Daulat Rahman / Guwahati
According to the figures of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, every third marriage in Assam is child marriage. Despite being a cognizable offense, child marriages continue and this trend goes unnoticed and unreported. Amidst this grim scenario, Rafiqul Islam of Barpeta, Assam, has emerged as a saviour of girls as he rescues them from illegal, unwanted, and forced marriages. Char or riverine and remote areas of Barpeta and other districts in western Assam are the hubs of child marriages and criminal elements encourage such weddings. Rafiqal left his job as a teacher in 2015 to launch a campaign against child marriages.
He involves youth and other individuals from different walks of life in the fight against child marriges.
“I started my campaign against child marriage by joining the Barpeta chapter of Childline. Initially, we were greeted with the cynical laughter of people of all levels and positions. It was difficult to convince them that child marriage could be prevented. The majority of people were in dark about the law against such marriages. Slowly but steadily, a large section of people, government stakeholders, NGOs, student organizations, media house, and legal authorities started extending support to our cause,” Rafiqul said.
Speaking to Awaz-The Voice Rafiqul said even though the awareness campaign has yielded positive results to an extent that reporting of child marriages to the police and administration has begun, much needs to be done to end this social menace.
He said child marriage is still not considered a problem among many communities including the Muslims due to a lack of scientific and legal knowledge. It is driven by the vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and multiple childbirth. Negligence towards the girl child is another reason for this.
Rafiqul Islam with local police on way to preventing a child marriage
Rafiqul says very few cases of child marriages are registered in the police stations and the law against child marriages is not implemented. Some legal practitioners also indulge in the manipulation of age through false affidavits and promote the culture of child marriages.
Child marriage that involves the marriage of a girl below 18 years and a boy below 21 years is a cognizable offense and can get one-two years’ rigorous imprisonment or fine of rupees 1 lakh or both.
“Now marriages are being solemnized stealthily, under the cover of festivals. Finding evidence of such marriages for filing a complaint with police thus becomes quite difficult.
Rafiqul says frequent transfer or absence of permanent protection officer, not setting up village-level Child Protection Committees under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme are rampant, etc are some of the causes for continued child marriages.
“Child marriage is not considered as an issue though it has multiple adverse effects on all human beings. Neighbours do not come to prohibit child marriage, they don’t wish to create enmity. Police cannot prove the occurrence of such marriages due to the remoteness of the locale. It is more challenging when the marriage takes place in the same neighbourhood,” Rafiqul said.
Rafiqul operates under these circumstances and has so far been able to prevent at least 2,000 child marriages. He has also made many enemies in the process. The police often advise him to be careful and use caution while carrying out his rescue operation in remote areas.
Police is helping Rafiqul Islam in finding the veracity of the age documents of about to be married children
Rafiqul is now closely associated with Independent Thought, a national human rights organization working on the rights of children. Under the aegis of Independent Thought, he has opened the Assam Chapter of Campaign against Child Marriage.
“I do not fear anyone while carrying out my activities against child marriage. Even if it endangers my life, I will not stop,” Rafiqul said.
“To stop child marriages, there is a need of a well-oiled network of the district administration, police, district Child Protection Unit, village headman, Village Defense Party Organization and other stakeholders.
“To have effective Village level Child Protection Committees is an effective way to check child marriages. Besides, vocational education for economic freedom and increasing the age limit in the law on Right to Education to 18 years can also change the situation.,” Rafiqul said.