India's move to raise marriage age for women from 18 to 21 kicks up a storm

The proposed amendment comes as India, for the first time, has more women than men. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - A government decision to increase the minimum marriage age for women in India from 18 to 21, bringing it on a par with that for men, would seem like a non-controversial, even empowering decision.

But it has left the government facing a backlash, with many speaking out against the move, arguing it would further erode the autonomy of women from vulnerable and poorer sections.

Critics have called the move a "disaster", saying it would empower parents and guardians to legally go after their ward in cases of disagreements over life partners, and women would face greater pressure to follow societal and parental diktats.

Others, however, say the move is necessary to protect vulnerable women and would increase the chances of women being able to speak up for their rights.

The Indian Cabinet last week approved the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021. Amid the uproar, the Bill has been sent to a parliamentary panel for further scrutiny.

"Merely raising the age of marriage for women will not lead to their empowerment, because it is other factors - like health, education and especially employment opportunities - that are much more significant than age," said Professor Mary E. John at New Delhi's Centre for Women's Development Studies.

"Moreover, a legal move would simply penalise the majority of women who, as per recent data, marry before the age of 21 years. How can criminalising women be a source of empowerment?"

The move has also seen opposition from a cross-section of opposition parties, with Mr Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen calling the Bill retrograde, asking why an 18-year-old could not marry when she could vote and be in a live-in relationship.

In India, there is a clear trend of women from poorer or vulnerable backgrounds getting married early amid patriarchal perceptions that this will keep them safe from sexual violence and allow their families to give a lower dowry. Dowries are illegal in India but still widely prevalent.

These perceptions have been changing in areas, particularly urban parts, as education levels of women go up.

And this is reflected in the data - with the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 who were married before 18 reduced from 47.4 per cent in 2005 to 2006 to 26.8 per cent in 2015 to 2016, according to the National Family Health Survey.

The pandemic year, 2020, has been an aberration in this trend with a 50 per cent rise in child marriages due to long school closures, increased poverty and teen pregnancies.

Lax implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, which carries imprisonment of up to two years, has meant that it is not working as a deterrent

Some believe that one way to do it is by increasing the age while simultaneously focusing on education and nutrition.

"If this is going to help girls in the long run by even stopping 5 per cent of child marriages, that is a big step forward. How come nobody questioned marriage age is 21 for boys?" said Dr Renu Singh, executive director of Young Lives India.

"I'm more concerned about the next generation. What data is showing is that 29.1 per cent of children born to women married after 21 were stunted... 44 per cent (for children of women) married before 18 and 37.2 per cent for those (born of women married) between 18 to 21."

Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi, also supported the amendment.

"It is going to take time (to change societal norms)... At 21, a woman will have better control over her reproductive rights as opposed to 18," she said, adding that emphasis should be placed on education and nutrition.

The proposed amendment comes as India, for the first time, has more women than men. The fifth National Family and Health Survey carried out between 2019 and 2021 found that the country has 1,020 women for every 1,000 men. This reflects the changes that have taken place amid campaigns against female foeticide and government schemes targeted at girls, including scholarships.

But many believe that since the survey covers only 650,000 households, it does not provide a full picture and that the trend needs to be confirmed by the nationwide census, at present delayed due to the pandemic.

Still, with the new amendment, the government is also seeking to bring uniformity across religions. As per the Muslim personal law, a person who has attained puberty is free to marry. The Hindu Marriage Act stipulates 18 years of age for women. The new law will supersede all other laws.

"All women from all faiths, under Hindu Marriage Act or the Muslim Personal Law, should get equal rights to marry," said Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani when presenting the Bill in Parliament.

"I would like to present that women equality in our country needs to be seen in (terms of) age of marriage."

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