(AA) – The day of Akshay Tritiya, also known as Akha Teej, is considered an auspicious day for Hindus to get married in India.
The sacred day, which this year falls on Tuesday, breaks down the barriers to marriage with mass weddings that include unions between couples whose zodiac signs do not match, a practice forbidden on other days by some traditions.
But in states like central India’s Madhya Pradesh, there will also be thousands of children married off.
Madhya Pradesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India and, as with other parts of the country, authorities will be on high alert on Akshay Tritiya in order to put a halt on the illegal marriages.
This year the Madhya Pradesh government has taken several measures to prevent child marriages, including requesting printing press companies only print invitation cards after ensuring that the couple is of a legal age.
Kalpana Shrivastava, commissioner of the state’s Women Empowerment Department, has directed top police and administrative officials to ensure the card printers enforce this.
“It is not possible to eradicate this practice at once. We have to take the help of each section of the society, only then will we be able to stop this practice. We have to create awareness among the people and that is something we have been trying,” said Shrivastava.
After examining documents about a marrying couple’s age, the printers will have to explicitly mention on the wedding invitation card that the boy and girl are of legal age — which is 18 for girls and 21 for boys in India.
The government has also asked cooks, caterers, bands, priests and religious leaders, heads of communities and others to render their services during the marriage ceremony only after verifying the age of the bride and groom.
According to Manjula Tiwari, deputy director of the Women Empowerment Department, those not complying will face fines under child protection laws.
For some involved in the marriages however, it is hard to vet all the couples because they participate in mass ceremonies.
“We try to ensure that we should not conduct child marriages. But for a priest it is difficult to verify ages of all boys and girls participating in a mass marriage ceremony,” said Krishna Tiwari, a Hindu priest who conducts hundreds of marriages during this time.
Social activist Chinmay Mishra has called the Women Empowerment Department’s directives “dictatorial.” He said the government has been unable to prevent child marriages and so has passed the responsibility onto others.
“The government wants to shrug off its responsibility of stopping underage marriages and has not been able to ensure implementation of the law meant to stop such weddings,” said Mishra.
In Madhya Pradesh, almost a third of girls and 40 percent of boys are married below the legal age, according to a 2007 survey.
Child marriage is illegal in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, however, many in rural communities are not fully aware of the act’s provisions, meaning child marriages are rarely reported to authorities.
A 2011 census, released recently, showed that 12 million underage people had married at the time of the census, with the most happening in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, followed by Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
Sachin Jain, convener of a Bhopal-based NGO, Vikas Samwad, said: “When we talk about child marriage, we usually have the image of an innocent underage girl as the victim. However, what is startling is that more boys than girls are the victim of this evil practice.”