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India stopped short of co-sponsoring a first-of-its-kind United Nations resolution on eliminating "early marriage" due to a lack of greater legal clarity, the External Affairs Ministry said in a reply to an RTI application.
The Resolution on 'Strengthening efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriage: Challenges, achievements, best practices and implementation gaps', was adopted by consensus at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council held between September 9-27, 2013, in Geneva, Switzerland.
India supported the resolution, and even made a strong statement in its favour, but refused to join it as a co-sponsor.
"The resolution calls for preventing and eliminating child and forced marriages since their existence goes against the principles of human rights. India has been completely supportive of this call. However, the resolution also calls for preventing and eliminating 'early marriage'.
"The concept of 'early marriage' is nowhere defined and it is debatable whether early marriages can be 'eliminated' if such a marriage is above the legal age for marriage as per the law of the land, i.e. 18 years in the case of India.
"Consequently, there was need for greater legal clarity for such a term and its usage before it could be co-sponsored by India," the MEA said in its response to an RTI query.
Co-sponsoring would have meant endorsement of certain terms, on the legal implications of which there was no clarity and which may well have contradicted our own laws, the Ministry said in explanation for its stand.
The RTI petitioner, Venkatesh Nayak, who works for Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), had sought information on how MEA had arrived at the decision to not co-sponsor the resolution.
"Co-sponsorship would normally mean that we endorse all aspects of the resolution without reservation," the reply said.
India co-sponsored three resolutions – on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal, local government and human rights, and equal political participation – at the September, 2013, meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
As to the resolution on child marriage, it had made a strong statement in its support: "The prevalence of child, early and forced marriage is of deep concern and concerted efforts must be made to eliminate such practices. "The genesis of such practices lies in abject poverty in which generations of people have been living over the years. This is further perpetuated by lack of awareness and education. Therefore, any approach to eliminate this practice must address the complex mix of root causes and the environment in which such practices thrive," the statement read.
"(The India) delegation, therefore, hopes that the panel discussion will give due consideration to the above," the statement had added.
According to a UN report, which relied on National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2005-06, one out of two married women in India were child brides.
"Worldwide, one of the key indicators to measure the incidence of child marriage is the percentage of currently married women in the age group 20-24 years who were married before the legal age of 18 years. As far as India is concerned, the data from three rounds of NFHS, portrays a declining trend, yet the rate of decline has been very slow, at less than one percentage point per year.
"As per the latest NFHS (2005-2006) data, the percentage of women getting married below 18 years (of age) continues to be very high. Overall, 47.4 per cent or one in two women were child brides," said the UN report on 'Child Marriage in India: An analysis of available data (2012)'.
NFHS is a large-scale, multi-round survey conducted in a representative sample of households across all the states of India. Three rounds of the survey have been conducted so far since the first one in 1992-1993 followed by two more rounds, 1998- 1999 and 2005-2006.