Patna- In a case highlighting the pitfalls of underage marriages, the Patna High Court recently denied custody rights of a minor married girl to her alleged husband. The court instead allowed the girl to remain in a government shelter home till attaining adulthood while coming down heavily on the still prevalent evil practice of child marriage in India.

In quite a dramatic turn of events, the case brought to fore the clash between human rights, gender justice and the law surrounding child marriages in India. It revolved around a minor girl, reportedly married off at a tender age and now caught between her marital and parental homes while still only a child herself.

The case dates back to when the girl’s parents approached authorities over her going missing only to later discover she had been married off. Acting on a complaint, the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) intervened and housed the girl, said to be around 16 years as per school records, at a shelter home.

Not one to give up his married ‘prize’ easily, the girl’s alleged husband then knocked judiciary’s doors with a habeas corpus petition seeking her release from the state-run shelter home. He pleaded before the judges that being the girl’s lawfully wedded husband he was entitled to her custody as she had willingly married him.

But the division bench, showing little sympathy for the man’s plight, outrightly rejected his plea. The court denounced the still widespread practice of minor marriages in Indian hinterlands saying a girl child’s welfare reigns supreme in such sensitive cases. It observed how child marriages adversely impact underage brides exposing them to health hazards, denying education and perpetuating inequality.

“The element of consent is always subservient to overall welfare of a child. The medical hazards in case of a child marriage cannot be overlooked… Fixing the age of marriage for females as 18 years by the Legislature is not without any reason,” the judges ruled.

The court clarified that even if the marriage took place with the girl’s consent, her welfare would still override such consent since she is legally seen as a minor. “A child remains a child under any circumstance…if at all a marriage takes place, it cannot be in the best interest of the girl child,” the order read citing a Supreme Court decision on similar underage marriages.

So, girl under parental care or husband’s roof ?

While denying the husband custodial rights to the minor bride, the court also stopped short of ordering the same in favour of her parents given her clear reluctance.

Faced with making a difficult choice between living with parents she is scared of or the husband she married but legally can’t stay with due to her age, the young girl had earlier expressed desire to live with her ‘spouse’. But on being questioned directly, she was adamant on not going back to parental home.

Left in a limbo, the court finally decided that the girl’s current shelter home dwelling maximised her welfare and security till she becomes a major. It directed the CWC to periodically check up on her and the state home to ensure all amenities. The husband too was ordered to open a bank account for their child’s future needs, he being legally the newborn’s guardian if not the wife’s.

The court made it clear that “if at any time prior to turning 18, the girl wishes to rejoin her family, she must be permitted after due procedures.” But till then her shelter home stint continues.

With child marriages still rampant across India despite social reforms and stringent laws, sensitive cases like these would recur. But the Patna HC ruling sends out a stern warning that law sides with victimized children in such scenarios. Testing times may be in store for this teenage bride caught in a child marriage trap, but the court verdict shields her vulnerability as a minor till she comes of lawful age. One hopes it opens way for a more empowered and progressive adulthood ahead!