10/08/2005, 00.00
INDIA

Legalising child marriages "an attack against women", say church and NGOS

Nirmala Carvalho

Catholic leaders and women's rights campaigners slam the High Court ruling as "retrograde, outrageous and very dangerous". The Delhi Archbishop said: "The situation of women continues to worsen."

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – On 5 October, the Delhi High Court declared "valid" marriages contracted between children aged 15 years. The judges said the act cannot be contested if it takes place "by free will" because the fifteenth birthday is "the age of personal discretion", and therefore such a union would be "valid, enforceable and recognizable in courts of law."

The Delhi Archbishop Mgr Vincent Concessao, told AsiaNews: "I am concerned; the status of women in our country will deteriorate further.  It is worrying that a girl of 15 years will have to assume the responsibility of wife and mother, whilst still a child herself.  In today's context, a girl has to be able to look after herself in case of any eventuality, and a girl cannot do so at 15. She may not even have completed basic school education." The archbishop said it was absurd that a government promoting a birth-control policy "should lower the legal marriageable age, thus increasing the fertility rate and hence the number of births. This raises serious social issues."

John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union and member of the National Council for Integration, said: "At 15 years, some girls would have just attained puberty, but others would not. Marriage at this age means an assault on reproductive organs which are often not yet mature."

"Young mothers in Rajasthan (western state on the border with Pakistan – ed.note) have the highest abortion, pre and post-delivery mortality rates. This is true for them and for their children – who are often born deformed when they survive. There is no need to point out the fact that a society which allows its daughters to get married with the consent of the law, but often without the child's consent, hardly cares for their health and education."

The National Commission for Women (NCW) reacted "angrily" to the decision and chairperson Girija Vyas said: "There should definitely be a rethink on this court order and the government should appeal against the decision.  Child marriage is a big problem in our country. You should see the plight of child widows. In such a scenario, the court order is a matter of serious concern".

Brinda Karat, a women's rights campaigner, added: "It is a ridiculous, outrageous and retrograde judgment. The decision is highly objectionable in that it goes against laws banning child marriage."

Renuka Choudhury, the Indian Minister for Tourism, said: "I am baffled, upset and angry. If a girl can marry at 15, then you might as well allow 15-year-olds to drink, vote and drive."

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