On Independence Day 2020, PM Modi announced that the government was considering raising the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21. This would bring it at par with the minimum age of marriage for boys. Yay for gender equality, right? Wrong!
While this move seems to be a positive one for women in India that will allow them to get married (and have children) later, digging below the surface reveals a huge expectation-reality mismatch. Let’s dive into why that’s so.
1. 18 is the age of adulthood all over the world!
18 is considered the age of majority all over the world, where young people are given the freedom to make their own decisions – vote, get a driving license, get married, etc.
In 2019, PLD India conducted a study that examined why young girls run away to get married, or “elope”, below the age of 18. For many young people, marriage is viewed as the only ‘honourable’ way through which to explore their sexuality or have a consensual relationship. For those in inter-caste or inter-faith relationships especially, eloping is often the only option. For others, it’s often the only solution when they are “caught” by their parents having a relationship, or if the girl gets pregnant and can no longer hide her relationship. And for many others, marriage appears to be an attractive escape from an oppressive family and the tedium of household chores.
In many of these cases, the girls were tracked down by their families with the help of the police, the male partners were falsely charged with rape and imprisoned, and the girls were either forcibly married off to someone of their parents’ choosing, or spent the next few years at a shelter home until they turned 18, waiting for their husbands to get out of jail.
Raising the age of marriage from 18 to 21 strengthens the hold that the State and natal families have over girls and strips away their agency, even above the age of 18. Young women and girls already tend to have the least amount of control over their own lives.
In a report that surveyed 2500 young people from 15 states, mostly from marginalised communities, in regard to this proposed increase in the age of marriage, it was found that young people desperately wanted the freedom to make their own decisions and shake the hold that their families had over them.
2. Underage marriage is a deep-rooted cultural norm – it needs to be tackled at the root!
Society believes that early marriage prevents sexual violence, protects the ‘purity’ and ‘honour’ of families, requires a lower dowry, and prevents elopement. Marriage and chastity are deeply connected to notions of purity and honour of the family. Girls are further seen as financial burdens (paraya dhan) who need to be married off at a young age. Investing in girls’ education is viewed as an unnecessary expense. Early marriage is so normalised in India that even government functionaries often do not play their part.
Experts believe that such a deep-rooted custom is unlikely to disappear because of a punitive policy. In fact, such a move will only succeed in driving these marriages underground, such that they are carried out in secret. Youth activists from the ground echo the same sentiment.
In 2015-16, 63% of young women got married under the age of 21. If the government went ahead with raising the minimum age of marriage, then it is very likely that these 63% (that number becomes 75% in the poorest section of the population) of women and their families, would become liable to criminalisation – that’s over half the country!
Such a widely-accepted custom is best combated by tackling its root causes. Investing in education and employment opportunities and specific efforts to break negative social norms would lead to a radical shift in norms and aspirations for girls, and a willingness to invest in them and delay their marriages.
3. The existing law, PCMA, is not working effectively.
India has the highest number of underage marriages in the world. Even though rates of early marriage have dropped from 47% to 27%, that still means one in every four girls in India is getting married below the age of 18. On average, it is estimated that India sees 1.5 million underage marriages each year.
Contrast this with the number of cases registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006. In 2016, only 645 cases were registered, 1,954 people were arrested, and only 70 people were convicted.
What does this mean? Clearly, the law is not an effective solution to this particular social custom. Underage marriages continue to take place on the sly, with authorities and the State looking the other way. To reduce the number of early marriages taking place in India, we must positively incentivise people to abstain from the practice – not introduce a punitive measure.
4. The most marginalised will be the most affected.
Early marriage tends to predominate in poorer communities. For instance, in the lowest wealth quintile, over 75% of girls get married below the age of 21. The poorest 20% of our population comprises largely of Dalit & Adivasi communities – with 45.9% belonging to ST households, 26.6% from SC households, compared to only 9.7% of the ‘General’ category. These households, who already face the brunt of societal violence and discrimination, will be further criminalised should the minimum age of marriage be enforced at 21.
Underage marriage has been inversely linked to the level of education that the girl has completed. NFHS data shows that women who complete 12 years of schooling get married a full 5 years later than women who have completed less than 5 years of schooling.
Here again, we see that it is largely SC & ST girls who lose out on education, and therefore tend to get married at younger ages. NFHS data shows that 42% of ST women and 33% of SC women have received no education. The education system is clearly failing Dalit and Adivasi girls. Now, this failure will be exacerbated when its consequences – early marriage – will lead to the criminalisation of their families.
5. The rationale for this move doesn’t make sense!
The government set up a Task Force in June 2020 to offer recommendations on this issue. Two of its key reasons was to examine the impact of raising the age of marriage on, a) improving maternal health & nutrition and b) lowering fertility rates.
In a joint note that was addressed to the Task Force by several academics, activists and civil society organisations, these claims were systematically dismantled using evidence-backed research.
First, poor maternal health and undernutrition (and consequently, higher maternal mortality ratio), is caused primarily due to poverty, not early marriage. Poverty leads to poor health outcomes, irrespective of age, such as anaemia and malnutrition. A young mother who suffers from anaemia at the age of 18 will continue to have poor maternal health at the age of 21. Biologically, a healthy body is capable of having a healthy baby at the age of 18 with the right antenatal care. To improve maternal health and nutrition, it’s important to focus on poverty alleviation and gender equality, rather than arbitrarily increasing the minimum age of marriage.
Second, fertility rates are already dropping in India! In 13 states, fertility rates have dropped to below replacement levels, including in states like Bihar and Telengana, which have some of the highest rates of underage marriages. Clearly, people from across the socioeconomic spectrum are having smaller families – even those who get married at young ages. Regulating the minimum age of marriage then, has little to no impact on fertility rates, which are dropping anyway.
6. Focus on what has been shown to work – education, employment and empowerment!
One of the biggest reasons for early marriage is school dropouts. The Indian school system can be a hostile and unwelcoming space for girl children – from the lack of clean toilets and menstrual hygiene, to sexual harassment, to the deprioritisation of girls’ education.
Existing research shows that in those villages with high schools there are much lower rates of early marriage. As cited earlier in this article, girls with more than 12 years of schooling, will marry a full five years later than those with less than 5 years of schooling.
Focussing on improving girls’ access to education – especially from marginalised communities – would go a long way in organically increasing the age of marriage. Further, skilling and employment opportunities allow girls to become economically empowered, and shifts the perception that women are ‘financial burdens’ who need to be married off. It gives girls and young women greater opportunities to negotiate their lives and their marriages.
Creating an enabling environment to reduce the incidence of early marriage is much more rewarding than creating a punitive policy that could criminalise millions.
To Wrap Up…
There is no question about the fact that we need to collectively work to further reduce the alarming rates of early marriage in India. Delaying marriage allows women to complete their education and even become financially independent, which gives them a lot more negotiating power within their marriages.
However, we believe that a different route needs to be taken to achieve this goal. Imposing a punitive measure will leave millions vulnerable to criminalisation – largely from the poorest and most marginalised communities. Based on insights from the existing law, this move is also largely unlikely to reduce early marriage in India, which is impacted to a much greater extent by advancements in education and empowerment of girls.
Focussing on positive incentives to delay marriage, such as offering girls better access to education and employment opportunities, is a much more effective and humane route towards curbing early marriage in India.
If you wish to participate to the #EmpowermentNotAge campaign, you can reach out to your local Member of Parliament to make them aware of the pitfalls of raising the minimum age of marriage. Find out how to contact them and what to say here. You can also sign a petition here!
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