From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Not much
Mains level : Paper 2- Age marriage of women issue
The announcement of a cabinet decision to raise the age at marriage for women from 18 to 21 years marks the fruition of a plan that was first revealed almost two years ago when a Task Force was set up for the purpose.
Why the age of marriage of women matters
- Age of marriage has bearing on maternal mortality rates, fertility levels, nutrition of mother and child, sex ratios, and, on a different register, education and employment opportunities for women.
- It is also argued that other factors — such as poverty and health services — were far more effective as levers for improving women’s and children’s health and nutritional status.
Issues with the decision
 Role of poverty neglected
- If women who marry at higher ages seem to have better health and nutrition indicators, this is not caused by their marrying later than others — it is because women from better-off groups tend to marry at higher ages.
- Conversely, the health indicators of poorer women do not change just because they marry at a higher age.
- An illustration of this truth is found in the National Family Health Survey (IV) data, which show that levels of anaemia — which is the highest cause of maternal mortality in India and one of our worst statistics — show no change even at ages of marriage up to 25 years, once we control for other factors.
- World Bank study finds no impact on women: Population control was at the heart of the 1978 amendment to the Sarda Act of 1929.
- Moreover, reducing fertility rates globally by banning marriage before the age of 18 years is very much on the agenda of international agencies to this very day.
- A major multi-country study undertaken by the World Bank in 2017 estimated that “savings” of no less than $5 trillion would accrue if marriage before the age of 18 was eliminated.
- But such savings would be mostly due to reductions in fertility and consequent reductions in public health investments due to fewer births.
- The same study saw no significant gains from raised age of marriage for women’s decision making, for lowering the levels of violence they face, or helping them find employment.
- Restriction on the right of an adult woman: Globally, the age of 18 is widely regarded as the age of adulthood.
- It is also viewed as an upper limit in terms of the physical and reproductive maturity of women, as well as the age of majority by child rights conventions to which India is a signatory.
- Thus, the proposed move will restrict the rights of already adult women, an issue for legal experts to debate.
- Law is meant to set minimum age not the right age: Equally important is the crucial slippage in the arguments made on behalf of the government from the minimum age at marriage to the right age at marriage.
- The minimum age is obviously a floor, not a standard or desirable norm.
- Laws are meant to set minimum levels, a threshold for triggering legal or penal action, because of the harm that may be done.
Way forward: Address issues that drive empowerment
- Going by the NFHS 4 data (2015-16), more than half — 56 per cent — of women in the age group 20-24 years marry before the age of 21 years.
- The problem is that the real reasons that drive empowerment are not being addressed, at least not adequately.
- Educational attainments have improved enormously in recent years.
- But the shocking fact (evident in all major data sets) is that decline in early marriages has been accompanied by a fall in women’s employment rates, that persisted even during the 1990s boom.
- Paradoxical outcomes: The proportion of women not in paid work increases at higher ages of marriage!
- Complex paradoxes like these are the hallmark of our society.
- They cannot be addressed by a legal fix, particularly one that will be very hard to implement.
Consider the question “How the age of marriage of women is connected with the issue of women empowerment? What are the concerns with increasing it to 21 years? Suggest the way forward.“
Instead of criminalising our youth, the government must take concrete steps to really empower women. If they are truly in charge of their own lives — through affordable education, meaningful and decent employment opportunities — they will be able to make better decisions about whether, when and whom to marry.