New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his Independence Day address that the government is reconsidering the legal marriage age for women, which currently stands at 18, but the proposal is said to have created divisions within the administration.
According to sources in the government, the proposal to review the age of marriage stems from a task-force set up in June by the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development to examine issues such as age of motherhood among girls, and the correlation between age of marriage and Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), Total Fertility Rate (TFR), Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) and Child Sex Ratio (CSR), etc.
While MMR is a key indicator of maternal health in a country, TFR, SRB and CSR serve as yardsticks to make assessments about population and gender balance.
The proposed review, however, has been opposed by the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, ThePrint has learnt.
Supporters of the review say it may help keep the population in check and prevent women from being forced into early motherhood and its multiple complications, while opponents fear it will spell chaos.
Critics of the idea cite the example of women who become sexually active at 18, and say any increase in the age of marriage may push more of them out of the formal reproductive healthcare framework, given the stigma sex still courts in India.
It may also lead to an increase in the number of child marriage cases, they say, since the proposal also seeks to bring women aged 18-21 years into the bracket.
ThePrint reached health ministry spokesperson Manisha Verma for a comment via text message and call, but there was no reply until the time of publishing this report.
‘Will create confusion’
Until last year, the government was veering towards reducing the age of marriage for men to 18 from the current threshold of 21, in order to bring parity between men and women.
However, sources said, it was subsequently decided that it would be better instead to increase the legal marriage age for women from 18 to 21, since that would also serve the purpose of bringing down population levels in the country — an issue that Modi touched upon in his 2019 Independence Day address.
“It was thought that reducing the marriage age for men would affect the population levels adversely, and, in keeping with rising education levels among women, the government is now exploring the idea of increasing the age level for women from 18 to 21,” an official said on condition of anonymity.
However, the official added, the idea is “being met with apprehension for several reasons within the health ministry”.
“One, girls do become sexually active before 21…If the government increases the age of marriage, several of them will not avail the formal healthcare system for their reproductive or sexual rights.
“Two, the cases of child marriage could go up since the legal age for marriage will increase from 18 to 21,” the official said.
A second official said increasing the age would create “deeper discrepancy” in the law, which declares child marriage illegal but doesn’t consider such a union void unless the partners involved challenge it.
“Right now, child marriages are voidable and not void by default…” the official added. “But the Supreme Court, in 2017, had said that sex with a minor wife is rape — so, we are in a situation, where marriage with a girl of less than 18 years is not illegal, but sex with her is,” the official added.
“If you now increase the marriage age to 21, then it would lead to more confusion about the status of girls and women under 21 who are married.”
To iron out these confusions, the government is said to be exploring a proposal to make child marriages void by default.