Dr Oishee Mukherjee
The recent decision of the Modi government to raise the marriage age for women from 18 to 21 has evoked mixed reaction. The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, tabled in the Lok Sabha, was sent to a select parliamentary committee as many Opposition parties opposed it. The concern being that child marriages are rife in the country despite the law and it is critical that rather than legally raising the minimum marital age, the root cause of child marriage be addressed in order to bring about a value change in society.
However, the task force under Jaya Jaitley last year had examined the correlation between the age of marriage and issues such as nutrition, prevalence of anaemia, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate etc. It felt that delaying the age of marriage and, in turn, child birth may have a positive impact on the IMR and MMR.
Counter opinions to increasing the marriageable age of women are being discussed, including that such a law could be used by parents to control the autonomy of young women and to penalise the sexual choice they make as adults or that a 18-20 year-old married woman under the current law can have her marriage nullified and rights under it denied.
A minimum age of marriage signifies that unions below a specific age would be liable for criminal prosecution if they are reported. But the law remains hazy on how the government intends to enforce monitoring mechanisms. Concerns have been expressed that how the new law could push underage marriages and control trafficking. A study on a decade of child marriage law revealed that the legislation had been overwhelming used by parents to punish daughters who had eloped. As is well known, the causes of minor marriages lie in poverty, traditional ideas about marriage and the desire to control female sexuality.
Given the aim to eliminate child marriage by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, this move is in the right direction. The Jaya Jaitley headed task force asked the government to look into increasing access to schools and colleges for girls, including their transportation. Skill and business training has also been recommended as has sex education in schools along with training and livelihood enhancement to ensure that an increase in marriageable age can be implemented. According to the committee, these steps must come first because unless they are implemented, the law will not be effective.
It is pertinent here to mention that over 70 percent of students across 16 universities as part of the spadework by the Jaya Jaitley led 10-member central panel, have favoured raising the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years and about 67 percent thought the ideal age to get married was between 26 and 30 years. However, the study found that among male students a considerable proportion – of about 24 percent – believed that there was no need to increase the legal age of marriage.
As per government data, the average age of women getting married in India increased to 22 years. But around 24 percent of women aged 20-24 years still get married before 18. There are expectations that reducing the drop-out rate of girl students at school and college since early marriage is the most prevalent reason for girls dropping out at school level. Raising the legal age of marriage will provide them with the opportunity to prepare them for a better life and be economically self-reliant.
Some experts believe that raising the marriage age to curb population growth is misleading. India’s fertility rate is already down to 2.2 and will soon fall to 2.1 children per woman at which rate the population will stabilize and ageing will become a problem. Despite the government’s claim to giving special priority to women, their position has kept deteriorating because the deep social prejudices and crime women face cannot be changed. It cannot be said that raising the minimum age of marriage will lead to female empowerment though such increase may motivate them to continue with their studies.
In many developed countries, including those on Scandinavian and also Britain the minimum marriageable age varies between 16 and 18. But these cannot be given as examples as the education levels in these countries are high and girls continue with their studies after marriage. As per available records, a quarter of Indian women are married before 18, some of whom even before they attain the age of 15. UNICEF data has shown that India is home to every third child bride in the world with more than 100 million of them getting married even before they turn 15.
Though apparently it may seem that increasing the marriage age is a forward-looking decision, but simultaneously education facilities for girls have to be improved and special incentives given for those studying in higher secondary classes. The local panchayats and civil society organizations should be roped in to stop child marriages and ensure that they continue their education. If necessary, books and education materials should be provided to girls to enable them to continue their studies.
Both at the national and state levels, there should be thrust on recruitment of women so that they feel that gender parity is emerging in the country. Already during the last two years or so, there has been considerable recruitment of girls in the private sector but in government jobs despite much talk of empowering women, just 11 percent of 31 Central government employees in 2011 were women. But by March 2020, the employee strength had increased to 32 million though the share of women has not changed much. Moreover, out of nearly 21 million police personnel in the country as of January 2020, only 10.30 percent were women though there has been talk of increasing this share to around 33 percent.
The whole question is the empowerment of women and providing them education and health facilities at grass-root levels, specially in the backward districts of the country. While increasing the age of marriage of women is necessary, there is simultaneous need to educate them about how realities and challenges of life, specially in relation to having children and attendant responsibilities of nurturing them. And not just the women, but equally the men. INFA
Dr Oishee Mukherjee