It was 5 am on Thursday morning when two social activists and volunteers of Child Line stationed themselves surreptitiously near the Annai Valainkanni Church in Chennai.
The activists, were present based on a tip off about a child marriage that was scheduled to happen near Besant Nagar.
Anxious to not be spotted, they pretended to be joggers as they witnessed the two families arrive.
The bride, a 15-year-old school girl, was made to stand beside a 29-year-old man, as her father conducted the marriage. The group waited, observed the situation and collected evidence from the sidelines. Before the ceremony could be completed, they swooped in and put an end to it
Enoch Moses, who led this operation We stopped the groom from tying the ‘thaali’ around the young girl’s neck and began asking for their age proof.
"They didn't have any valid certificates and tried to tell us that she was 18 years old. After much convincing, the girl told us she was only 15," he adds.
The activists took the two families with the help of the Shastri Nagar police to the Child Welfare Committee office.
Enoch Moses I had informed the Committee about the tip-off I received on Wednesday night. But instead of alerting the police, they told us to go stop the wedding ourselves. Even at the venue, the police didn’t arrive till we called the DCP.
However, their efforts were in vain. The family of the minor, the man and the accomplices were all let off by the Commission, after they submitted a 'letter of apology'.
In 2014, Tamil Nadu was declared the capital of child marriages, according to a media report, quoting data from the NCRB. Chennai topped the list in the state, with 5,840 married girls under the age of 15. This was followed by Coimbatore with 3,025 girls. Madurai, Tirunelveli and Salem all boasted of over 2,000 child marriages.
These numbers, which should have shamed the State, seems to have had little impact on the ground, where these illegal ceremonies remain unchecked.
Enoch MosesI saw with my own eyes, the girl’s father threatened her to lie about her age. After that he told her to say that she will commit suicide, if asked questions. How can you let someone like this go? Enoch MosesTo make matters worse, the girl and her family went to the groom’s house, even after submitting the apology letter. Who is to know if he forces himself upon her or if they solemnise the marriage now?
The Thiruvanmyur police have not even filed a First Information Report. When asked about this, an officer in the station, told The News Minute, it was a 'family matter' and therefore nobody came up to file a case.
The Child Welfare Committee, meanwhile, defended the lack of action against the groom and family of the 15-year-old. "The ceremony wasn't completed and the marriage didn't actually happen, so we can't take action against them under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act," says Sheila Charles Mohan, a member of the Committee.
Sheila Charles Mohan, a member of the Committee See, they are from a Scheduled Tribe and it is in their culture to get their children married early. Moreover, the child seems to have been getting friendly with a boy, so naturally the parents will be worried. So, they wanted to get her married to her uncle.
When asked if merely being let off with an apology letter will stop the crime of child marriage, the child welfare committee member said: “The media is largely responsible for child marriages. These children see all these films about love and do such things. In this case, we have warned the family and they will not pressurise her to get married till she is 18 now."
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam, however, remains unconvinced by the Committee’s explanation. “A technicality is being used here to define marriage itself. Yes, with that logic they can’t be prosecuted under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, but they have attempted to commit an offence and can be punished for the same.”
According to Section 511 of the IPC, anyone who attempts to commit an offence can be punished with imprisonment of any description provided by the offence, for a term which may extend to one half of the longest term of imprisonment provided for the crime.
With no case registered in the matter, as of now, activists claim the State has let the young girl down.
Enoch MosesThe 15-year-old is supposed to appear for her Class 10 examinations on 8 March. What she needs now is counselling and to be kept away from a family that is forcing her to get married. She expressed a desire to study.
“How will the number of child marriages reduce, if committees meant to protect these children, remain lax about their futures?" he asks.