Women's rights groups protest lowering the age of marriage as a solution raised by village councils to reduce incidents of rape.
Activists condemn call to reduce India's marriage age
NEW DELHI // Women's rights activists condemned the "medieval institutions" in India that are seeking to legalise child marriage as a solution to reduce incidents of rape, which have soared in recent months in the state of Haryana.
Referring to so-called khap panchayats, or village councils as, "anti-women institutions," Jagmati Sangwan, vice president of Janwadi Mahila Samiti, a women's rights group in Haryana, said their call to lower the legal age of a woman to marry to 16 from 18 was "a backward step".
The khap panchayat in the northern state of Haryana courted controversy last week when one of its members suggested that the girls and boys should be married by the age of 16 to avoid incidents of rape.
Sube Singh Samain, a spokesperson for the panchayat warned that young people need to be married off in order to avoid them "falling prey to the advances of a youth."
The head of the Samain panchayat told the Times of India newspaper that "youths are not mature enough to handle this attraction and thus incidents of rape and gang-rape happen. Under this situation, there is need to lower age limit for marriage of girls and boys."
Under the law, women can legally wed at the age of 18 and men can be married at 21 years of age.
About 100 representatives of the panchayat met yesterday, reportedly to discuss pressuring the government into lowering the marriage age, but postponed a decision "to involve more communities in the decision making process" and will meet later this month.
Randhir Singh, one of the village leaders had said ahead of the meeting that not only should the government redefine the age of marriage, but also that it has no business interfering in what are family decisions.
"Let the parents decide when they want to marry off their wards. Girls can be married off a couple of years earlier than the stipulated age of 18 years if they have physically grown up," Randhir Singh said, according to IANS news service.
Haryana has a rapidly rising rape rate - 19 reported in the past month. Of the reported cases, according to the police, there were 367 cases in the first six months of this year, compared to a total of 733 cases from last year.
Village governments are prevalent in northern India and are one of the oldest forms of self governance in the country. They were once championed by Mahatma Gandhi as a way to bring governance to the rural poor.
Khap panchayats have no formal authority and are notorious for allowing honour killings and corporal punishment. It is estimated that there are 300 such councils in the North alone, representing an estimated 25,000 villages. Their diktats are not legal but can be imposed by the influential group through vigilante justice.
Yesterday's decision to even discuss the matter sparked widespread outrage among women's rights activists.
"We were expecting them to fold the decision but now it will be a continued discourse," said Ms Sangwan. "These sort of statements adversely affect the women of our state. This is a backward and reactionary position to an issue that is being painted as a woman's fault. To say rape is consensual is an indication that they are not taking things in the right perspective."
It was an embarrassment of sorts for the ruling Congress party in Haryana when the party's spokesperson in the city of Hisar sided with the khap panchayat's proclamation.
Dharambir Goyat said "90 per cent of the rape cases involved consensual sex" and that the government should not be held responsible.
"The girl gets into an affair with a boy and she goes with him without knowing he is of criminal mindset. It is not the state government which is responsible for rapes. In fact, in most of the cases it is consensual sex," said Mr Goyat at a news conference in Chandigarh on Thursday.
The party then tried to distance itself from these comments, with Haryana's chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, saying that the party does not support the comments made by Mr Goyat.
Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress party met with the family of a girl who committed suicide after being raped last week in Haryana and denounced the call to lower the marriageable age. At the same time, a former chief minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, said he supported the panchayat's decision, only later to backtrack after political pressure to say that it was up to the government to accept and implement the decision.
On Tuesday, women's rights groups from across India will gather in Haryana to protest violence against women.
firstname.lastname@example.org with additional reports from IANS