Marriage issues in Indian society are shrouded in intriguing contradictions and ironies. It is impossible to solve them by any legal feat. When young women will get employment at reasonable wages along with quality education, then they will be able to become truly self-supporting and empowered. Then she herself will decide whether to get married or not, and if she has to do it, when, with whom and how.
According to media reports, in preparation for increasing the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, the Child Marriage Prohibition (Amendment) Bill has been sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for approval. It is said that this decision was taken in the cabinet meeting of December 15, but its prospects were visible for almost two years.
Presenting the National Budget for February 2020 in Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made an unexpected announcement that the government is looking to increase the age of marriage for women and a special committee would be appointed to advise on this.
Then in the Independence Day speech of August 15, the Prime Minister himself said, ‘We have formed a committee to end malnutrition among daughters, what should be the right age of their marriage. Appropriate decisions will also be taken regarding the age of marriage of the daughters as soon as its report is received.
It was an unexpected and shocking announcement. Why did the government feel the need for this unnecessary initiative when the country is facing the twin blows of pandemic and recession, and when no section of the society has demanded it?
If we look at the recent figures, this move seems even more surprising. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), between 2005-06 and 2015-16, among women in the age group of 21 to 24, the proportion of marriages below 18 years of age declined from 46 per cent to 27 per cent.
The advance estimate of the 2019-20 edition of the same survey (for the same age-group) has now dropped to 23 per cent. If the age of marriage is moving in the right direction (and that too at an unexpected rate), why rush to enact a new law?
However, the government referred to the committee as the Prime Minister was given the status of ‘task force’, and it invited many public institutions and organizations to give their views on this subject. Apart from child rights, women and youth organizations, researchers like me also came to present their arguments before the task force.
The committee’s attention was focused on the question whether raising the age of marriage would improve parameters such as maternal mortality, fertility rate, mother-child nutrition and sex ratio? The gist of the arguments and statistics I presented in my presentation was that the age of marriage has no significant effect on the parameters of women’s welfare. These standards are directly related to poverty and the quality of government health services.
I insisted that without adequate employment, fair wage rates, and well-organized health and education services, the status of women cannot improve. It is foolish to think that only raising the minimum age of marriage will make women happier.
If many people are victims of this ignorant, then the reason for this is the confusion of statistics. It is true that superficially we find that women who are married late have better health, nutrition, etc. statistics than women who are married at an early age. But this does not mean that the reason for better health is to marry late.
The real reason for good health is economic prosperity – the health of the women of the affluent class is regularly better than the women of the poor class. And since women in the affluent tend to get married at an older age than women in the lower classes, we tend to be confused by this coincidence and consider the age of marriage to be a factor in health.
This truth is corroborated by the fact that when we divide women into economic categories, we find that there is no effect of the age of marriage on the health of the lower class women – whether they are married early or late, their condition. That remains as it is.
For example, the statistics of anemia are significant. Malnutrition-borne disease is the leading cause of maternal death in India, but its proportion is not affected at all by the age of marriage in every economic strata, even if it is twenty-five years old.
The task force has definitely said that its recommendation is not motivated by population control but by women’s empowerment, but our government has been active on the issue of population control for a long time. When the Sharda Act was amended in 1978 to raise the minimum legal age of marriage to 21 years for men and 18 years for women, the stated purpose of this amendment was population control.
Apart from this, there are many powerful international organizations and institutions whose main agenda is to reduce the fertility rate globally by banning marriages that take place before the age of 18. A significant 2017 World Bank research study found that preventing marriages before the age of 18 could result in huge savings in health investments – but this ‘savings’ could be due to fewer children being born, or in other words, population control. .
It is worth noting that this study found that raising the age of marriage did not affect women’s autonomy, the likelihood of violent attacks on them, or their chances of getting employment, such as empowerment.
Read also: Arguments being given for increasing the age of marriage of women are baseless and irrational
All over the world, 18 years is considered the age of full adulthood. This age is recognized as the upper limit of the physical and reproductive maturity of women. Also, in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (which has been accepted by the Government of India), it has been agreed that the age of becoming an adult is also the same. Therefore, the proposed new law will inhibit the fundamental rights of an adult adult woman instead of protecting a girl child from untimely marriage.
