On December 15, 2021 the Union Cabinet of India gave clearance to raise the legal marriage age of women from 18 years to 21 years, same as that of men. A task force was set up by the Ministry for Women and Child Development to look into the relation of women’s marriage age with anaemia, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, nutrition, health and related issues. The committee headed by Jaya Jaitly was to look into three broad categories i.e. feasibility of increasing the marriage age, what would be its implications on the health of women and children and how to increase women’s access to education. Further, it was to also recommend the amendments that would need to be made in existing laws in order for this to happen.
The Child Marriage Restrain Act, 1929 fixed the age of marriage of women and men at 14 years and 18 years respectively. It is also known as the Sarda Act, after its sponsor’s name. The Act was then amended twice after the independence of India. In 1949, the act was amended making women’s marriage age to 15 years but men’s marriage age remained the same. Then, in 1978 the second amendment changed women’s and men’s marriage age to 18 years and 21 years respectively. Since then the legal marriage age for women and men remained the same until 2021, changing it to 21 years for women.
Recommendations by the Committee
The committee headed by Jaya Jaitly made a lot of recommendations including the increase of the legal age of marriage for women to 21 years. It also asked the government to make provisions to increase female access to schools and colleges, including transportation facilities. It further recommended training and skill development, business and education in schools. It recommended that an awareness campaign be undertaken on a large scale on the increase in the age of marriage, to encourage social acceptance of the new legislation. It also emphasises that laws will not be effective unless they are implemented and women are empowered.
Women, Marital Age and the Number Trick
Since the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment), Bill, 2021 has been proposed and given clearance by the Union Cabinet, there have been several contentions and debates on whether or not it was the right decision to raise the age of marriage for women. Proponents of the bill argue that it is important to raise the legal age of marriage for women since they are forced to marry at an early age because of poverty and illiteracy. But, child and women’s rights activists and population and family planning experts are not in favour and are calling it a ‘disaster for women’. As reported in The Indian Express, this would push a larger portion of the population into illegal marriages and mostly the marginalised communities such as the scheduled tribes and the scheduled caste communities would be penalised. If there’s been any decrease whatsoever in the rates of child marriages, then it is because of an increased emphasis on girl child education and employment and not because legally, the age of marriage for women was previously raised to 18, argues several activists. As per the data of National Crime Records Bureau in 2020, there is an increase of about 50% cases of child marriages. Also, a total of 785 cases were registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2020 while 523 cases were lodged in 2019 and 501 in 2018.
Estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world, accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 per cent adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married. According to NFHS 5, the problem is much bigger in rural India at 27% while in urban India, underage marriage accounted for 14.7% of marriages. The data shows that 6.8 % of women aged between 15 to 19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey, this is a marginal decline from 7.9% recorded between 2015 and 2016. The rural-urban difference was prominent, with 3.8% of women falling in the early pregnancy category in urban areas and 7.9% in rural areas.
Thus, the opponents of the bill insist that instead of raising the minimum legal age of marriage for women, the core cause should be rather discovered and worked on.
Due to our patriarchal society, women are considered a burden and a huge responsibility. Being married at an early age pulls away their basic rights such as education, empowerment and identity. The bill’s supporters argue that girls are forced to drop out of their academics for marriage, so increasing the minimum legal age would give them time and opportunity to pursue their studies. It is argued that there is a correlation between early marriage and health. Early marriages lead to mental, physical and psychological health problems.
Another argument against the proposal is that some girls from especially conservative, regressive and patriarchal families escape their families’ clutches by choosing to marry a person of their choice after turning 18 years old. As a result of the proposed legal amendment, such girls would have to wait for three more years; this period could be further misused by families and the wider community to threaten and control such girls.
There is a distinction between the outcomes of raising the minimum legal age of marriage and improving the socio-economic conditions. Most girls who are married at an early age belong to poor and marginalised communities, are not sent to school due to lack of availability of schools or academic institutions, lack of awareness and fear of misfortune like rape, kidnapping etc. As Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer and pioneer of the women’s movement in India, says in an interview with The Leaflet, “we don’t need a criminal statute to eradicate child marriages. We need to improve the socio-economic conditions of the marginalised communities to prevent child marriage.”
The decision of raising the legal marital age is also being highlighted as the channel for gender neutrality and equality by making the minimum age of marriage for women as that of men. But Flavia Agnes says “While we aspire for equality, there is no equality between men and women in society. We are an unequal society where the roles and responsibilities of husband and wife vary a great deal. So I don’t endorse using a gender neutral term ‘spouse’ because the responsibilities and liabilities within marriage are not on an equal footing in marriage. …”
Opponents of the bill also argue that it is another medium for controlling women and their mobility. As Revathi Sree Kumar writes for The Leaflet, “By upward revision of the marriageable age of women, the government is actually widening the net of law-breakers. To those parents and guardians who are interested in exploiting the economics in the issue, the legal age anyway did not matter. By pushing up the age limit, will the law-breakers suddenly experience a change of heart?”
Nalini Bhattar is a feminist and an independent researcher. A postgraduate in Women’s Studies, she has voiced for women’s rights through her articles and poems and has contributed to Youth Ki Awaaz, Women’s Web, Delhi Poetry Slam, etc. You can find her advocating equality for all, sipping chai, and turning pages of her favourite books with her dog lazing around her. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured image source: Ritika Banerjee/Feminism In India