The Rajasthan Assembly on September 17, 2021 passed the Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which mandated that all marriages, including child marriages, be registered.
If one or both parties of the marriage are underage (groom under 21 years and/or bride under 18), then the parents or guardians are responsible for registering the marriage within 30 days of the wedding. "The parties to the marriage, or in case the bridegroom has not completed the age of 21 years and/or bride has not completed the age of 18 years, the parents or, as the case may be, guardian of the parties shall be responsible to submit the memorandum, in such manner, as may be prescribed, within a period of 30 days from the date of solemnization of the marriage to the registrar within whose jurisdiction the marriage is solemnized, or the parties to the marriage or either of them are residing for at least 30 days before the date of submission of the memorandum," read the amendment bill.
The amendment also allowed registration of marriage if one or both of the parties die. In this case, the marriage can be registered within 30 days of death by either the surviving party, an adult child, or parents of either party. Whereas, when it comes to child marriages, only parents or guardians can register the marriage.
In addition to the stipulated District Magistrate Registration Officer, the amendment includes an Additional District Magistrate Registration Officer and a Block Marriage Registration Officer "to monitor and review the work of registration of marriages" in their concerned districts or blocks.
FactChecker looked at the amendment and spoke to experts to see why it's causing an uproar and what has changed technically with this new amendment.
Uproar Against the Bill
The civil rights society and the Opposition blame the government for the "hasty" move. The Opposition, led by BJP, staged a walkout from the Assembly over its rejection of the amendment and accused the Congress-led Rajasthan government of promoting child marriages. But, the ruling party defended their position. MLA Shakuntala Rawat, was reported as saying by ANI, "Child marriages take place in villages so through compulsory registration, such marriages will be stopped. In services, such certificates are required."
The National Commission for Protection off Child Rights, a statutory body under the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Women & Child Development, calls the making of the entire Act "criminal".
"It took [India] a fight of 200 years to make child marriage a crime. They have institutionalised it with the passing of just one bill. This bill has been passed to make those who are for child marriages/criminals happy. Marriage will instigate sexual relationships, ultimately. A sexual relationship before the age of 18, is rape, so in actuality, crime is going to be instigated," Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson, NCPCR, told FactChecker.
A 2006 Supreme Court ruling mandated registrations of all kinds of marriages and the Rajasthan government has said it passed this legislation to govern this rule. "Every marriage will have to be registered. The bill does not say that child marriage is valid. If the District Collector wants, he or she can still take action against the child marriages," clarified Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 505 cases of child marriages were chargesheeted in 2020. The child rights' body chief said there were around 4,700 cases which were prevented last year and FIRs (first information reports) were lodged against the ones that couldn't be prevented.
"The Prohibition of Child Marriages Act, 2006 (PCMA) states that child marriages are voidable. Then it says that to protect the victims there is a procedure that needs to be followed. From sections 9-12, the PCMA states the punishments that will be given to those adults marrying a child and also to those who help in the marriage. Now the new amendment states that parents need to get the marriage registered within 30 days. So, will anyone willingly go and register a crime?" asked Kanoongo.
Is Registration of Child Marriage New?
While the political furore is over the assumption that this amendment now promotes child marriages, what is being overlooked is that registration of child marriages by parents or guardians was allowed even under the original Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages Act, 2009.
"Registration of child marriages were not even prohibited before. So it's incorrect to raise the question whether this new amendment permits registration of child marriages. If that was the debate, then this issue should have been raised in 2009 itself when registration of child marriages was permitted by law," Anant Asthana, a child rights lawyer based in New Delhi, told FactChecker.
Section 8 of the 2009 Act mentions, "(1) The parties, or in case the parties have not completed the age of 21 years, the parents or as the case may be, guardian of the parties, shall be responsible to submit the memorandum within a period of 30 days from the date of solemnization of the marriage to the Registrar within whose jurisdiction the marriage is solemnized or both or any of the parties resides."
It adds, "(2) A memorandum, which is not submitted within the time limit specified in subsection (1), may be submitted at any time on payment of penalty as may be prescribed."
If a 19-year-old girl gets married, then according to the older law, the parents or guardians had to register the marriage. Now, according to the new amendment, the girl does not require her parents to register the marriage.
"The recently-passed amendment bill simply reiterates the ages and empowers women to some degree. Earlier, the girl had to wait until she was 21 to register the marriage. If one is eligible for marriage, they should be eligible to register their marriage and this is what the law is stating. Even in a legal marriage, for example, if a 21-year-old boy and a 19-year-old girl get married, the girl would have to wait for two years before registering the marriage which would further delay the conjugal rights females would receive in property, inheritance, and succession," added Asthana.
Did Law Ever Prevent Child Marriages?
In India, child marriages are "voidable at the option of the contracting party who was a child at the time of marriage", according to the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act, 2006 (PCMA). The legal age to get married is 18 years for females, and 21 for males.
"It's interesting to note that the PCMA is not 'Prevention of Child Marriage Act'. We are trying to fight and support the case that FIRs should be lodged even when child marriage is attempted. This doesn't happen now as FIRs are lodged after solemnisation. That's why there is a sort of a data gap in the recorded number of FIRs and marriages, which is why the numbers are not relied upon. There is underreporting of the number of marriages. Thus, this new bill is contradictory," Kanoongo told FactChecker.
While there were 501 and 523 reported cases of child marriages in the country in 2018 and 2019, respectively, 2020 saw a 50% increase than the previous year with 785 reported child marriage cases, according to Crime In India 2020 statistics released by the NCRB.
From 2016 to 2021, there have been a total of 51 reported incidents and 53 reported victims of child marriages in Rajasthan, shows NCRB data. In Rajasthan, 35% of women aged 20-24 years got married before 18, according to an Action Aid report dated March 24, 2020. "Rajasthan has a 16.2% prevalence of child marriage which is very high compared to the national average of 11.9%," states the report while citing data from a 2018 NCPCR report.