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Let the Marriage Age of Women Remain at 18

A decision is on the anvil to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years with the introduction of the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in the Lok Sabha. The Bill which envisions making the age of marriage of women at par with men is currently lying with the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

A 10-member team under Samata Party leader Ms Jaya Jaitly was constituted in the year 2020 by the then union government, which had strongly recommended increasing the marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 years.

The Special Marriage Act, 1954; The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936; Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; The Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872; The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937; and The Foreign Marriage Act, 1969 will be amended relating to the age of marriage according to the provisions of this Bill, as reported. The Bill will reportedly provide an effective impetus for greater gender equality in society, paving way for a girl to join and complete education, professional training and vocational courses.

Observations in favour of increase of marriage age of women
The Bill considered it imperative to combat gender inequality and gender discrimination and to ensure adequate measures to secure health, welfare and empowerment of women and girls and to make them available equal status and opportunity at par with men.

It was also stated that the Bill would bring gender equality in the country and will resolve other problems such as maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate and poor health of women. The Bill was introduced to help girls complete their education, prevent their early pregnancies, push them become independent and strong mentally and physically to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage.

Those who are in favour of increasing the age of marriage of women from 18 to 21 cite the studies which show that women who are married off under a certain age give early birth, conceive stunted, anaemic or malnourished babies, and themselves face nutrient deficiencies, high miscarriage rates and problems in future pregnancies. Some studies show significant linkages between the age of a woman at the time of conception and inter-generational transition of poverty - where poverty is passed on from one generation to the next.

Social scientists have argued that early marriage prevents women from achieving their rightful education, accessing employment and training opportunities, developing social relationships with peers, and participating in civic life. However, it is not clear whether the studies were done over girls of below or of and above 18 years of age.

Observations against increase of marriage age of women
However, some critics say that instead of increasing the age of marriage of women from 18 to 21, efforts should first be made to ensure that the people stick to the age of 18 years for marriage of girls, which is the existing law and has not been implemented at the ground level in toto. The Indian government increased the minimum legal age for marriage for girls from 15 to 18 years, and for boys from 18 to 21 years in 1978, but even after 45 years of increase in marriage age of girls from 15 to 18 years, there are instances of some people getting their daughters married below 18 years of age and this phenomenon is not confined to one community alone.

Secondly, not all early marriages are forced. Some women choose to get married early, say to get out of abusive paternal homes or financial stress or after falling in love. It will be a very painful and messy affair to make marriage a punitive matter and will have an adverse impact on both the bride and groom and their families.

Thirdly, despite a ban on child marriages, the latest data from the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21 shows that 14.7 per cent of women in India in the 20-24 age groups in urban areas were married off before they turned 18. The percentage was as high as 27 in rural areas. With 3.8 per cent rural women and 7.9 per cent urban women in the 15-19 age group being pregnant or having already given birth, not only child brides, a sizeable number of child mothers were recorded by the NFHS-5.

That means it is easy to make laws but difficult to implement the same. Therefore, instead of increasing marriage age, we need to focus on bringing reforms individually across issues, such as education, domestic violence, employment, skilling, reproductive health and family planning particularly in rural areas.

Lastly, increase in age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 may lead to premarital sex, illegal abortions, promiscuity, immoral acts, increase in prostitution rackets, sexual crimes, more cases of living together without marriage, unwedded mothers, risk of contracting AIDS and increased activities in brothels, some critics suspect. Since we have failed to implement 18 years of age for marriage of girls even after 45 years of passing the order, what is the guarantee that we will succeed by increasing the same from 18 to 21.

This increase in age of marriage for girls will also entail in late marriages of couples leading to generation gap between the children and parents, unestablished children even after retirement of the parents, infertility, impotency, breast cancer, sexual perversion and crime, abnormal children, difficult pregnancy, illegitimate children, faded zeal of youth, finances becoming number one priority, rush for children and reduced sexual activity leading to dissatisfaction in marriage ultimately resulting to increase in divorce rate.

Couples are getting married very late in life and there are many drawbacks to this trend, a new study has revealed.

The average age when men got married was 28.7 and 26.5 for women, as discovered by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project. The study also found there were high rates of depression and alcohol abuse among the unmarried lot was also found in the study. They also appeared a bit discontented with their lives as compared to their married peers.

Nowadays many people delay their marriages, because of education and career opportunities, difficulty to find the right person, getting used to a single life, and becoming normal with pre-marital sex and living together.

It was suggested by the Law Commission in 2018 the minimum legal age for both men and women to get married should be 18 years, it is interesting to note.

It is also argued that if a girl can exercise her right to choose the government at 18, recognised universal age of majority, then she must also be considered capable of choosing her spouse.

The move to raise the legal age of girls' marriage has been opposed by the Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) saying it would not be able to prevent child marriages and as it will escalate the instances of foeticide and unwed mothers.

Critics also question if the POSCO Act will be amended along with the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which stands out as a comprehensive legislation on sexual crimes against children in India, as it has fixed 18 years as the minimum age for consensual sexual relationship between opposite genders.

Raising the minimum legal age for marriage of women from 18 to 21 may not be a good step, as a mere law without making sufficient efforts to implement the existing law cannot bring about change in society. Widespread awareness programs on the importance of girls' education and pitfalls of child marriage should be carried out.

The spending on education and health should be increased. In addition, girls' right to a life of their own choice after they become a legal adult at the age of 18 should be protected. Further, the educated and successful women are already getting married late as they know the disadvantages of child marriages implying increase in level of education and economic development will automatically result in good decisions made by the women.

So, the focus should be spread of education and economic development throughout India. When we failed to totally implement the law of marriage of girls fixed at 18 even after 45 years of making the law, we are unlikely to succeed in our mission by increasing the same to 21 particularly when adverse effects of this step are galore.

Written By: Md. Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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