This research paper comprises the study on impact of increase in legal marriage age for women in India. It is a small attempt towards understanding and realising the policy angle upon a move by the government which is surprisingly prevalent and immediate in the Indian setup. Through this research, a fair, gender neutral notion has been brought up about how greatly this policy by the government is going to affect the youth and shape the future of India. The aim of this research is to sensitise the readers with the provisions of the proposed bill and educate them about the likely impact of revising the minimum legal marriage age policy for the Indian population. Research methods like structured interviews, surveys and analysis from focused group discussions of several key stakeholders have been summarised and used in the formulation and shaping of this research document.
India is one of the fastest and largest growing economies in the world. On one hand, it is the literate population and on the other it is the rich diversity that promotes this progress. Both men and women are at par and competitive in the modern time. However, despite their equal ratio, because of the patriarchal standpoints and descrimination happening around, the general acceptance of women in decision making is far lower than that of men. Some Indian women are global leaders and powerful voices in diverse fields but most women and girls in India do not fully enjoy many of their rights due to deeply entrenched patriarchal views, norms, traditions and structures.
UNICEF estimates at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 are married in India. In the lens of a rural setup, women, despite the presence of major upliftment schemes and reservation policies are generally alienated. One of the root causes for such acts is the mindset of people. Rural India, today identifies itself as a ‘diverse form of civilisation’ which has no doubt progressed in a way that they today offer a decent livelihood to many but the same areas of our country lack significantly and are way behind than other areas with respect to their mindset.
According to several reports, the general acceptance of a male child being enrolled in high school or even accepting a job letter is higher than a girl child receiving the same. In a country where dowry is still in practice and legal in the view of the public's opinion, how will a child of any gender realise their full potential to work and survive in such a controlled environment?
Good quality education is the foundation of new discoveries, new knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship that trigger growth and prosperity of the individual as well as that of a nation.
Previously, families eagerly waited for their girl child to turn eighteen and get her married off. As a result, early marriages could mean early pregnancies further leading to massive health consequences for both the mother and child. Hence, in order to address such issues, and gain a holistic approach, which is not just restricted to health constraints but also based on educational development and financial independence, the government has proposed an increase in the minimum age for marriage of girl child to 21 years.
Now the question is will this proposal change the perspective completely? Nothing can be guaranteed but increasing the age for marriage will provide a girl child with time to grow immensely. This will open up corridors for education and employment opportunities, encourage her to start living a life that she desires for, empower her to take her own financial decisions and allow her to understand her place and her vision of life.
In 2017, a public interest litigation (PIL) PIL was filed by advocate and BJP Spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhya who argues that Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution guarantee the right to equality and right to live with dignity, are violated by having different legal ages for men and women to marry. Based upon which, the Delhi High Court in 2019 had already issued notices to the Centre and the Law Commission of India, seeking their responses to this PIL.
As a result to the recent developments, it was on 15th August 2021, our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi for the first time, announced in his Independence Day speech that the centre will decide on the recommendations of a committee setup to reconsider the minimum age for marriage of women. Additionally, our Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman during her Budget Speech 2020-21 had also announced to revise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years. This led to creation of a high-level committee by the central government with a basic mandate to ‘examine the appropriate age of motherhood and how to lower the maternal mortality ratio’ and provide recommendations to the government by 31st July 2020.
Prior to independence, in 1860, it was through the Indian Penal Code which first criminalised sexual intercourse under the provisions that resisted against any commission of heinous acts with a girl child who was below the age of 10 years. Later in 1891, ‘Age of Consent Act’ raised the age from 10 to 12 years and and later in 1927, the amendment mad, made marriage stand invalid if conducted before the age limit. In addition to this, ‘Sarda Act of 1929’ decided upon the ‘Child Marriage Restrain Act’ setting a minimum age limit on women and men as 14 and 18 years, respectively. Post Independence, the ‘Special Marriage Act 1954’ and later ‘Hindu Marriage Act 1955’ set guidelines for marriages. The Sarda Act was amended in 1978 and the legal age for women was increased to 18 years and for men to 21 years.
As of present, the minimum legal marriage age is 18 years for women and 21 years for men. Despite an abundance of laws, child marriages were very much prevalent in Indian society since medieval ages. This was due to lack of strictness in laws, which were further improved with the emergence of ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act’ of 2006, that completely prohibited the act of child marriages and levied a heavy penalty on committers. Further developments in the same arena include the point that ‘gender neutrality’ should be maintained since there is no reasoning in the law for having different legal standards of age for men and women to marry and the laws are simply a codification of custom and religious notions, they could be amended without any trouble.
International Experience reveals that countries like the USA and UK already foster a gender neutral age of 18 years and approximately, around 156 countries across the world have 18 years as their minimum legal marriage age for both girls and boys.
How will this change impact a child’s future?
What does this decision mean for 600 million women?
Will this step aid in eradicating the culture of forced marriages or just delay them?
Review of Literature
The existing literature speaks about the evolution and significance of marriages in the Indian context. It reveals that the concept of age limit is non-obligatory but is set for the purpose of establishing a culture of consent in the modern age. The literature gap exists between the existing population and the youth, mainly rooted with the mindset of people. This research paper holistically tries to bridge the gap between their perspectives with evidence from the past and modern advisories from reputed institutions.
