In a series of webinars and physical meetings titled Lado Panchayat, organised by the Selfie With Daughter Foundation, girls from across the country have advocated for the need to increase the marriageable age of girls in India from the present 18 years to 21 years.
Selfie With Daughter Foundation is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works on gender issues and under its initiative, the first online Lado Panchayat was held on July 18, 2021. This is the first time that girls from villages are being brought together, and 90 girls from Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh participated in the Panchayat.
They demand that the law regarding the marriageable age of girls should be amended. The aim of these meetings is to generate a report which will be submitted as a proposal to the Prime Minister’s office and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Welfare. The report will focus on the various aspects surrounding the increase of the marriageable age of girls to 21 years.
The organisers observe that most of the girls attending the meetings were married at a younger age and this has impacted their education. A member of the NGO mentioned that there are alleged cases of parents forging birth certificates for the girls so that they appear to be of marriageable age on paper, and can be married. Participants have suggested that there should be some basic criteria in terms of educational qualifications that have to be fulfilled by girls before being legally eligible of marriage.
Government initiative: A move to lower maternal mortality, ensure nutrition
On August 15, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned in his Independence Day speech that the government will consider increasing the marriageable age of girls to 21 years. Subsequently, a task force led by former Samata Party Chief Jaya Jaitly and NITI Aayog Member for health V.K. Paul were constituted. A report has been submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) by the team.
The report suggests that the marriageable age of girls should be increased from 18 to 21 but the implementation should be phased out so that states have time for effective, comprehensive implementation.
The major reason for the reconsideration of marriageable age for girls is attributed to maternal mortality rates. The move is intended to ensure fewer deaths of women in childbirth and to improve their nutrition levels. The task force has opined that a woman should, at the time of her first childbirth be 21 years. Delaying marriage also means delaying the age of childbirths and limiting the number of pregnancies.
Their report also mentions that an increase in the age of marriage for girls will have a positive impact on the economic and social well-being of families.
A welcome step, but several factors to be addressed
The move to increase the marriageable age of girls has been welcome by many and criticised by a few. One of the major reasons cited by the supporters of the initiative is that it will impact and lower the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), along with improving female nutrition.
Early marriage which results in early pregnancies is linked to malnourishment, maternal and infant mortality. It is also argued that the proposed extension in marriageable age will give girls an opportunity to continue their education and careers and become independent before marriage.
Another reason advanced in support of the move is based on the promise of equality under the Constitution for both men and women. It is patriarchal and discriminatory to assume that women “mature earlier“. Reproductive capacity alone does not determine eligibility for marriage, and to look at women as bodies ready for reproduction alone is patriarchal, proprietary and must be called out.
On the other hand, some people suggest that the increase in age will not be effective. In an interview to The Hindu, Madhu Mehra, Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development India and co-founder of the National Coalition for Advocating for Adolescent Concerns, discusses the issue of the age of marriage of women.
Mehra highlights that girls will have no agency over their matters if their marriageable age is increased. An article in the Indian Express also gives emphasis on how increasing the age of marriage will affect the Dalit and Adivasi communities disproportionately.
It highlights that if the right to free and compulsory education is not extended to the age of 18, girls between 14 and 18 years of age fall out of the purview of the Right to Education Act (RTE). Data shows that rural women most of the time, marry earlier than urban women, and the socio-economic status of women has an impact on the delay of marriage. Women who are more educated and higher on the caste/class hierarchy can afford to marry later.
Thus, the proposed change in the law regarding marriageable age should address these gendered and caste-based differences and how they impact girls. While addressing maternal health and mortality is necessary, records have also highlighted that higher education levels result in lower chances of women getting married at an early age.
It is therefore recommended that the Right to Education Act be amended, in order to comprehensively ensure that raised marriageable age benefits girls across strata.
Education, awareness and comprehensive implementation
Education is an empowering way for girls to escape early marriage. Though the RTE provides access to free education, parents from lower income families often find no financial benefit from sending their girls to school. Most families cannot afford education after school due to financial constraints.
Currently, due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, there is a reported rise in child marriages. According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), it has become difficult for girls to avail necessary legal and other help to counter this during the lockdown.
The loss of jobs during the pandemic, coupled with the poor economic conditions of low income families, girls are married off early to ease financial burdens. Many cannot afford the devices required for an online learning, and it has been recommended that necessary policy decisions be made so that girls can continue their education online and offline.
There should also be help provided to households to cope with poverty, along with awareness drives to sensitise families about the health risks and other ill effects of early marriage and the benefits of delayed marriage.
Thus, while we hail the decision by the government to reconsider minimum marriageable age for girls, it is also very crucial that we address financial and caste-based disparities, education and social awareness to comprehensively make sure that the move achieves its desired goals.