Hundreds of Indian women protest crackdown on child marriages: ‘I don’t have any other support’

An anti-child marriage drive in India that led to the arrests of thousands of men has sparked protests by scores of women who are concerned over their financial well being.

Police in India's northeastern state of Assam launched a massive crackdown on Friday on the orders of chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

More than 2,500 people were arrested and 4,074 cases were filed in less than a week against those either suspected of marrying or arranging marriages to underage girls.

The legal age for marriage for women in India is 18, but the rule is routinely flouted due to patriarchal customs and economic necessities.

The crackdown, according to Mr Biswa Sarma, is also aimed at religious figureheads who have aided in the registration of such marriages in mosques and temples.

But the massive drive has been severely criticised by non-profits as they accused the state government of an “emotional response” instead of highlighting substantive rehabilitation options for the affected girls.

In the aftermath of the crackdown, wailing women with small children have been seen outside police stations in several of Assam’s districts, begging for the release of their husbands.

Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages protest against state crackdown (AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages protest against state crackdown (AFP via Getty Images)

Dhubri district authorities reportedly used batons and teargas to disperse women protesters over the weekend.

“I am worried about how I’m going to look after my child... I ran away from home to get married so I don’t have any other support. As of now, I don’t have a single rupee with me,” a woman who claimed to be 18 years old, told The Indian Express.

A 17-year-old girl allegedly died by suicide in the Cachar district after her wedding was called off after the drive. A woman, 27, killed herself in the Salmara-Mancachar district on Saturday, fearing the arrest of her parents as she was married at the age of 16.

Despite the public outcry and protests, Mr Biswa Sarma maintains the drive was necessary to curb child marriage and subsequently prevent high maternal and infant mortality rates.

According to a report by India’s National Family Health Survey, Assam has an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7 per cent compared to the 6.8 per cent national average. The state also has the third highest infant mortality rate in India, at 32 deaths per 1,000 live births.

“There is zero sympathy in these matters,” Mr Biswa Sarma said.

“In order to save lakhs of girls from this situation in the future, one generation will have to suffer. There is no question of sympathy here... Child marriage has to stop in Assam and action against it will continue.”

Mr Biswa Sarma previously said the police were directed to act against “unpardonable and heinous crimes on women”.

Those involved in the practice of child marriage in the past seven years will be arrested, he claimed, adding that the campaign will stretch on till 2026, when the next state election is held.

The state government had late in January announced it would make the arrests under two federal laws.

The women, who were once made to undergo marriage at a young age, are now staring at an uncertain future with a lack of support from the establishment.

If anyone has financial troubles because their husbands are in jail, the government can look into it, the chief minister said in one of his statements. But reality suggests otherwise.

“We support the campaign because the enforcement is finally responding, given that police indifference was one of the core issues,” Miguel Das Queah, founder of UTSAH, a non-profit working for child protection, tells The Independent.

“This was necessary to bring accountability but the process could have been different.”

Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages stage protest (AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages stage protest (AFP via Getty Images)

“We face strong push back when we try to stop even one child marriage. Now, given the scale of the operation, it is only natural that there would be such resistance,” he says.

Mr Das Queah, however, says the state should have prepped on plans to rehabilitate women.

“When they have children now and the breadwinner is arrested, there will be distress. The complexity will begin when Pocso is applied to the cases,” he says, referring to the law that protects children from sex offences.

“They should have targeted the facilitators first and then made an analysis of the cases and focused on the marriages with huge age gaps,” he explains.

“The blanket order is an emotional response from a concerned chief minister which could’ve been better planned out to minimize public resistance.”

Assam director-general of police GP Singh told reporters that the police were directed two months ago to look into child marriage allegations, something that led them to begin collecting data from village elders and health workers.

Most cases were registered suo motu, based on information provided by local people, he said.

Hasina Kharbhih, human rights defender and founder of non-profit Impulse, says police action has forced girls, who were forcefully wed as children, to relive their trauma.

“Every state in this country should launch an anti-child marriage campaign but that should be backed by strong rehabilitation support,” she said.

“Instead of issuing a diktat, the state government and the police should have worked with non-profit organisations and welfare committees,” Ms Kharbhih added.

“They should have formed a task force to provide such women, who are mostly from vulnerable and socio-economically backward communities, with counseling and financial support."

Opposition leaders and activists have also argued police action was more prevalent in Muslim-majority districts.

Dhubri district-based advocate Masud Zaman told that the more stringent Pocso Act was applied against men belonging to the Bengali-origin Muslim community.

“Twenty-four people arrested in Majuli got bail within 24 hours, but why are people not released here?” he asked.

Dhubri is a Muslim-majority district, whereas Majuli in upper Assam is home to largely ethnic Assamese communities.

“There is definitely discrimination.”

Gaurav Gogoi, a Congress party lawmaker, called the move a “complete farce” and public relations exercise.

The Independent has written to the state women and child development minister for comment.