However, we take this issue to the legal experts and take another important question. The arguments being given by the government find a mixture of two different assumptions – the minimum age of marriage and the proper age of marriage.
Obviously the minimum age is a ceiling, it is not a desired norm or ideal. The work of the law is to set a minimum level, that is, its monitoring is one-sided – only if it goes below a certain threshold can legal action or punishment, above that limit the law is silent because its work is over.
The job of the law is to impose restrictions, to tell what you cannot do. Outside the restricted area, the law does not advise that you should do this or that.
There is a huge difference between the minimum legal age of marriage and the right, right or ‘good’ age of marriage. The proper age of marriage cannot be fixed by any law as it depends on the social context and personal circumstances of each individual – the same age may not be appropriate for everyone.
Reasonable debate is impossible without distinguishing between minimum and fair. Despite this, the spokespersons of the government side, including the Prime Minister, are often heard speaking the language of ‘right’, they forget ‘minimum’.
The basic question here is not of the proper age of marriage but of getting the means suited to the end. Let’s just say we all agree that women are getting married before the right age, whatever the definition of this ‘right age’. In such a situation, our common objective is to increase the age of marriage. But imposing legal restrictions is probably the worst way to accomplish this objective as the move does not address the circumstances that lead to early marriages.
The ground reality is just the opposite of the government thinking – merely increasing the legal age of marriage will not empower women. But if they have true empowerment, then women will be able to make their own decisions and the age of marriage will not be a problem that the government needs.
The problem today is that nothing (or very little) is being done about the factors on which women’s empowerment depends. Our country is counted among the worst countries in the world in terms of women empowerment.
It is true that a lot of progress has been made in the field of education. But despite this important achievement, the sad truth is that during this period the unemployment of women in India has increased. The decline in female employment persisted even during the economic boom of the 1990s.
Another harsh and harsh truth – statistics show that with the age of marriage of women, their unemployment rate also increases, that is, unemployment is higher among those women who are married late. With no paid employment, most Indian women find themselves dependent on their husbands for life – marriage becomes their ‘occupation’ and source of employment. This is the biggest factor in getting married at a young age.
The solution to this problem cannot be reached through a legal ‘flyover’ without facing the challenge of women’s employment.
There is one last argument that the supporters of the new law can give – admit that it will not be of great benefit, but if the intention is clear and the thinking is noble, then what is the harm in it?
It is wrong to think so because the disadvantages of the new law are wide and serious. In matters like marriage, economic-social reasons are paramount, the relevance of law is less.
In the current law, the minimum age of marriage for women is 18 years and this law has been in force since 1978 i.e. forty-four years. Despite this, as we have seen above, 23 per cent of women are still married under the age of 18 according to government statistics.
The situation will more or less remain the same with the new law. And when we come to the age group of 18 to 21, the message of the NFHS data is very clear – 75 percent of women (15-49 age group) in 16 of the 20 largest states in the country (by population). The marriage was done for 21 years.
Not only this, in all the 36 states, small and big, except Goa, 50 percent of the women were married for 21 years in all the other states. It is also worth noting that the proportion of early marriage is much higher among poorer sections.
So overall the signs are pretty clear. As noble as the intention may be, the cruel fact is that the proposed law will make the marriages of lakhs of women illegal in a jiffy. Is it not necessary that we stop and think about what kind of world it will be in which criminalizing an entire generation of women and depriving them of legal protection is justified?
Marriage matters in our society are shrouded in tangled contradictions and ironies. It is impossible to resolve these confusions by any legal feat. Instead of criminalizing the new generation of girls, the government should take concrete steps for their real empowerment.
When young women will get employment at reasonable wages along with quality education, then they will be able to become truly self-reliant and empowered. Such women will stand on their own feet and decide for themselves whether to get married or not, and if they want to do it, when, with whom and how.
(The author is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Women’s Development. The South Asian edition of her new book on child marriage in an international context is coming soon.)
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Categories: India, Special, Society