In June 2020, the central government sets up a task force to examine the correlation of age of marriage and motherhood with three prominent points:
(i) Health care and medical well-being, along with nutritional status of mother and child, during pregnancy and thereafter;
(ii) Key parameters such as Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR), Total Fertility Rate (TFR), Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB), Child Sex Ratio (CSR), and
(iii) Any other relevant points pertaining to health and nutrition in this context.
Additionally, their work was also to recommend measures for promoting higher education among women.
The Task Force also stressed upon bringing societal change to make the policy sound more effective. This could be ensured by increasing accessibility and easy mobility for women in educational institutions, and by focusing upon skill development and business training for them. Unless such environments are fostered, the policy will not be as effective as it should be.
The scheme was later introduced in Lok Sabha on 21 December, 2021 under the ‘The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021’ with an aim to increase the minimum age of marriage of females to 21 years, and is still referred to the Standing Committee in Rajya Sabha.
This proposal will require amendments of the concerned laws through parliament. The laws include:
The Child Marriage Act, 2006
The Special Marriage Act, 1954
Further, the bill is likely to be reintroduced in the Parliament in the upcoming sessions, and if passed unanimously, it might be a successor for women empowerment schemes like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ and ‘Mahila Shakti Kendras’ when it comes to addressing policy implementation in India.
Provisioning of this bill will not only significantly impact girl child but also benefit boy child in the long run. In the Indian context, boys belonging to backward families are often considered direct income sources, however, their parents are often mistaken because these boys are made to neglect their rights and access to primary education in replacement for income generation and recreational functions, which is not a win-win for them. Additionally, a guarantee of law that all marriages below the set limit are to be declared void will make the bill stand completely justified. Moreover, it is often assumed that the impact of child marriages lies over the shoulders of girl child who has to suffer as a bride, but it is both the children who are often not sensitised about the situation and are laid with extra responsibilities further affecting their potential in the long run.
What does this decision mean for 600 million women?
Nutrition & Health: The aim of this proposed bill is to tackle matters pertaining to the age of motherhood. Reports from National Family Health Survey (NFHS) suggest that late marriages allows new mothers to be fully nourished with required nutrients and equips them with parental knowledge to take good care of their children.
Education & Literacy: With this scheme, there would be decline in early dropouts from schools and educational institutions. Additionally, with the extension of three years, there would be ‘access to financial literacy’ which will equip both girls and boys with necessary skills set which will aid them in decision-making and better understanding of handling their finances at household and work places.
Decline in Forced marriages: Forced marriages are a violation of an individual’s rights, and has a negative impact on their physical growth, health, mental and emotional development, and education opportunities of the child. Both girls and boys are adversely affected by child marriage, as a result of which, the society as a whole falls under the vicious cycle of poverty and perpetuates gender discrimination, illiteracy and malnutrition as well as high infant and maternal mortality rates. One of the major ambitions of this scheme is to empower the most marginalized adolescent girls to make informed choices, especially those who are at risk of child marriage or are already married. Hence, with the emergence of this policy, there would be a potential decline in the social evils in Indian society.
Employment Opportunities & Upliftment: Corridors for new opportunities for every girl and every boy to work will open up, further accelerating progress and as both of them would attain quality education along with access government schemes, they will be better able to apply their knowledge and skills in a better way and strike decent employment opportunities or even run their own ideas to as startup and sustainable business models in the fly to becoming financially indepent and contributing to national income. Moreover, advocating for and promoting equal value of girls will help improve their safe mobility pan India.
Poor Implementation: Poor policy implementation and lack of efforts by the government may not solve the problem but just delay it by three years. Additionally, due to lack of effective monitoring mechanism with the government, the spirit of implementation will be affected, as a result of which the whole purpose of the bill will stand defied.
Freedom of Choice: Age of Majority v/s Age of Marriage is a big issue even raised by many opposition leaders, where they question why not have an age limit of 18 years as an equal age to promote gender neutrality. Moreover, changing the mindset of people is a big hurdle and an extremely difficult task. Despite innovative measures and constant efforts taken by the government to educate and raise awareness among communities, change is something that is a slow process and requires general acceptance from both sides.
Judicial/ Case Overload: With a bill like this, there is a greater potential of registration of fresh cases pertaining to marriages set upon illegal age grounds. This will topple up the number of cases over the judicial system and will leave a significant impact on delivery speed of justice to young women and men.
On one hand, Union Minister Smriti Irani, who also happened to propose this bill in the Parliament, strongly believes that this raise in minimum marriage age for girl child would lead to establishment of gender equality and women empowerment in society. Whereas, on the other hand, opposition leader and Chief of AIMIM, Asaduddin Owaisi rejects this notion and compares this act as a typical paternalism that comes from the government where an 18 year old men & women can sign contracts, start businesses, choose their own political leaders but not marry. In the opinion of people raising this point of objection, the legal age for marriage for both male and female should be 18 years. Similar recommendations have been made by the National Law Commission of India and many more.
