abuse. Indeed the POCSO Act is almost non-applicable in the present cases.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 lays down legal-juridical procedures for annulling such marriages through petitions by the contracting parties within the stipulated timeframe and also assigns definite responsibilities to the authorities constituted under the Act to create awareness and undertake measures so as to prevent the practices of child marriage. 

The content and the spirit of the Act have not been about policing and cracking down, but rescuing the victims and punishing the offenders only through the laid down procedures. The actions by the police, therefore, violate the provisions of the Act. 

This has been testified through the order of the Gauhati High Court that granted anticipatory bail to some of the accused and remarked, “If marriage is taking place in violation of law, the law will take its course. These cases have been happening since time… These are not NDPS, smuggling, stolen property cases.” 

The court also reminded that the actions on the part of the police are “causing havoc in the private life of people, there are children, there are family members and old people.” 

The Act has three important dimensions: 

  • the given procedure and stipulated timeframe for filing petitions by contracting parties against the child marriage
  • provision for maintenance and residence to female contracting party to child marriage; custody and maintenance of children of child marriages, and legitimacy of children born of child marriages; and 
  • the role and responsibilities of the Child Marriage Prohibition Officers towards creating awareness, collecting evidence and undertaking initiatives against child marriages, etc, in collaboration with the stakeholders in the society. 

Interestingly, the CM emphasised creating an ecosystem against child marriage only after the strong observations by the court against the police crackdown. 

In a review meeting with deputy commissioners and superintendents of police on February 17, 2023, the CM said, “the government functionaries, law enforcement agencies, gaon burhas, gaon panchayat secretaries, self-help groups, village defence parties, etc will be the stakeholder of the ecosystem.” The CM quote was reported by Assam-based English daily The Assam Tribune. 

Invoking the POCSO is unwarranted. Child marriages cannot be equated to sexual offences of the child as per the provisions of the Act, which was enacted to prevent 

  • the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; 
  • the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and 
  • the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.

Read more: Skewed sex ratio worsens marriage woes for Marathwada farmers

The court, therefore, questioned the Act of invoking Section 6 of the POCSO Act, “which deals with aggravated penetrative sexual assault” that carries a minimum sentence of 20 years for an offender. 

Ironically, Section 6 of the POSCO Act that lays down the “punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault” is meant for a police officer who commits “aggravated penetrative sexual assault” as per Section 5 of the said Act. 

The court said: “[When it comes to] POCSO, you can add anything. What is the POCSO here? Merely because POCSO is added, does it mean judges will not see what is there?,” reported new website The Wire

Akhil Ranjan Dutta is an author and columnist. He is also a professor and former head of the Department of Political Science at Gauhati University, Assam. He is the author of Hindutva Regime in Assam: Saffron in the Rainbow

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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