NEW DELHI ~ The Kerala government has just brought down the minimum age of marriage for Muslim girls to 16. A circular stating this was issued in response to the director of the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) demanding clarity on whether marriages of Muslim girls below the age of 18 should be registered. KILA had been getting a number of complaints from Muslim parents about local authorities unwilling to do so.
Registrars and panchayats were within their rights to not register such marriages. Besides the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, there is also a Supreme Court judgment that states that 18 is the minimum age of marriage for women, no matter what personal laws say.
There are a number of reasons speculated for such a regressive order being passed. Some say this is a move to shift attention from a sex scandal involving two of the chief minister’s personal staff members. They had been removed after allegations of bestowing favours on a woman who runs a company that sets up solar panels.
The Opposition has predictably demanded the withdrawal of the order, but even ministers are unable to explain the rationale behind it. “The responsibility of this order lies with the law department,” says MK Muneer, leader of the Indian Union Muslim League and Minister for Social Welfare. He, in fact, holds the view that the age of marriage should be revised to 21 for both sexes. But he does not oppose this order, saying that the law is ambiguous in this regard. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 does not explicitly say that all marriages under 18 will be considered illegal. A marriage is void only under certain circumstances, like using deceitful means or force.
Surprised at the uproar, the state government has already started working on damage control. Sources say another circular will soon be issued instructing local authorities not to consider the previous order. But how this can be done without cancelling the earlier order, no one can explain.▪