What’s in the news?
- An umbrella body of child rights organisations set up by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, which appeared before the parliamentary panel studying the Bill on raising the age of marriage for women to 21 from 18 years, has opposed the move and emphasised the need to improve access to education to delay marriages.
- The India Child Protection Forum [ICPF] comprising nearly 70 civil society organisations, represented by its convener Amod K. Kanth as well as Ravi Kant from the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, made its submissions before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports.
- Last year, Parliament had sent the Prevention of Child Marriage Bill, 2021 to the Standing Committee after the Opposition parties expressed concerns over raising the age of marriage for women and demanded greater scrutiny of the proposed law.
- The ICPF told the panel that the Prevention of Child Marriages Act, 2005 had failed to stop child marriages in the country, which was evident through the National Crime Records Bureau data which show that only 2,530 cases were registered under the Act between 2016 and 2020, while the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-2021) indicated that 23.3% of women surveyed were married before attaining the legal age of marriage of 18.
- It has sought that the government invest in improving access to education to check school dropouts and demanded that girls be provided free education till 18 years of age.
- Like many child rights organisations, the ICPF has also underlined that raising the age of marriage for women to 21 will result in criminalising young adults entering into wedlock, especially those who marry against the consent of their parents.
- The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to increase the legal age of marriage of women from 18 to 21, has been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports.
- The proposed law will apply to all communities in the country and, once enacted, will supersede existing marriage and personal laws.
- Accordingly, the government will bring amendments to seven personal laws — the Indian Christian Marriage Act; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act; the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act; the Special Marriage Act; the Hindu Marriage Act; and the Foreign Marriage Act.
- The government’s decision to raise the legal age of marriage for women is based on the recommendation of a task force led by Jaya Jaitly.
- The task force also recommended launching of a comprehensive public awareness campaign to encourage social acceptance of the decision to raise the legal marriage age of women.
- The Bill aims to increase the legal age of marriage of women because of its correlation to health and social indices such as infant mortality, maternal mortality, and nutrition levels among mothers and children.
- The move is claimed to be based on the rationale of women’s empowerment and gender parity.
- With a rise in the age at marriage women may be able to participate in the labour market before marriage; hence, it will be easier for them to continue to work even after marriage. All this is expected to reduce the fertility rate. It also gives them greater bargaining power to deal with social evils like dowry.
- Increased participation of women in the labour market has a tremendous spill over effect on the nutritional status, health and economic wellbeing of the household.
- Raising the legal age of marriage is an indirect attempt to address other gender inequalities, such as girls being pulled out of school for marriage; the health risks from pregnancies, including maternal mortality, that early marriage entails; the unpreparedness of girls in bringing up children if they are themselves children, and so on.
- Experts have been opposing a raised age of marriage on two broad counts. First, the law to prevent child marriage does not work. While child marriage has declined, it has been marginal: from 27% in 2015-16 to 23% in 2019-20, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5. The decrease was, however, dramatic in NFHS 4, from 47% in NFHS 3.
- The marriage age at 18 was set in 1978, but child marriage started to decline only in the 1990s, when the government stressed primary education of the girl child and took measures to reduce poverty.
- Experts said girls being taken out of school to be married off is a reasoning blown out of proportion; often the girl child drops out after primary school simply because she has no access to higher education, and is then married off.
- The second objection being raised is the criminalisation of a large number of marriages that will take place once the law comes into effect. While 23% of marriages involve brides under age 18, far more marriages take place under age 21.
- The median age at first marriage for women aged 20-49 increased to 19 years in 2015-16 from 17.2 years in 2005-06, but remained under 21 years.
Who will be affected?
- Experts noted that 70% of early marriages take place in deprived communities such as SCs and STs, and said the law will simply push these marriages underground instead of preventing them.
- Rural women will be affected more than urban women. According to NFHS-4, the median age at first marriage (age 25-49) for urban women (19.8) is 1.7 years more than that for rural women (18.1).
- A study by the International Centre for Research on Women has found that girls out of school are 3.4 times more likely to be married or have their marriage already fixed than girls who are still in school.
- It is crucial to empower disadvantaged women and increase investments in reversing the fundamental structural disadvantages that women who marry early face.
- To truly empower them while respecting their reproductive rights, the government must invest far more in addressing issues of equity — measures that will enable the disadvantaged to complete their education, provide career counselling and encourage skilling and job placement, address safety issues of women in public places including public transportation, and change the perceptions of parents who are ultimately those who make marriage related decisions for a majority of women.
- Delays in the timing of marriage will then occur without the need for legislation.