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Raising the age of Marriage: A Critique on Recent Legal Developments

The Union Government has decided to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years. Men have to be legally 21 years old to marry. With this decision, the government would bring the marriage age for men and women to the same level. "It is critical to address gender inequality and discrimination, as well as to put in place adequate measures to ensure the health, welfare, and empowerment of our women and girls, as well as to ensure that they have the same status and opportunities as men," the Bill, which has been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, stated. It's no secret that women lag behind men in practically every category, and many are married before they turn 18 years old. Many of these issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

According to the National Family Health Survey, 23.3 % of women aged between 20 to 24 are married before they reached eighteen. At the time of the poll, 6.8% of women in the fifteen to nineteen year old age group were already moms or pregnant. Only 41% of them have completed more than 10 years of education, compared to 50.2 percent of men. Even in terms of economic empowerment, such as owning a cell phone, only 54% of women have one. Lack of education, marriage, and home duties all contribute to women's decreased participation in the workforce.

Why is there a minimum age of marriage?

To effectively prohibit child weddings and safeguard children from harm, the law establishes a minimum age for marriage. Many religions have their own conditions for marriage, which are usually relied on custom. For Hindus, the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 mandates that the bride must be 18 years old and the groom must be 21 years old. In Islam, the wedding of a minor who has attained puberty is permitted.

Women and men has to be 18 and 21 years old, respectively, to assent to marriage, according to the Special Marriage Act of 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006. These laws are anticipated to be changed in order to implement the new marriage age.

Jaya Jaitly committee

The government chose to re-examine the age of marriage for women for a number of reasons, particularly gender neutrality. Early marriage and, as a result, early pregnancies have an impact on mothers' and children's nutritional levels, as well as their overall health and mental well-being. It also has an effect on the Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Rate, as well as the empowerment of women who are denied access to school and livelihood due to early marriage.

Child marriage has decreased slightly in the country, from 27% in 2015-16 to 23% in 2019-20, according to the newly released National Family Health Survey (NFHS), but the government has been striving to reduce it even more.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development established a task force in the month of June 2020 to investigate the relationship between the age of marriage and concerns such as women's nutrition, anaemia prevalence, (Infant Mortality Rate) IMR, (Maternal Mortality Rate ) MMR, and other social indices. The committee was to investigate the possibility of raising the marriage age and the implications for women's and children's health, as well as how to improve women's access to education.

The committee was also expected to recommend a schedule for the government to adopt the policy, as well as the changes that would need to be made to current legislation to make this possible. Former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly led the committee, which included NITI Aayog member (Health) Dr V K Paul and secretaries from other ministries.

Based on input from young adults at sixteen different colleges around the country, the committee has proposed that the marriage age be raised to 21 years. Over 15 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were also enlisted to help out young adults in remote locations and marginalised groups.

According to committee members, feedback was sought from young people of all faiths, as well as from both rural and urban areas. The committee also requested that the government look into expanding females' access to schools and universities, as well as their transportation to these institutions from remote places.

Skills and business training, as well as sex education in schools, have also been proposed. The committee stated that these deliveries must come first since the law will not be as effective unless they are implemented and women are empowered. The group also advised that a huge public awareness campaign about the rising age of marriage be launched, as well as social acceptance of the new rule, which they believe would be far more effective than coercive methods.

Arguments for Raising the Legal Marrying Age

  • The protection of women against early and child marriage is a basic right, and this historic move will lead to improvements in associated legislative frameworks, resulting in a holistic rights-based structure for the aadhi aabadi.
  • If men and women can vote at the same age, and men and women can consensually, willingly, and legitimately enter into a contract at the same age, why not infuse equality in marriage age requirements?
  • Equal laws result in equality, and social transformations are both a forerunner to and a result of laws. In progressive civilizations, a change in the law is also more likely to result in changes in societal perceptions.
  • Various measures of female growth exist, particularly in the enrolment of female students in higher education. With equality in marriage age, women's empowerment will get even more momentum.

Arguments Against Raising the Legal Marrying Age

  • Though the goal appears to be laudable on paper, simply raising the marriage age without also raising social awareness and promoting health care access is unlikely to benefit the people it seeks to serve: young women who are not yet financially secure and are unable to exercise their rights and freedoms due to familial and societal pressures.
  • Despite the fact that the law barring marriage before the age of 18 has been in force in some form since the 1900s, child marriage continued almost unabated until 2005, when nearly half of the total females aged 20-24 had married under the legal minimum age.
  • The number of females of marriageable age who would be affected are enormous, with almost 60 percent marrying before the age of 21. The inability to prevent women from marrying before the age of 18 shows no proof that this problem will be solved by raising the age to 21.
  • Parents sometimes utilise this Act to penalise their daughters who marry against their inclinations or elope to avoid forced marriages, domestic abuse, and a lack of educational opportunities, according to women's rights groups. As a result, in a patriarchal society, a modification in the age limit is more likely to boost parents' influence over young adults.

What have critics said about raising the age of marriage?

