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Marriage Equality: The Legal Age For Both Men And Women Should Be 18 Years

ONE-THIRD of the world's child brides are found in India, where child marriage is still commonly practised. Approximately one in four Indian women were married before the age of 18, according to the UNICEF research "Ending Child Marriage: A profile of progress in India," released in February 2019. According to data collected for the National Family Health Survey-5 in 2019-21, among women ages 20-24, 14.7% lived in an urban region and 27.4% lived in a rural location where they were married before turning 18.

Successive administrations have considered raising the minimum age of marriage as the sole way to end the problem, given the present age barrier for women is lower (18 years) than for males (which is now 21). (21 years). There is no rationale, scientific or otherwise, for such a wide range of allowed ages.

Last December, the Lok Sabha voted to adopt the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which attempted to alter the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 by raising the legal marriage age for women from 18 to 21.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in January that the "daughter of India to make a profession for herself and become Aatmanirbhar" will be helped by the Bill, which raises the minimum age of marriage for women to 21.

In light of the constitutional understanding of equality and the potential consequences, however, we propose lowering the age requirement for males to 18 instead of increasing the age limit for women. Though it's not sensible to completely rule out increasing the age limit in the future, doing so now would be a mistake.

Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021
With the broader mandate of studying the age of motherhood, maternal mortality, low nutrition levels, and teen pregnancies, a ten-member task force led by activist and former Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly was formed in June 2020 to look into the feasibility of raising the marriageable age for women.

The task committee recommended various changes, including raising the legal age of marriage for women, to the Union Women and Child Development Ministry in December 2020. One year later, the Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha on the basis of the suggestions. Changing the meaning of "kid" in Clause 3 might pave the way for women's marriageable ages to rise from 18 to 21. All existing laws pertaining to individuals will be changed under the bill.

It is important to assess the task force's assumptions before judging the effectiveness of the Bill's proposed provisions. In an effort to eradicate child marriage, it was postulated that setting a legal age limit would do the trick.

The committee seems to think that setting a higher age requirement, with the same penalties for breaking it as before, would be sufficient to prevent underage drinking. It disregards the societal context in which child brides and grooms find themselves.

For the purpose of raising the age limit for women, the Bill states: A) The Constitution guarantees equality of sexes, so women's marriageable age should be the same as men's; B) allowing women to finish their vocational training/education; C) decreasing the rates of maternal mortality and adolescent births; and D) prohibiting the use of religious rites or customs to perpetuate child marriage.

The reaction of the courts to the discussion of the minimum age for marriage would be instructive to observe. In 2014, a public interest lawsuit (K.K. Ramesh v. The Government of India) was launched in the Madras High Court, asking for a raise in the legal marriage age for males and women to 25 and 21 years old, respectively. To address their major concern over the "mental and psychological maturity of women," Justices S.K. Kaul and M. Sathyanarayanan ruled to reject the plea.

Several factors were taken into account that pointed toward women being the majority. The court's decision hinged on whether or not such factors were equivalent to marital maturity. Obviously, if the answer is yes, then it should be applied to males as well. Defining a new age that would be indicative of psychological and mental maturity is necessary if the answer is negative, in addition to rethinking the marriageable age. In addition, raising men's marriage age at the same time wouldn't necessarily achieve the goal.

The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the petition on the grounds that it was not their jurisdiction to rule on such matters and that the government should be responsible for investigating the various social and legislative implications.

For the court, three factors were very persuasive:
  1. The whole concept of equality is undermined when male and female partners must be of different minimum ages before getting married.
  2. Second, reaching legal marriage age isn't the same as being emotionally and psychologically ready to get into a committed relationship.
  3. Third, laws must take into account existing social conditions.

Examining the provisions in the Bill
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that over the next decade, almost 10 million girls throughout the globe will be at danger of marriage as children. It's estimated that 1.5 million females get married before they reach 18. There is still an issue with child marriage even though it is illegal and punishable by law. In spite of the legal repercussions, it is clear that establishing a minimum age for marriage is ineffective.

A statute must not be ambiguous. Given the stakes, it's important that it be formulated with the specific culture and government of its target area in mind. Legislators can't foresee every problem that may arise after a legislation is approved, but they can't disregard the glaringly apparent ones, either.

To promote gender parity, the committee's initial goal in raising women's retirement age was to make them legally equivalent to males. There is no rationale for distinguishing between men and women in terms of the minimum age at which they may legally be married, yet this is not equal treatment. Women are often coerced into marriages before they reach the legal age of majority, but males are seldom subject to such pressure.

In recent years, girls rather than boys have been the victims of child marriage. That doesn't mean men and women shouldn't have the same minimum age for marriage, but it does show that they are treated differently in this area.

Raising the legal marriage age for women, however, cannot be justified on the grounds of promoting gender parity. For women, this would just make things worse. Men should be able to get married as early as they turn 18. Consequently, the task force's first justification is sound.

Despite the fact that points B, C, and D are motivated by good intentions, they may not be successful since child marriages will still occur. If raising the minimum age of marriage for women reduces the prevalence of underage marriages, then why not do it?

Women are not given the same level of freedom to make decisions as males. The Bill is harmful to women because it limits their freedom of choice. It was expected that marriages involving women under 21 would proceed as usual. In addition, the law won't safeguard their right to marry the person of their choosing, therefore they won't be able to do so if they so choose.

Taking into account the historical trend of such rulings, it is reasonable to predict that the prosecution will be successful in proving the allegation of coercion in at least some of the child marriage instances in which the girl has made her own free choice to marry an adult. In any case, this is not a sufficient justification.

To put it more strongly, no one should have to break the law for their own safety in order for it to remain on the books, which is why this bill should not be passed. If a woman's family attempts to push her into an arranged marriage before she is 21, for instance, she will only be able to make her own decisions if she is married to someone she chooses. She would be in a position of having to break the law against her will if this happened. The alternative would be to marry against her will, which is what her family expects.

Supporters of the Bill might point to the fact that a minor can legally file for a marital annulment. However, the statute of limitations for filing for an annulment under current legislation is a mere two years after the wedding ceremony. Depending on their family situation and the social climate, a minor may not be able to make such a commitment.

Why it's more prudent to decrease marital age for men to 18 years
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has advocated for 18 as the legal age of marriage for both sexes. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, this question should be resolved based on the country's legal age of majority. In addition, if parity is the aim, as the Constitution requires, then lowering the age requirement for males to 18 is the fair thing to do.

This will prevent seniors from stifling the freedom of adult males to make their own decisions and will defend their autonomy. It's a common fallacy, though, that if the legal marriage age is lowered to 18, plenty more males will start getting married.

Laws that increase the weight of each spouse's vote in marital matters, on the other hand, will push people to think carefully about their choices. People act rashly when the law attempts to limit their freedom of choice because they feel they are losing their voice.

The idea that the Bill's suggestion to raise the minimum age at which a woman may be married is founded on equality is a fiction. The repercussions would make their lives even more difficult, trapping them between an unfavourable social environment and the locked door of the law that allowed them to make decisions of their own own upon reaching legal adulthood.

This argument does not deny the potential for legislative or political action to improve women's circumstances to the point where child marriage is no longer a problem for them in the future. Current and potential future circumstances are cited as the first reason against the idea. The second tenet is the equality of decision-making power between spouses.

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