HomeIndiaAssam government’s mass arrests for child marriage are no solution

Assam government’s mass arrests for child marriage are no solution

In the past four days, the Assam Police has arrested more than 2,000 men as part of the state government’s drive against child marriage. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has situated the large-scale crackdown in the context of the state’s poor record on child and maternal health. Assam has the worst maternal mortality rate (MMR) in the country. Though the state’s infant mortality rate has come down in the past five years, the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS) data show that the problem remains serious — more than 31 in 1,000 children die before their first birthday. According to the Survey, 32 per cent women in the state get married before the legal minimum age — much higher than the national average of 25 per cent. But wielding the POCSO and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act to criminalise men who have married minor girls — several arrests are retrospective — is wrong. It will push the problem under the radar and delay long-term solutions to a problem whose roots lie in poverty, disempowerment of women and lack of adequate healthcare facilities. The Assam government must stop the arrests immediately.

NFHS-5 data show that Assam is behind the national average when it comes to child delivery in a healthcare facility. They also show that Assam is an under performer on several indexes of women’s empowerment. Close to a fifth of the women between 15 and 49 have never been to a school. Less than 30 per cent of women in this age group have completed 10 years of education — way below the national figure of 41 per cent. This seems to have restricted women’s representation in the state’s workforce. Only 17 per cent women — as compared to 53 per cent men — were employed in non-agricultural occupations. Even more worryingly, close to 80 per cent women were not employed in the 12 months before the Survey. The fraction of women owning land in the state fell between the NFHS’s fourth and fifth rounds. The data also affirms the well-known theory which underlines the role of education in women’s reproductive health-related decisions. More than 20 per cent of women in the 15-19 age group who have not been to school have started childbearing, while only 4 per cent of women in this age group who got more than 12 years of education have become mothers.

The Assam government has programmes to reduce MMR and improve health outcomes. Joining the dots between the indexes of women’s empowerment and data related to income levels can help it gain more insights into the state’s persistent maternal mortality problem. Instead of enforcing punitive measures that seem to target the poor and minority groups more, it should invest more in women’s education, healthcare and campaigns to educate people about the problems of marrying girls early.

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