Child and women's rights groups, as well as population and family planning experts, have opposed raising the age of marriage for women, claiming that such legislation would force a large portion of the population into unlawful marriages.

They argue that child weddings persist in India despite the legal age of marriage for women being kept at 18 years, and that the decrease in such marriages is due to increased girl's education and employment prospects rather than the current law. They argue that the law would be oppressive and would disproportionately affect oppressed minorities, such as Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, rendering them wrong doers.

For the first time in India, the legal age of marriage for men and women is the same, despite the fact that the legal age of marriage for men and women has always been different. During British rule, in 1929, a legislation was issued stating that the legal age for girls to marry was 14 and for boys to marry was 18.

The legal age of marriage for girls was raised to 15 in 1949, two years after India got independence, while the legal age of marriage for boys remained unchanged. In 1978, a girl's legal marriage age was raised to 18 and a boy's legal marriage age was raised to 21. It is laudable that the government has equalised the legal age of marriage for men and women, because the age differences in marriage for men and women were based on preconceptions such as "wives must be younger than their husbands" and the belief that "women are more mature than men of the same age" and thus should marry earlier.

Second, the goal was to provide females with the same chances as males in terms of education, employment, and independence, which meant being able to assert their rights without fear of retaliation.

Child marriages are influenced by a variety of social and economic circumstances, particularly in rural areas, where girls from financially disadvantaged families are frequently sold to men for marriage in order to offer financial assistance. This drives girls to drop out of school and face the hardships of early marriage, which has a negative impact on their mental and physical health. They are frequently victims of domestic violence and are economically disadvantaged. Early marriages also result in unintended pregnancies, which are harmful to both the mother and the child's health.

Though there are government programmes for female empowerment, such as 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' (BBBP), this plan has helped improve girl child education and female empowerment throughout the years; nonetheless, many states in the country still lack effective resource allocation and implementation of the scheme.

A committee recently discovered that nearly 80% of the cash granted under the BBBP were utilised for social media advertising, while states only used 25.18 percent of the funds allocated to administer the scheme. Though this scheme primarily focuses on raising awareness through various campaigns, there should be a proper framework in place to monitor the project's implementation and effectiveness in reaching the target audience. Rural women are disproportionately affected since they are denied the opportunity to educate themselves, and few marry young.

To protect women's rights in the country, it is critical to create and implement legislation that assists women in completing their education, and most importantly, to raise awareness about the importance of education and financial independence, as well as the consequences of child marriages, as this will encourage families to promote girl child education and employment, as when people understand why early marriages are dangerous and why education is important, they will be more likely to encourage their daughters to pursue higher education and employment.

It is imperative to provide all women with adequate and accessible healthcare and to raise awareness about reproductive rights, including the fact that marriage, pregnancy, and abortion are all their choices; no one can force them to do so. Under Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and liberty, the freedom to marry is a basic right. Is it a violation of fundamental liberties to bar 18-21-year-old adults from marrying? How far can the government go in limiting these basic rights?

First and foremost, regardless of whether the amendment is implemented or not, child marriage is a separate and independent issue. Child marriage, which has the biggest impact on the lives of young girls, is still outlawed and considered a criminal offence. A number of statutes exist that try to clearly prohibit child marriage and provide legal recourse to the minor girl. However, the debate in this post is mostly limited to women between the ages of 18 and 21, who are legal adults and capable of consenting to sexual encounters but are unable to marry. So far, the explanations offered for the need for this law have ranged from marginally irrelevant to completely irrelevant.

The "empowerment of women," which encourages girls to pursue higher education and labour in order to gain financial independence, enter the workforce, and contribute to the economy, as well as improvements in maternal nutrition and mortality rates, are the main factors stated. Improvements in the quality of education and access to healthcare resources for rural and semi-rural women are undeniably more difficult policies to implement at the grassroots level, but they have the potential to have a greater positive impact in terms of practical and, more importantly, long-term changes; albeit gradually.

Across castes, communities, and economic strata, Indian culture, particularly its familial customs, has a rich cultural framework. This may explain why new legislation attempting to exert control over complicated and entrenched societal norms rather than focusing on and investing more heavily in organic transformation though an exercise in legislative power delegation.

  • Brady, M., Saloucou, L. & Chong, E. (2007). Girls' adolescence in Burkina Faso: A pivotal point for social change. Population Council Report. New York: Population Council.
  • Brady, M., Saloucou, L. & Chong, E. (2007). Girls' adolescence in Burkina Faso: A pivotal point for social change. Population Council Report. New York: Population Council.
  • Bruce, J., Haberland, N. Joyce, A., Roca, E. & Sapiano, T.N. (2011). First generation fo gender and HIV programs: Seeking clarity and synergy. Poverty, gender and youth. Working Paper, No. 23. New York: Population Council.
  • Desai, M. (2010). Hope in hard times: Women's empowerment and human development. Human Development Research Paper 2010/14.. New York: United Nations Development Programme.
  • Coontz, S. (2000). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York: Basic Books

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