India lays out controversial Bill to raise women's marriage age

The Bill seeks to raise the legal age at which women can marry from 18 to 21. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has presented new legislation in parliament, seeking to raise the legal age at which women can marry to 21 from 18, a move that rights activists say will do little to change long-held social mores and instead penalise adult women.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Amendment Bill was introduced in the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday (Dec 21) amid protests by opposition lawmakers. It has been sent to a parliamentary panel for further scrutiny.

The government says the Bill intends to bring greater social, economic and educational benefits for women and lower maternal and infant mortality rates.

Critics argue that laws alone are not sufficient to fix problems in a still-conservative society where marrying young women at an early age remains the norm.

India has held 18 as the age women can marry since the 1970s, even though the legal bar for men is higher at 21.

Despite the existing law, underage marriages are still common, especially in the South Asian country's vast rural hinterland.

"The proposal can be faulted on two counts - one, that it does not focus on what really matters to ensure it; and that it ignores the harms of such legislation," Ms Amita Pitre, lead specialist, gender justice at Oxfam India, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week.

"When 18-year-olds can vote, sign contracts, work, then why should they not decide when to marry? In fact, empowering the young with information, sexual health services, higher education and linkages to income can delay the age of marriage without any coercion," she added in the opinion piece.

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