by Sania Ambardekar
Recently, the Union Cabinet of India approved a proposal to change the legal marriage age from 18 to 21 for women which makes their age at par with men. This would cause a Bill to be introduced in the Parliament to amend relevant sections of the Child Marriage Act, Special Marriage Act as well as the Hindu Marriage Act. In other words, marriage must be monogamous and the groom and bride must be a certain age while getting married. What’s more is that India is a country with rich socio-cultural and religious beliefs. Therefore, there are different laws governing the legal marriage age for different communities. This sometimes leaves out loopholes and creates conflicts leading to acts like Child Marriage and less opportunities, especially for women.
The marriage age for women has been set to 18 since 1978 and changing it would have a generational impact. PM Narendra Modi has voiced out and batted for women’s empowerment in almost all his latest speeches. He spoke about women’s independence, education and self employment opportunities as well as the health and nutrition of young girls who are forced into marriage and who have multiple pregnancies at a young age. This led to the formation of a committee led by former chief of the Samata party: Jaya Jaitly. The committee explored various arenas linked to the medical well being of women and their children during pregnancies. This included things like the Infant and Mother mortality rate which are staggeringly high in India. In addition, the committee also tried to come up with measures for promoting higher education for women because it isn’t unusual for girls to be taken out of schools at a young age to coerce them into early marriages.
Furthermore, this Bill could increase participation of women in jobs and at the same time, ensure their physical well being. This is beneficial for the economy of the country too. When young girls get access to education and gain financial independence, it gives them a level of autonomy that they would not have had otherwise.
Indian society usually dictates that marriage and jobs for women are mutually exclusive events, thus making it even more essential for such laws to exist for the advancement of the country.
Noting that Child Marriages have significantly declined from 47% in the early 2000s to 23% in 2019-2020, the government aims to bring this number down further by imposing this law. Even though the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) has been initiated since the 1900s, very few take it seriously. Unfortunately, this has led to India becoming a country with the largest number of child brides in the world, contributing to one-third of the global total.
Child Marriage hasn’t been limited to young girls but young boys in rural villages in India are forced into it too. Although, in most cases, boys are allowed to go to school even after they are forced into child marriage. This is evidence enough to show how social norms and attitudes hold an exceedingly low value for human rights of girls and that their role is only limited to domestic chores and household responsibilities.
As if the situation wasn’t morbid enough already, girls forced into child marriages tend to face early, dangerous pregnancies that have severe threats to their life, contract HIV as well as face domestic violence. This not only affects young girls physically but also scars them emotionally and mentally. Bhagyashree Saini, a child marriage survivor from Rajasthan fought for 11 years to escape the social evil that is Child Marriage. Laws like the Legal Marriage age therefore must be taken seriously to not only help out survivors like Bhagyashree, but instead prevent crimes like these from occurring with innocent, young girls in the first place.
However, such a law does come with its controversies, debates and speculations. In many rural areas, dowry is still highly prevalent. People get their daughters married at a very young age as it allows them to pay less dowry. This is not only a social but also an economic problem. Over 63% of girls are already married under the new legal marriage age. This makes them unfairly liable to criminalisation.Opposers of this law argue that if 18 is the legal age of adulthood all over the world and if women can drive and vote at 18, why can’t they get married? In retrospect, why can’t the legal marriage age of men be lowered from 21 to 18? According to several surveys and studies, women often get married to escape abusive homes and schools. This acts as freedom rather than oppression for them and implementing this law complicates the economic welfare and wellbeing of women.
The main reason behind the creation of this law is that the PCMA act is failing to work efficiently as the police and State authorities look the other way. This Bill can aid in the betterment of lives of women, the economy as well as break down deep rooted, patriarchal social norms and therefore should be deemed indispensable by the government and people of India.