More than 1,800 men have been arrested across India’s northeastern state of Assam for marrying, or arranging marriages to, underage girls, as the local government launches what it says will be a sustained crackdown.
The legal age for marriage in India is 18, but the rule is routinely flouted.
The arrests are likely to continue in the coming days, targeting people such as mullahs (Muslim clerics) and pujaris (Hindu priests) who have helped to register such marriages in mosques and temples.
Assam’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said the police will be empowered to bring into custody people who have been involved in the practice of child marriage in the past seven years.
“I have asked Assam police to act with a spirit of zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime on women,” the chief minister said in a tweet.
The state government had previously announced that it would make arrests under India’s federal laws. These include the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act, which can be applied to men marrying girls below the age of 14 years, while those marrying girls aged 14-18 can be arrested under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. The marriages will be declared illegal, and if a boy is found to be below the age of 14, he will be sent to a reform house, authorities said late last month.
Since then, police have registered 4,004 cases of child marriage in less than two weeks.
According to the UN, India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world, at around 223 million. In a 2020 report, the UN children’s agency Unicef said that at least 1.5 million underage girls were being married off each year in India.
“Child marriage is the primary reason behind child pregnancy, which in turn is responsible for high maternal and infant mortality rates,” Mr Biswa Sarma told reporters.
The state of Assam has the third highest infant mortality rate in India, at 32 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to a report by India’s National Family Health Survey.
“From Muslims to Hindus, Christians, tribal people, to those belonging to the tea garden communities, there are men from all faiths and communities who got arrested for this heinous social crime,” Mr Biswa Sarma added.