Marriage is considered to be an indissoluble sacred bond between two persons in India. It holds a great significance in the lives of us Indians, so does the age of marriage. It all started with the Child Marriage Restraint Act that was passed in the year 1929 and it fixed the legal age for marriage to 14 for females and 18 for males. Later an amendment was passed in 1978 which brought up the age of marriage for girls at 18 years and 21 years for boys. And again, on the 74th Independence Day of India, the Prime Minister of India said in his speech that there is a need to reassess the minimum marriageable age for women. Afterward a committee of 4 members headed by the former leader of Samata Party, Ms. Jaya Jaitly was formed. And a notification was issued by the government on June 4, 2020, stating that a task force has been formed to evaluate the issues relating to early motherhood problems like malnutrition and other associated issues. The committee came up with the recommendation of raising the age of women’s marriage to 21 from 18 and the intention of this recommendation is well defined by the PM in his speech in Prayagraj, where he said that the daughters of the country also want to pursue their higher education and want equal opportunities as men. He further said that this decision is made in favour of the women of the country so that they can progress too.
Raising the marriage age of women to 21 years will have a strong impact on the problems of early age marriages and also it will result in the establishment of uniformity in the minimum age of marriage. A girl of 18 years at most has just completed her schooling in a maximum case and is still not financially independent, and marrying at this age would create dependency on her husband. Later, she may have a child resulting in poor nutrition, poor physical and mental health, and this dependency leads to her silence on domestic violence. If the legal age of marrying becomes 21, she would at least have an opportunity to complete her graduation and pursue higher studies leading to more chances of her being independent and also being more aware of maternal health, nutrition, and many other aspects related to married life. A typical argument against this is that in-laws can “allow” girls to complete their education. The ground reality is of course the opposite. Sometimes, the pre-requisite of marriage from the side of in-laws is that the girl won’t study or won’t work outside. India is growing in these fields of girl education, nutrition, health, maternal health but still, has not grown as much as expected, it is still somewhere below the mark, so this decision would also play a significant role in this growth.
Another important positive aspect of this recommendation is the reduction in child marriages. It can’t be certainly assured that raising the marriage age would reduce child marriage since it’s been almost 44 years since the amendment of raising the marriage age of women to 18 years but still according to the National Family Health, India accounts for about 40 percent child marriages. The reason behind it is that in India thousands of policies are regulated in the name of the welfare of the people but only a few of them actually work, the rest just become a failure when it comes to implementing them on the grass-root level. But this doesn’t mean that this recommendation won’t make any change, it is a step towards a change. Raising the official marriage age would lead to an increase in the unofficial marriage age too. And if other steps along with this would be taken, then the government’s idea would be a success. For instance, the Indian schools are still shy to give sex education, and imparting sex education would certainly play a noteworthy role in awareness among females regarding nutrition and maternal health issues. If steps like these would be taken along with this recommendation, then they will bring notable changes to the country. Also, heavy penalties should be imposed on child marriages and fast track courts should be built to handle these particular cases. The amalgamation of these small steps along with the raised age would create a drastic change in the conditions of females of India.
The strong opposition to this bill was seen in the Lok Sabha itself when Asaduddin Owaisi claimed the bill as a violation of Article 19 i.e., the Right to freedom. He further said that an 18-year-old has the freedom to choose Prime Minister, freedom to have a live-in relationship, and also can have a consensual sexual relationship but due to this bill, the government would deny the same 18-year-old girl to marry. Another point of view of the critics who came forward after this recommendation was that if the government wants to create uniformity in the marriage age of both men and women then they should decrease the minimum marriage age for men from 21 to 18. But is it rational to compare the situation of choosing the state’s representative with that of marriage? One can change his/her state’s representative after 5 years but is it so easy to break up a marriage that too in a society like India and when you are not even financially independent? Also, is an an18-year boy capable enough to handle the responsibilities of marriage? Then why do they feel to lower down the age for marriage of men?
Another argument by some women’s groups is that the law will restrain women’s sexuality. They have said that a person starts developing sexual desires at the age of 15 or 17. This bill, with the new marriageable age at 21, will enable families to have more control over their daughters and further suppress their sexual desires. But is that biological need is only for females? The marriage age for males is 21 years since the last 44 years, then there was no objection over controlling their biological needs. Moreover, the POSCO Act, 2012 allows a person above 18 to be in a sexual relationship as the act protects children from sexual offences and clause 2(d) defines a child as any individual under18 years of age. Therefore, a consensual relationship between the boy and girl can’t be charged under POSCO. Also, they can have a live-in relationship.
The bill is a crucial step towards reducing and stopping child marriages but yes, the bill alone can’t assure anything, along with this government needs to take other measures too, to make it a success even at the ground level. But another important aspect on which the light should be put upon in the working of Indian society. Changes can’t be made until or unless the society is ready to understand and accept the change, there is a need for a revolution in the mentality of Indian society. One can feel the urgency in the need after knowing what Waris Pathan, AIMIM leader, said during a debate at India Today. He was asked why the bill shouldn’t be passed when the marriageable age for a man is 21, then why not the same age should apply to the females or should the government decrease the age of men too to 18 years, the reply to the same by him was that a boy needs to complete his graduation and education before marrying. Then why doesn’t Pathan feel the same for girls? This mentality and working of the Indian society need to be changed only then any law, any policy would work even at the grass-root level.
Author(s) Name: Anjali Sharma (New Law College, Bharti Vidyapeeth, Pune)