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[Burning Issue] Raising Legal Age of Marriage For Women

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Child marriage ends childhood.  It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and community.

Context

The Union Cabinet on Wednesday (December 15) took the decision to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years. With this decision, the government will be bringing the age of marriage for both men and women at par. The Cabinet’s decision to raise the legal age of marriage for women is based on the recommendation of a panel led by Jaya Jaitly.

The proposal to raise the legal age for the marriage of women carries “enormous” economic and social gains for India, according to a State Bank of India report. The report counts benefits such as lowering maternal deaths and improving nutrition levels in the near term to putting more girls in college and enabling women to achieve greater financial independence in the long term.

Let us look at the menace of child marriage in India and the rationale behind the govt’s move in detail.

Facts and figures about the prevalence of child marriage in India

  • Widespread across India: Nearlyhalf of brides married as girls. Every third child bride in the world is an Indian.
  • Slow improvement: There has been a decline in the incidence of child marriage nationally (from 54% in 1992-93 to 33%) and in nearly all states but the pace of change remains slow, especially for girls in the age group 15-18 years.
  • Prevalence in Rural areas: Child marriage is more prevalent in rural areas (48 percent) than in urban areas (29 percent).
  • Variations across different groups: particularly excluded communities, castes and tribes – although some ethnic groups, such as tribal groups, have lower rates of child marriage.
  • Role of Education: A girl with 10 years of education has a six times lower chance of being pushed into marriage before she is 18.
  • International Center for Research on Women: India has the 14th highest rate of child marriage in the world. As many as 39,000 minor girls are being married every day in India
  • Fourth National Family Health Survey (2015-16): There are 26.8% of brides in the country who were married below the age of 18. 40% of the world’s 60 million child marriages take place in India
  • Variations across states: State In West Bengal, the mean marriage age is only 20.9 years and almost 47 per cent of females get married before the age of 21 years, even worse than Bihar and Rajasthan.

Marriage laws in India

  • Personal laws of various religions that deal with marriage have their own standards, often reflecting custom.
  • For Hindus and Christians: The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 years as the minimum age for the groom.
  • Islam: The marriage of a minor who has attained puberty is considered valid according to the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937.
  • Now, the govt will have to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the Special Marriage Act and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

Factors leading to child marriage in India

(1) Social Factors

  • Lack of education: A big determinant of the age of marriage is education. Around 45% of women with no education and 40% with primary education married before the age of 18, according to NFHS-4.
  • Social background: Child marriages are more prevalent in rural areas and among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
  • Value of virginity: It is believed that husband needs virgin wife and if the daughter had premarital sex it will dishonor their family. Some societies/castes have social stigma against girl married after puberty.
  • Gender norms: Males are more valued in Indian family and women primary role is to produce son.
  • Practice of dowry: If the girl is married at lower age they may not demand dowry as the girl is pure and believed to be incarnation of goddess Laxmi. Families see it as protection against sexual assault.
    • The dowry amount increases with the age and the education level of the girl. Hence, the “incentive” of the system of dowry perpetuates child marriage.
  • Low awareness about social protection programs: These schemes are often limited to providing cash transfers without the accompanying messages to address the multi-dimensional nature of child marriage.
  • Child marriage is seen as custom which has been borrowed from past and people do not want to change it.

(2) Economic Factors

  • Seen as a burden: Economically, child marriages work as mechanisms that are quick income earners. A girl child is seen as a leeway to a large dowry, to be given to her family upon her marriage.
  • Poverty: Women from poor households tend to marry earlier. While more than 30% of women from the lowest two wealth quintiles were married by the age of 18, the corresponding figure in the richest quintile was 8%.
  • Trafficking: Poor families are tempted to sell their girls not just into marriage, but into prostitution, as the transaction enables large sums of money to benefit the girl’s family and harms the girl.
  • More working hands: Child marriage means more children and more children will earn more and save family from financial problems.
  • More importance to male child: Family do not want to invest on girls education as there is no return from her and rather trained to become a good wife till the age of 13 or 14 and then they are married.
  • Undervaluation of economic importance of Girls: Girls are often seen as a liability with limited economic role. Women’s work is confined to the household and is not valued.

What is the Jaya Jaitly Committee?

