Assam used data from health survey to track underage marriage, now women distrust public health facilities

On 10 February, a week into Assam’s massive crackdown on underage marriage, a 16-year-old bled to death after delivering a healthy baby girl at home in Assam’s Bongaigaon district.

Officials said that the family didn’t inform ASHA workers about her delivery or took her to the hospital due to fear of police using hospital data to track child marriage.

According to reports, her husband, 25-year-old Sahinur Ali, and his father Ainal Haque, 53, were arrested under the Pocso Act and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006.

Alleged data sharing by local bodies with the Assam police for the child marriage clampdown has “created havoc” in the minds of married teenagers, pushing them to avoid health facilities, a fact-finding report by the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) claimed.

Two documents shared by the fact-finding team show personal data about 20,000 teenage girls with 50 indicators focusing on their health. These are data from two districts: Dhubri and Barpeta.

Local activists blame ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers for the data breach that has led to women opting not to seek their help anymore. allegedly all the cases are registered based on data leaked by ASHA workers and the head of the Gram Panchayat Secretaries.

In January, Assam designated Gram Panchayat Secretaries as Child Marriage Prohibition Officers as per Section 16 of The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.

These data are either collected for National Family Health Survey or for government welfare schemes. Supposedly, the underage marriage rate estimate provided by the NFHS-5 report released in 2022 triggered Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to begin his “war” against child marriage.

About 32% of women in Assam marry before they attain adulthood, according to NFHS. This is higher than the national average of 23 per cent. The Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on 03 February, informed that Assam accounted for 16.8% of teenage pregnancies resulting from child marriages.

Since the crackdown began on February 3, the Assam Police has registered over 4,200 cases. The majority of the 6707 people accused are from marginalised groups in the state: Bengali Muslims and tribals. The number of arrested people stands at more than 3,000, including 93 women.

APCR report, published on 19 February, says the “procedure of arrest followed by the Assam police as alleged by the local residents in Dhubri, Barpeta, Mozuli and other districts is in clear contravention of Supreme Court guidelines in DK Basu v. State of West Bengal (1997) AIR SC 610 and Arnesh Kumar vs. State of Bihar (2014).

Further, during arrest, the police seized all documents related to marriage, medical and identification and made them sign blank papers concealing the information.”

In the key observation, the report said, “The drive against child Marriage has a major downside affecting pregnant women who have the apprehension of the arrest of their husbands, in-laws and relatives on the pretext of child marriage. They are reluctant to go to ASHA workers despite their pregnancy dates approaching. It is due because the ASHA workers have leaked/ shared the data of pregnant women district wise causing apprehension of the arrest.”

“For women whose sole bread earners are languishing in jail, taking care of their children and providing nutrition to the unborn has become a major concern.”

Maktoob has made an enquiry with the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai, part of the NFHS report, to understand if the Assam government have made the request to access these data. The story will be updated once we get a response.

On 14 February, while granting anticipatory bail to nine people charged under the POCSO Act, the Gauhati High Court heavily criticised the mass arrests, saying the crackdown was “causing havoc in the private lives of people”.