Context: Cabinet clears push to raise marriage age of women from 18 to 21:
The Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the minimum marriage age for women from 18 to 21.
Several global organizations such as UNICEF have specified children under the age of 18 as minors and marriages below the specified age as child marriage.
Child marriage is a human right violation but early marriages should also be considered a public health issue as they have an impact on the physical and mental health of a woman.
Child marriages in India:
It is important to break the cycle of early marriages in families as even in urban areas, women are married off as soon as they turn 18 and their dream to pursue further education and build their career is often crushed.
According to the Global Childhood Report released by UK-based NGO Save the Children, in India even today child marriage prevalence is higher in rural areas as compared to urban areas as these figures are 14.1% and 6.9% for rural and urban areas respectively for age group 15-19 years.
Although India’s maternal mortality ratio has improved to 113 in 2016-18 from 130 in 2014-2016, it is still far below the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target of 70 deaths per 1,00,000 live births.
What is the minimum age of marriage?
Personal laws that govern marriage and other personal practices for communities prescribe certain criteria for marriage, including age of the bride and groom.
For example, Section 5(iii) of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets a minimum age of 18 for the bride and 21 for the groom. This is the same for Christians under the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 and the Special Marriage Act.
For Muslims, the criteria is attaining puberty, which is assumed when the bride or groom turns 15.
Current Marriage Laws in various religions:
For Hindus, The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for the bride and 21 years as the minimum age for the groom.
However, child marriages are not illegal even though they 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.
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 is there a need to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls?
Underage marriage of a woman increases vulnerability and reflects the low status of women in society as compared to men.
Moreover, it leads to a number of problems that a woman might have to face in her life due to early marriage. These include:
Education: Women have societal pressure to get married early and have children.
Domestic responsibilities often take over the lives of women and they are unable to pursue higher education.
Economic Independence: Early marriage of women deprives them of proper education and job prospects and thus economic independence.
It is very important for a woman to have economic independence as it allows her to make conscious choices about her life taking her own needs into account.
It promotes gender equality by ensuring equal participation in all spheres of life. Limiting economic independence for women pushes them into a cycle of poverty and limits educational opportunities for her children as well.
Health issues: Study shows that women who get married before 18 years of age are likely to deal with unwanted pregnancies and are a greater risk of having complications during her pregnancy such as premature babies, retarded growth, prolonged labour and also miscarriage.
They are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as they are unable to ensure safer sex practices.
All this because they lack proper education as they are married at a young age. This deprives them of proper health care and antenatal care which is why the rate of infant mortality is higher in young mothers.
Domestic violence: Getting married early increases the risk of domestic violence.
According to the International Council of Research on Women (ICRW), women who are less educated and married between 15 to 19 years of age are more likely to be victims of domestic violence compared to more educated women.
A possible explanation for this could be that there exists an imbalance of power between couples consisting of younger women and older men.
Mental health: Early marriages have a significant impact on the mental health of women. They are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
The institution of marriage and the accompanying responsibilities can have an overwhelming impact on the mental health of an underage woman.
Poverty: Girls belonging to poor families are more likely to get married at an early age.
It may be because her family cannot afford her expenses such as education and other basic commodities so they prefer to get her married so that she can have a better quality of life.
However, women who get married at an early age are likely to spend their lives in poverty.
They lack economic independence and their prospects of gaining reduce drastically after their marriage.
On the contrary, women who are educated and economically independent can provide for their family and add to the family income.
We need a multi-pronged approach to end child marriage:
- Girls must be able to attend school regularly, remain there, and achieve. States can leverage their network of residential schools, girls’ hostels, and public transport, especially in underserved areas, to ensure that teenage girls do not get pushed out of education.
- Girls’ clubs should be systematically formed in high school to provide informal social networks for group study, solidarity, and resilience.
- Teachers should hold regular gender equality conversations with high school girls and boys to shape progressive attitudes that will sustain into adulthood.
- Other drivers of social change must play a fundamental role. These include expansion of secondary education, access to safe and affordable public transport, and support for young women to apply their education to earn a livelihood. Expansion of education goes beyond access.
- Empowerment measures, too, are required to end child marriage, such as community engagement through programmes like Mahila Samakhya. Children’s village assemblies in the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across India can provide a platform for children to voice their concerns.
- Finally, and most important of all, decentralizing birth and marriage registration to gram panchayats will protect women and girls with essential age and marriage documents, thus better enabling them to claim their rights.
- As India is making progress, there is a need for parity in the legal age of marriage of men and women which can further be a step towards equality. The decision of the Central government is commendable, however, there must be stricter enforcement of the law.
Marriage is based on cultural norms and practice. The first law regulating the minimum age of marriage was the Sarda Act or the Child Marriage Restraint enacted in 1929 which was a dead letter and never implemented to protect the sentiments of various communities.
However, post-independence an amendment was made under the Act in 1978 increasing the age of marriage to 18 years for women and 21 for men.
Till the present day, this law has been in force, although it is weak in its implementation as child marriages are still prevalent in India.
Increasing the legal age for marriage is a must, even legally as it should get us out of the stereotype mindset that women are more mature than men of the same age and therefore can be allowed to marry sooner.