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Increasing legal age of marriage to 21: Is it a boon or a bane for Indian women?

According to National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21, women in the age group of 20-24 years who were married before they turned 18, are 14.7% in urban and 27% in rural areasPremium
According to National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21, women in the age group of 20-24 years who were married before they turned 18, are 14.7% in urban and 27% in rural areas

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government has decided to raise the legal age of marriage of women to 21 from 18 years
  • According to a report by Pew Research Center, a large number of countries have capped the marital age at 18 for both boys and girls. The list includes Australia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Israel, Iceland, Switzerland, and Russia.

Mahima was married off a few days after she turned 16. It was a close-knit affair back in her village in Bihar. Covid-19 provided her family with the perfect opportunity to arrange the low-key wedding without attracting too much attention. "The schools were closed, I had nothing to do at home. Moreover, you don't get such an ideal groom that easily these days. He brought me to Delhi, he works as an AC fitter and I have taken up a job in a beauty salon", quips Mahima, who is expecting her first child and a legal marriage certificate as she turns 18 later this year.

However she is not alone, in India, thousands are pushed into marriage early. Sometimes forcibly, against their will, seemingly to 'ward off' bad influences or to not escape the opportunity of getting a 'perfect' match.

In India, child marriage has been a stumbling block for women since time immemorial. While earlier it was rampant across all parts of the country, government rules and acts managed to suppress it to an extent and send it under the carpet, but it is still prevalent. It continues, in the garb of a social marriage, which is only legalised when the girl turns 18.

According to National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21, women in the age group of 20-24 years who were married before they turned 18, are 14.7% in urban and 27% in rural areas. Women aged 15-19 years who were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey were 3.8% (urban) and 7.9% (rural).

In the 19th century, the marriageable age for women used to be 10 years and 15 years from 1949 onwards. However, in 1978, an amendment was passed under the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) to increase the marriageable age for girls to 18. And, in 2006, the Government of India enacted the Prevention of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) that replaced CMRA with a motto of the abolishment of child marriage. While it has been 44 years since the anti-child marriage act, the primitive practice continues in several parts of the country.

Now, to bring women on equal footing with men, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government has decided to raise the legal age of marriage of women to 21 from 18 years. According to PM Modi, increasing the legal age of marriage will empower girls and will help in building their careers.

However, several experts fear that the proposed legislation might end up being futile if not counter-productive.

What are the stumbling blocks?

Even in the proposed law, girls are not getting the freedom to choose their partners, and there is no importance given to consent from a girl's side, says Anubha Rastogi, Independent lawyer and CAG member of Pratigya Campaign, a Not-for-profit collective working for women's rights and gender equality.

"The government states that this would bring gender equality in the country and will resolve other problems such as Maternal Mortality Rate, Infant Mortality Rate, poor health of women, etc but merely extending the marriage by two years without looking at other social factors cannot be the right way to change legislation," argues Anubha Rastogi.

College-going girls will become the most vulnerable group under the proposed law. Prabhleen Tuteja, Director of Programme, The YP Foundation & CAG member for Pratigya Campaign says that arguments between a woman and her future in-laws over the continuation of studies will increase.

"The in-laws might say that the government has already extended the marriageable age and now you need one more year to finish your college. Hence, the problem of marriage pressure will remain the same irrespective of the marital age and the argument of augmenting gender equality through the new amendment remains hollow," says Tuteja.

According to experts, several girls decide to get married early to get rid off violent homes where they are considered a burden and need to be married off. They consider marriage as an option for freedom. However, the implementation of this law might change the situation.

Vinoj Manning, CEO of Ipas Development Foundation, says that if women can vote at the age of 18, why does she have to choose her life partner at 21. "If you look at all the laws around, 18 is the cut off so why do we increase the marriage to 21. This is contrary to every legal right existing in the country. Be it the age of consent or the right to choose abortion, Indian laws have allowed women aged 18 and above to decide on their own. Unmarried women below 18 require the consent of their guardians to receive abortion due to unwanted pregnancy. The government should look into all these laws too, before implementing this law," says Manning.

It is interesting to note that in 2018, the Law Commission had suggested that 18 years should be the minimum legal age for both men and women to get married. As per the panel, "If a universal age for a majority is recognised and that grants all citizens the right to choose their governments, surely, they must also be considered capable of choosing their spouse".

Critics also question if the POCSO Act will be amended as a supplement of the PCMA Act. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012 stands out as comprehensive legislation on sexual crimes against children in India. While the Act has protected numerous children against sexual violence, families have also misused it. Many cases of sexual assault reported in the country under POCSO and other laws dealing with 16-18 years-old children are consensual and are reported by a girl's family who disapproves of the teenagers' conduct.

"If the legal age turns 21 then whether someone in a sexual relationship between 18-20, will be reprimanded or the age of majority will also change for girls to 21," Tuteja asked.

The Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) has opposed the Centre's move to raise the legal age of girls’ marriage saying it would be ineffective in preventing child marriages and instead will escalate the instances of foeticide and unwed mothers.

According to experts, the pressure to educate young girls until 21 among poor families will increase the rate of sex-selective abortion in the country. The fear of rape or elopement will also loom large, especially in the rural areas due to the proposed law.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)'s women wing said imposing a marriageable age will not yield desired results. "Such issues must be dealt with public awareness and holding wider discussions," the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti said.

According to a report by Pew Research Center, a large number of countries have capped the marital age at 18 for both boys and girls. The list includes Australia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Israel, Iceland, Switzerland, and Russia.

However, in New Zealand, the marriageable age is 20 for both men and women. In Singapore, individuals under age 21 wishing to marry must obtain parental consent, and individuals under age 18 will also require a special license from the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

So, what should be the way ahead?

Before increasing the legal age for marriage, the government should work on the Right to Education Act (RTE). It should be extended beyond 14 years and should be guaranteed to at least senior secondary schooling, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic when the dropout rate of schoolgirls has reached a new high.

"Marriage as an institution is not a situation of age but has been built on many other things, including economic pattern, fear of violence on young girls, early pregnancies, sexual relationship, a lot of these things impact marriage but age does not," says Prabhleen Tuteja.

"One should not address a problem immediately by legislation. One needs to understand the core societal issue. Girls need to get equal opportunities in terms of health, education, and living. Bringing in more women to the workforce like South Korea and Japan can also help to improve gender imbalance and solve issues of early marriages," says Vinoj Manning.

At the moment, the bill to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years has been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee. However, the country has a long way to go before Indian women manage to be on equal footing with men irrespective of their caste, creed, religion, and socio-economic status.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mansi Jaswal

I write about gender-related issues, women's rights, women empowerment, gender equality, women's health topics, and their wealth management. Also, profiling women who have fought all odds to make their own identities in their own rights. Before Mint, I worked at Business Today and Business Standard. I studied journalism at IIMC, Delhi. Got a story idea? Email me at mansi.jaswal@htdigital.in
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