Think from a woman's perspective
India is home to 223 million girls and women who were married as children – a third of the world’s child brides and the key stakeholders from agencies of government and international organisations observe that the future of children lies in the hands of policymakers. “What is more important than children and their future?” says Nisha Meena, Deputy Director of the Women’s Empowerment Department in the Rajasthan State Government. Empowered Adolescent Girls at UNICEF expresses that “In the group we talk about different health issues, we do a lot of work to help link girls to education and we also discuss child marriage and how it should not take place. We sing songs, learn new things and address problems that any of us have. Child marriage exists in the village. But now we have an improved understanding and we talk to our parents about the problems it causes. Over the last two years, we’ve also helped prevent child marriages.” All they sum up to is provisioning an opportunity for the girl child will help better the situation.
Recommendation by Various Committees
It was UNICEF in 2020 which recommended the age as 18 for both male and female on the mandate on the rationale that a person is emotionally, physically and mentally mature to marry at the age of 18. Moreover, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child supported this notion on the mandate that the age of marriage should be equal to the age of majority. Further, in 2018, the recommended age was supported by the Law Commission of India on the observations that due to lack of evident scientific reasons for the age to be different and that age of majority grants all citizens the right to choose their governments, hence the legal age of marriage should also be recognised as such.
The research involves both qualitative as well as quantitative analysis. Various questions regarding the impact of an increase in the minimum legal marriage age are answered through critical analysis based upon the responses of interviewed people who identify themselves as the promoters of women empowerment and aligned with the rural setting in place. Further, a questionnaire was circulated among the youth to assess and survey the amount of knowledge they have, and to take into consideration their opinions regarding the government’s recent proposal on revision of minimum legal marriage age for girl child. Additionally, focused peer group discussions were conducted at institutional levels to identify and analyse diverse opinions of people working in related arenas.
In Rajasthan, to eradicate child marriages from roots, UNICEF along with the local governments have been organising several campaigns like large events, community murals, social media ads and even a mobile phone ringtone. At the district level, mobile vans are being arranged to travel from village to village in order to encourage dialogue, establish engagement among young people with games, and host films along with play performances to educate the masses. The campaign is running alongside the State Action Plan, which is the result of a large-scale consultation with youth, government, NGOs, and majorly by UN agencies. The plan includes small scale targets to ten year targets, within a huge range of strategies, from empowering young people to making laws and protection systems more stringent.
Not only in Rajasthan, but several other states like Odisha and West Bengal have similar trends. “When girls are productively engaged it also changes the mindset of families. I feel very proud of my daughter,” says Nandini Bisoyi of Gaiba village in Odisha. She is the mother of 18-year-old Pinki who after completing a tailoring course is now engaged
in a garment unit in one of India’s bustling metros.
Analysis of the state level data reveals that similar to the national level, there exist a correlation between early child marriage and the educational attainment of girls. We find that the completion of secondary education is found to be significant in delaying the age at marriage. Findings show the completion rate of secondary schooling is considerably higher amongst unmarried girls aged 15-19 years in almost all states. Making secondary schooling a fundamental right and ensuring girls from poor households are provided safe learning environments as well as residential secondary schools for remote areas may be considered as necessary steps to prevent early marriage in Indian states. In Bihar, completion rate of secondary education amongst girls who married before age 18 is only 51%, followed by Delhi (54%) and Rajasthan (57%).
India in recent years has shown tremendous progress in lowering the prevalence of child marriages. Though the decreasing trend in prevalence of child marriage seems promising at the country level, still there are 12 states in India that shows higher prevalence of child marriage than the national average. A key strategy for the initiative has been to strengthen access to services through ongoing government programmes and ensuring that there is no social stigma in marrying late.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS-5), 23% of marriages in India are child marriages. No doubt, this figure has reduced significantly over the years from 47% in NFHS-3 (2005-06) to 27% in NFHS-4 (2015-16), and to 23% in the latest survey. The analysis clearly indicates a positive trend and gains from efforts being made by various states to prevent child marriage.
In my opinion, when girls are productively engaged it also changes the mindset of families and their local communities. Hence, creation of opportunities and right awareness amongst small communities tends to automatically make adjustments and decrease social evils in society. Linking girls to services, ensuring a positive legal and policy framework along with mobilising communities for change will potentially aid in empowering adolescent girls in the near future.
Women centric reforms can bring holistic change in society. India will not fully develop unless both girls and boys are equally supported to reach their full potential. It is critical to enhance the value of girls by investing in their education and empowering them with life skills, sport and financial literacy. By increasing the minimum legal marriage of women we can collectively contribute to the achievement of specific results, some short-term like increasing access to education, improving nutrition, others medium-term like ending child marriage. Most importantly, changing the value of girls has to include both men and women. It has to mobilise many sectors from an early age in society. Only when society’s perception changes, will the rights of all the girls and all the boys in India be fulfilled. Moreover, these three years will also give them the time to work on their skills and help them achieve better living opportunities. Furthermore, amendments are just the first steps to the process, it is effective outreach and education along with constant checks in Indian society that will fulfil the purpose of this act and be helpful in catalysing the national economy while mitigating the social evils in developing India.
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