Marry at 21 – An empowering step for Women?

child marriage

The Union cabinet recently made a decision to increase the age of marriage for girls to 21, bringing this at par with men. The age has, to put things in context, been gradually raised over the years. The legal marriage age for women in India was first set to 14 years in 1929. In 1949, the age for women was increased to 15. The age limit was later increased in 1978, to 18 for women, and to 21 for men. So the latest increase to 21 should have not raised any eyebrows.

However, the current move is being opposed by many. Of course, it is a known fact that child marriage is still rampant in many parts of the country and even the existing law of 18 years at marriage for girls is not enforced. S So it is certainly relevant to ask what the point is in raising the age further. The Congress leader P Chidambaram made the interesting suggestion that any law enacted without social buy-in would not be enforceable. Therefore, while commending the age-increase in principle, he felt that the law should come into force but only from 2023 and that too only if a full year was spent on educating the public about the intent behind the amendment and obtaining feedback.

Does Chidambaram not have a point? The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the age of legal marriage for women from 18 to 21, will apply to all communities in the country and, once enacted, will supersede all existing marriage and personal laws. While public health experts will point to the advantages of late marriages, the reality also is that laws that lack social sanctions are hard to enforce. A task force, led by former Samata Party chief, Jaya Jaitly, and by NITI Aayog Member (Health), V.K. Paul, submitted a report to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) in December 2020 on aspects dealing with women empowerment. That report recommends raising the age of marriage. Other recommendations included a strong campaign to reform patriarchal mindsets and improve access to education. Apart from this task force, The Law Commission Report of 2008, on reforming family law, recommended a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years and not 21. The National Human Rights Commission in 2018 had also recommended that there should be a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls.

According to the National Family Health Survey (2019-2021), 23.3% of women aged 20-24 years married before 18, which shows that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, has not been wholly successful in preventing child marriages, especially among the poor. Women’s rights activists point out that parents often use this Act to punish their daughters who marry against their wishes or elope to evade forced marriages, domestic abuse, and lack of education facilities. In other words,, within a patriarchal setting, it is more likely that the change in the age limit will solidify parental ’ control over people who are already young adults and should have the normal freedoms of other adults.

But if the stated objectives of the Cabinet’s latest decision are good, while the means it tries to utilise are not that optimal, what is the best way forward?

A good, but not easy, way to achieve the stated objective is to take steps to counsel girls on early pregnancies and provide them the facilities to improve their health. The focus must be on creating social awareness about women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and ensuring that girls are not forced to drop out of school or college. If Parliaments attempt to rely too heavily upon, or to cut too short a path in their attempts at social reform, there is a danger that the law itself will come into greater contempt, and our historically-existing national tendency to evade the law will only become more entrenched

However, it must be acknowledged that the number of child marriages decreased from 27 percent to 23 percent in the last five years, with the decrease sharper in urban areas; in rural India, more than every fourth woman in the age group 20-24 were married before she was 18. The reasons are well-known. The Covid pandemic has of course highlighted the direct links between economic distress and disastrous social consequences in which children become the victims. Social science research clearly demonstrates that early marriage is associated with adverse human capital outcomes such as limited opportunities for personal and educational development. Although 60% of girls in India now attend secondary school, over half still marry before they are 18 years of age as they have done for centuries, whatever be the law.

Everyone knows that laws do not exist in a vacuum. While progressive laws that promote gender equity are always welcome, Chidambaram’s point about building social consensus is worth considering. Consider for instance the 2018 judgment of the Supreme Court on allowing women of all ages to enter and worship at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. By convention women in the reproductive age group were not permitted to worship here as the presiding deity in the shrine is considered a celibate. This regressive practice was challenged by several women activists in the Supreme Court. In the teeth of opposition by conservative devotees, the Supreme Court depended on the Constitutional provision of equality of the sexes before the law permitted entry of women worshippers to Sabarimala. Although the legal victory was won, one year later in 2019, no more than 51 women were reported to have actually visited, mostly activists, and not regular devotees. At the present time, the law increasing the age of marriage would meet a similar fate. Parliament might enact a law, the president may give his assent and the law notified in the gazette, but women will continue to marry at the age they always have.

Meanwhile, the winter session of parliament has closed. The bill to amend the law and increase of marriage for girls to 21 was indeed introduced. Given the speed with which bills have been introduced, read, and passed within hours if not minutes by this government without consultation or debate, that is what was expected this time around too. But in a welcome departure from the current practice, after introduction, the Bill has actually been referred to a parliamentary standing committee. This practice allows a smaller number of MPs to summon experts from various fields to make their presentations and assist parliament to make as law in a more participatory way and hopefully with limited political interference the outcome of the deliberations will be eagerly awaited as will be the final law that is eventually enacted. The need is ultimately to ensure that the end outcome will be women’s empowerment, not woman’s infantilisation.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.

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