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Age of marriage different for men and women
What to study?
For prelims and mains: Laws in this regard, need for change.
Context: Delhi High Court has issued a notice to the Centre and the Law Commission of India, seeking their response to the public interest litigation that sought a uniform age of marriage for men and women.
What the petition says?
It alleges that Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantee the right to equality and the right to live with dignity, are violated by having different legal age for men and women to marry.
What the law says?
Currently, the law prescribes that the minimum age of marriage is 21 and 18 years for men and women, respectively.
- The minimum age of marriage is distinct from the age of majority, which is gender-neutral.
- An individual attains the age of majority at 18 as per the Indian Majority Act, 1875.
- For Hindus, Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 years as the minimum age for the groom. Child marriages are not illegal but can be declared void at the request of the minor in the marriage.
- In Islam, the marriage of a minor who has attained puberty is considered valid under personal law.
- The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men respectively.
Why have a minimum age for marriage?
The law prescribes a minimum age of marriage to essentially outlaw child marriages and prevent abuse of minors. Personal laws of various religions that deal with marriage have their own standards, often reflecting custom.
Need for uniformity:
The different legal standards for the age of men and women to marry has been a subject of debate.
In a consultation paper of reform in family law in 2018, the Law Commission argued that having different legal standards “contributes to the stereotype that wives must be younger than their husbands”.
Women’s rights activists too have argued that the law perpetuates the stereotype that women are more mature than men of the same age and therefore can be allowed to marry sooner.
The Law Commission paper recommended that the minimum age of marriage for both genders be set at 18. For the difference in age for husband and wife has no basis in law as spouses entering into a marriage are by all means equals and their partnership must also be of that between equals.
Two Supreme Court rulings could be significant to the context of this argument:
- In 2014, in National Legal Services Authority of India v Union of India, the Supreme Court while recognising transgenders as the third gender said that justice is delivered with the “assumption that humans have equal value and should, therefore, be treated as equal, as well as by equal laws.”
- In 2019, in Joseph Shine v Union of India, the Supreme Court decriminalised adultery and said that “a law that treats women differently based on gender stereotypes is an affront to women’s dignity.”
Sources: Indian Express.