The Association for Social Justice & Research filed a habeas corpus petition to trace Chandni, an allegedly 11 to 12-year-old child. The NGO had heard that Chandni’s parents forced her to marry a 40-year-old man, who in return paid her parents. Once the marriage was discovered, several groups tried unsuccessfully to trace Chandni. She was ultimately located by the police and her father and husband were arrested. Chandni was then sent to live at a children’s home while the Court determined who should have custody of her.
During her court appearance Chandni stated that she was in fact 17 years old and had freely consented to the marriage. A medical examination deduced that Chandni was between 16 and 18 years old. Chandni’s father and husband both denied that there was a monetary exchange in relation to the marriage. Chandni’s father stated that he had arranged the marriage as he had a large family and low income and was therefore unable to educate his children.
Separate criminal proceedings against Chandni’s father and husband were ongoing. The Court in this case dealt solely with the issue of custody of Chandni. The Court did not dispute the fact that Chandni’s current marriage violated the terms of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (“Act”) of 2006, as she was under 18 years of age.
The Court examined the custody issue through a historical and cultural lens of child marriage in India. The Court noted that child marriage still persisted in India despite the introduction of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006, and that the communities that still practice child marriage know that it is illegal and carries criminal ramifications. The Court considered a variety of sociological reasons for the continuation of the practice, including poverty, culture, tradition, and values based on patriarchal norms.
The Court examined the object and purpose of the Act, and stated that “child marriage is a violation of human rights,” that often restricts the liberty and health of the child. The Court outlined the difficulties and hardships experienced by young married girls, noting that child marriage creates an environment for further human rights violations. The Court considered the negative effects of child marriage including health risks from sexual contact and child-bearing, social isolation, lack of education, gender inequality, and domestic violence and sexual abuse. The Court also noted that married girls often become domestic slaves for their husband’s family. The Court further recognized noted that lack of education is linked to limited knowledge concerning sexual relations and reproduction, and stated that this lack of education along with cultural silence concerning reproductive and sexual health denies girls the ability to make informed decisions about sexual relations, planning a family, and their own health.
The Court examined precedent for cases in which the custody of a married child was determined. Although there were several cases in which the marriage was determined valid and a minor girl was placed in the custody of her husband, there was a recent case where the issues were still being determined. The decision in Lajja Devi v. State was under a Full Bench review at the time of this decision to determine whether the husband should be awarded custody of the girl, and more generally, whether the marriage is valid at all.
Although Chandni’s marriage violated the Act, the Court noted that civil law still recognized the marriage as valid pending the outcome of Lajja Devi v. State review. In light of the pending case review, the Court’s understanding of the purpose of the Act, and the sociological consequences of child marriage, the Court determined that Chandni should not return to her husband, and instead be placed in her parents’ custody until she turns 18. The Court also held that the marriage would not be consummated, nor would the traditional consummation ceremony be held before Chandni was 18 years old and consented to the consummation. The Court stated firmly that if Chandni did not consent to the marriage when she turned 18, the marriage would be null and pursuant to Section 3 of the Act.