Priests, decorators and suppliers to help in India's child marriage crackdown

HYDERABAD (REUTERS) - Priests, card printers, flower decorators and tent suppliers are among the many players in the lucrative wedding industry being enlisted to help authorities in southern India crack down on child marriages.

Priests in southern Telangana state have been told to request proof of age for the bride and groom before marrying them, while officials there are checking in villages to see if any child marriages are being planned or performed.

The legal age of marriage in India is 18 for a women and 21 for men.

The drive to stop child marriage, timed for the peak wedding season in the summer months, is focused on rural parts of Telangana, where more than 30 per cent of boys and girls married as children, according to government data for 2015-16.

"We have warned printers, priests, decorators and owners of marriage halls of legal action if they are caught supplying to or performing a child marriage," said Prem Kumar, a senior official in Vikarabad district, west of Telangana capital and Indian tech hub Hyderabad.

"There are many auspicious days for weddings between March and May. We held a meeting with people in the business before the wedding season started."

Wedding industry players have also been asked to take a declaration from parents that their children are of legal age for marriage and submit it to the government with proof of identity for the bride and groom.

Child marriage is common in rural, poor communities in India, where a girl is seen as a financial burden. Girls are also married young because of fears for their safety.

"It is a tradition in these parts for parents to get their children married soon after they clear high school, particularly girls," said Mahesh Bhagwat, a police commissioner who initiated the drive on the outskirts of Hyderabad. "And illiteracy is not always the reason. We had a case of a 13-year-old girl getting married to a 15-year-old boy, and parents of both were educated."

Activists say there is growing awareness of child marriages.

The non-profit Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation in Telangana, which campaigns against child marriage, said most calls on their child helpline are from adults alerting them to children being married in their neighbourhood.

Last year, tent suppliers in northern Rajasthan state started demanding to see the birth certificates of the brides and grooms for whom they supply tents.

In efforts to raise awareness, Bhagwat's team is counselling parents and priests.

India's Child Marriage Prohibition Act imposes a US$1,500 (S$2,097) fine and two years in prison for parents caught marrying their underage children. The government registered nearly 800 child marriage cases between 2013 and 2015.

While boys are also married as children, girls are disproportionately affected.

Early marriage makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school, and campaigners say it also increases the risk of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.

The efforts in Telangana seem to be having an impact. "We are getting forms filled out and also taking pictures and proof of identity for the bride and groom. Marriages have been cancelled after we declined to offer our service," said Madapatti Shrikant, a priest at a temple in Vikarabad.