New Delhi: A task force constituted last year by the Narendra Modi government to examine its proposal of increasing the age of marriage for women has submitted its report, recommending an increase in the age from 18 to 21, ThePrint has learnt.
According to highly placed sources in the government, the task force, led by former Samata Party chief Jaya Jaitly and NITI Aayog Member (Health) V.K. Paul, submitted its report to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) last month.
“The report recommends an increase in the age from 18 to 21, but in a phased manner,” said a senior government official on the condition of anonymity. “That means states should be given enough space and time to do the groundwork for such a legislation, since it cannot be done overnight.”
On Independence Day last year, PM Modi had said the government could re-look at the age of marriage for women, in its bid to fight malnutrition. “We have formed a committee to ensure that daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters,” he had said.
The task force, constituted in June last year, consisted of secretaries of the health and family welfare, women & child development (WCD), higher education, school education & literacy ministries, and the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law and Justice. Other members included Najma Akhtar, Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia; Vasudha Kamath, former vice-chancellor of SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai; and Gujarat-based gynaecologist Dr Dipti Shah.
ThePrint contacted Jaitly and Paul, the co-heads of the task force, as well as all the members for their comments. While Jaitly just said it was the government’s prerogative to first release the report, Paul did not respond to calls or text messages. The other members also didn’t respond to calls, text messages and emails.
First delivery should be at 21
According to sources, the task force has said the age of a woman at the time of her first childbirth should be 21 years. The report says evidence shows that delay in marriage has positive economic, social and health effects for families, women, children and the society at large.
Further, the report argues that studies — based on evidence from 50-plus low and middle income countries to find the association of maternal age with infant mortality, child anthropometric failure, diarrhoea and anaemia for first births — show that the risk declines after age 21.
While the risk of poor child health outcomes is the lowest for women who have their first births between 27 and 29, the broad range for an optimal age of motherhood is 21 to 35 years.
This is the key recommendation of the report, since the foremost mandate of the task force was to examine the correlation of age of marriage and motherhood with health, medical well-being and nutritional status of mother and the child during pregnancy, birth and thereafter.
No need to tinker with age of consent
A hot topic of debate surrounding marriage age is whether it would lead to confusion regarding the age of consent, which is 18. Sources told ThePrint that the task force has not recommended that the age of consent should be increased.
“The task force has stated that the focus should be on sex counselling and sex education, instead of adopting a judgmental view of sex,” said an official familiar with the report.
On voiding marriages of under-18 women by default, the task force has said marriages under the age of 21 shouldn’t be made void immediately. “It cannot be expected that a legislation is brought in, and immediately, social attitudes change… States need to be given time to work on it,” the first official quoted above said.
As of now, child marriages are only voidable, and not void by default — such unions are not considered void unless the partners involved challenge it. The Union government is working on a proposal to make all child marriages void.
Further, the task force has recommended that the Karnataka model should be studied closely before making child marriages void. In 2017, the Karnataka government passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016, declaring all marriages between minors void “ab initio” (starting from the beginning).
In 2019, ThePrint had reported that the WCD ministry was exploring a proposal to standardise the minimum age for marriage at 18 years for both men and women under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006.
Similarly, the Law Commission, in 2008, had recommended a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years, and not 21.
In 2018, the National Human Rights Commission had also recommended that there should be a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls.
The logic behind bringing down the age of marriage for men from 21 to 18 has been that legally, the age of adulthood is 18, and an individual is even allowed to vote at that age. Reducing the age of marriage from 21 to 18 for men, it has been believed, serves the purpose of standardising the age of marriage for men and women.
In fact, a sub-committee set up by the government before this task force had said the majority view was to not increase the age of marriage, and for there to be no amendments made to the PCM Act without examining their sociological impact on the girl child, even though there was no legal impediment to increasing the age.
The sub-committee, headed by the secretary of the legislative department, had said a study of the social and cultural impact of such a move must be conducted.
However, while the government-appointed task force has looked into these questions, it has recommended an increase instead of a reduction, given the significant health benefits of reproduction after the age of 21, sources said.