  • In June 2020, the Ministry of WCD set up a task force to look into the correlation between the age of marriage with issues of women’s nutrition, prevalence of anemia, IMR, MMR and other social indices.
  • The committee was to look at the feasibility of increasing the age of marriage and its implication on women and child health, as well as how to increase access to education for women.

Key recommendations

  • The committee has recommended the age of marriage be increased to 21 years, on the basis of feedback they received from young adults from 16 universities across the country.
  • The committee also asked the government to look into increasing access to schools and colleges for girls, including their transportation to these institutes from far-flung areas.
  • Skill and business training has also been recommended, as has sex education in schools.
  • The committee said these deliveries must come first, as, unless they are implemented and women are empowered, the law will not be as effective.

Reasons behind the decision

  • Gender-neutrality: With this decision, the government will be bringing the age of marriage for both men and women at par.
  • Motherhood complexities: An early age of marriage, and consequent early pregnancies, also have impacts on nutritional levels of mothers and their children, and their overall health and mental wellbeing.
  • Mother and Child Mortality: It also has an impact on Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Rate.
  • Women empowerment: The decision would empower women who are cut off from access to education and livelihood due to an early marriage.
  • Protection from abuse: This will essentially outlaw premature girls marriages and prevent the abuse of minors.
  • Socio-economic Fronts: Increasing the legal age for the marriage of women has enormous benefits including:
    1. Lowering the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR)
    2. Improvement of nutrition levels
    3. Financial front opportunities will be opened up for women to pursue higher education and careers and become financially empowered, thus resulting in a more egalitarian society.
  • More female labor force participation: Increasing the marriage age will lead to more females doing graduation and hence improving the female labor force participation ratio. The percentage of females doing graduation will increase by at least 5-7 percentage points from the current level of 9.8 per cent.

In a landmark judgement of Dhannu Lal v. Ganeshram ,the Supreme Court ruled that two individuals cohabiting and staying in a live-in relationship are not criminal offenders. Raising the legal age of marriage for women will further promote live-in relationship culture.

Challenges in raising the legal age of marriage for women

  • Illegal marriages: Such legislation would push a large portion of the population into illegal marriages leading to non-institutional births.
  • Ineffectiveness of existing laws: Decrease in child marriages has not been because of the existing law but because of an increase in girls’ education and employment opportunities.
  • Unnecessary coercion: The law would end up being coercive, and in particular negatively impact marginalized communities, such as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, making them law-breakers.
  • Rights of the girls are threatened: Increasing the age of marriage to 21 years would mean that girls will have no say in their personal matters until they are 21.
  • Exploitation of law by parents: The law has been used by parents against eloping daughters. It has become a tool for parental control and for punishment of boys or men whom girls choose as their husbands.
  • Social validity of marriages: Even if the law declares a marriage before the specified age as void, in the eyes of the community, arranged marriages will have social validity.
  • This worsens the condition of the girls who are widowed even before reaching the new legal age for marriage.
  • Increased female infanticide: Raising the female marriage age in India that have high son preference and high poverty may have the unintended consequence of increasing the prevalence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.

Way Forward

(1) Need to address the root of the problems: While children born to adolescent mothers have a higher prevalence of stunting and low weight, experts argue that the underlying cause is poverty.

  • There is also a need to improve access to education, skill training, and employment opportunities which are some of the barriers for girls in pursuing higher education.
  • It is also important to ensure a safe environment free from the constant threat of rape and sexual assault which is why girls are married off early.
  • Legislation to increase the age of marriage is superficial and does not go to the root of the problems faced by young women.

(2) Steps must be taken to address early pregnancies instead of focusing on the age of marriage by extending family planning and reproductive health support which focus on preparation for pregnancy and delaying the first birth.

(3) Improving educational reach: The answer to delaying child marriages lies in ensuring access to education since the practice is a social and economic issue.

(4) Increasing Accessibility to Schools: The government needs to look into increasing access to schools and colleges for girls, including their transportation to these institutes from far-flung areas.

(5) Need for the awareness programs: An awareness campaign is required on a massive scale on the increase in age of marriage, and to encourage social acceptance of the new legislation, which they have said would be far more effective than coercive measures.


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