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Changing the Marriageable Age for Women: Boon or Bane?

By Shreeya Bhayana

In December 2021, during the winter session of Parliament, Smriti Irani, the Union Women and Child Development Minister introduced a bill which suggests to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the age for marriage for men is 21 and it is 18 for women this bill aims to bring the age up to 21 so it is at par with that for men. Smriti Irani, alongside the Modi Government, believes that this bill will be an important step which will help in providing  equal opportunities to girls and boys in the society. At the moment, the Lok Sabha referred the bill to a parliamentary Standing Committee for further deliberation. The Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports focuses on reviewing this bill comprises 31 members, with the only female member being Rajya Sabha MP Sushmita Dev from Trinamool Congress. This article aims to look at the various deliberations about the merits and demerits of this bill.

The Union Cabinet approved this decision at the recommendation of the 10 member task force formed for the purpose of investigating this matter, which was headed by MP Jaya Jaitley. The task force was assigned to investigate how the age of marriage interacts or correlates with issues of women’s nutrition, the prevalence of anemia, infant mortality rate and other social injustices. Following the results of their endeavour, the task force argued in favour of the amendment that dictates that increasing the age of marriage would be successful in empowering girls by allowing their access to education, improve infant and maternal mortality ratios. To show his support for the bill and the committee, PM Modi, during his speech at the inauguration of the Technology Centre of the MSME Ministry and Perunthalaivar Kamarajar Manimandapam in Puducherry, said that his government intended to make sure this bill passes, and the age of marriage increases. He said that this would allow for ‘Desh ki begin to build their own careers and become ‘Aatmanirbhar’. 

The committee formed by Smriti Irani, under the leadership of Jaya Jaitley,  to investigate this dilemma regarding the marriage age of women found that there is a direct correlation between infant and maternal mortality rate and the age of the mother. This is important to the law as in India, whenever a girl marries, she is expected to reproduce, and this has adverse effects for them as well as the foetuses. The committee also recommended that provisions be made to ensure an increase in female access to education, including transportation; provision of training and skill development, business and education in schools. Jaya Jaitley, the head of this committee, emphasises that they do not think that this law will bring in miracles, but the idea is that, at present, the narrative promoted by 18 being an acceptable marriage dictates that women have certain opportunities only till this age and then are required to fulfil matrimonial duties. This law is just a step to make sure this society changes to accommodate gender parity and does require other interventions and a support system alongside it.

Contrastingly, while there is a kernel of truth that early entry into motherhood results in maternal mortality, the wider prevailing cause of this is poor health as a result of lack of access to quality proteins and micronutrients, which is a condition exacerbated by poverty. The most common cause of maternal mortality during childbirth is postpartum haemorrhage, which is made worse than anaemia. A disorder that affects over 50% of Indian women who enter pregnancy. Moreover, this lack of access to proper nutrients is also a result of hegemonic patriarchal practices that give boys preferential treatment when it comes to food allocation within houses. There is a need for the State to address the problem of under- or malnutrition by dealing with food security, protein deficiency and anaemia for the majority of the Indian population. 

While the government believes that this change will lead to real empowerment for women, Child and Women Rights Activists argue that this increase in marriageable age is missing the opportunity to focus on issues that allow for child marriages to take place in the first place. According to a report released by ‘Young Voices: National Working Group’,  which surveyed about 2,500 adolescents across 15 states, increasing the age of marriage will not affect the root cause of women’s disenfranchisement. Even the women’s wing of RSS expressed slight disagreement with the bill. While they were opposed to child marriage and agreed with the idea that women should marry only after gaining a proper education, they believe that this imposition of a different marriage age will not render different results. Adding on, prachar pramukh of Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (the women’s wing) Sunila Sohwani believed that instead of imposing a different age of marriage, this issue might be better addressed by engaging with wider discussions and holding public awareness campaigns. 

Additionally, when it comes to marriage, one of the most prominent issues is that of child marriage; something this bill is meant to be a deterrent of. But the question raised here is that child marriage is a prevalent phenomenon even when the age of marriage is 18.  According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 26.8% of women between the ages of 20-24 were married before the age of 18. The director of advocacy at The Concerned for Working Children (a child-rights non-profit), Kavita Ratna, emphasised that this law fails to address the root cause of child marriage and might even be detrimental. She reported that a girl child raised the concern that this bill might lead to an increase in female foeticide as parents will feel more burdened if the legal marriageable age for girls is increased. And she also raised an important opposition to the law, which is that if women are allowed to vote at 18, and considered an adult in all aspects, why are they not allowed to get married, should they choose to. Similarly, the same argument can be made for men, as they are also legal adults at the age of 18. 

Moreover, the current law is an amendment made in 1978 to the previous Theld Marriage Restraint Act, 1929which dictated the age of marriage for women as 16 and changed it to 18. This law has been prevalent for four decades, yet child marriages, i.e., marriages of girls below the age of 18 still happen. So how will this amendment be a deterrent? At present, there are a lot more considerations that need to be kept in mind before the parliament goes ahead with this law. Additionally, if this is a law concerning women and their agencies, it is highly necessary that the Rajya Sabha committee set to review this law have many more than one woman as part of the team. Women should have a right in shaping and writing laws that address their freedoms. If the government fails to fulfil this basic condition, how can one believe they intend to ensure women’s empowerment and not just to limit the agencies of women who wish to make decisions regarding their lives at the cusp of adulthood. 

Shreeya Bhayana is a 3rd-year liberal arts student, majoring in Economics and Sociology, at Jindal School of Liberal Arts.

Image credits – BBC

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