Age is just a number. But not if you need to tie the knot in India.
This week saw the Narendra Modi government introducing the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to raise the marriageable age of women to 21 years, making it uniform for both women and men.
The bill containing six sections was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Union Minister for Women & Child Development Smriti Irani. It also proposes to amend 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. With this, it aims to provide a uniform age of marriage across religions, irrespective of any law, custom or practice.
However, the bill was referred to a standing committee, after an uproar from several opposition leaders.
Introduced as a move to aid “women progress on all fronts including their physical, mental and reproductive health”, the debate around the bill has since been tied in knots, with questions being raised on whether it holds the potential to empower women or is just a quick fix to a multilayered problem.
And that’s why the new marriage bill is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
The 18-21 conundrum
The legal age to marry in India has increased over the years, but has consistently remained different for women and men. When the 1929 law was passed, the legal age to marry was set at 14 years for girls and 18 years for boys. This was later raised to 15 years and subsequently to 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys in 1978.
A minimum age was set essentially to outlaw child marriages and prevent abuse of minors.
The difference in age of marriage arose out of the outdated perception that women mature earlier than men and therefore should have a lower age of marriage. This also created several other anomalies. For instance, the law currently allows a child marriage to be declared voidable at the option of the man or the woman, within two years of them becoming of marriageable age. This meant that while the man could file such a petition till he was 23 years old, a woman could do it only till the age of 20.
Naturally, over the years, with improved understanding of the fallacy behind this logic, the clamour for equal age of marriage grew. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law & Justice examined the Prevention of Child Marriage Bill 2004, and endorsed the age differentiation, with members talking about “physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional aspects…recognized by social thinkers”. The age of 18 years was also considered “insufficient for a boy to attain the desired level of education and economic independence”.
It had, however, urged the government to consider the views proposing a common age of 18 years for both women and men.
The 205th Law Commission of India report submitted in February 2008 had assertively recommended a uniform age of marriage of 18 years, saying “there is no scientific reason why this should be different”. In August 2018 as well, the Law Commission had in a consultation paper said that 18 years should be set as a uniform age for marriage.
Therefore, while several commentators have lauded the latest move to bring uniformity in age of marriage for men and women, they have questioned the need to increase the age for women to 21 years instead of fixing it at 18 years, as per the recommendations put forth over the years.
The statement of objects and reasons of the bill says that it seeks to “address the issues of women in a holistic manner, as a measure for empowerment of women, gender equality, increasing the female labour force participation, make them self-reliant and to enable them to take decisions themselves”.
The arguments for an increase in the age of marriage for women also circle around reducing the risks of early pregnancy, which is associated with increased child mortality rates and affects the health of the mother.
However, critics have since pointed out a multitude of underlying issues — social stigma, escalating dowries, abject poverty, and lack of female education – that force women into an early marriage. They have also said that the law so far has not been completely successful in preventing child marriages. As per the National Family Health Survey (2019-2021), 23.3% of women aged 20-24 years were married off before 18.
Therefore, they fear that this might just be a quick fix for a multilayered problem that requires a more bottom-up approach, starting from changes within the society.
Meanwhile, others have pointed out that the amendments contradict the existing laws in India, calling it “women’s infantilisation”. While a woman is considered an adult at the age of 18, is open to application of all criminal laws, can cast her vote, can enter into a live-in relationship, and can give her consent for sexual intercourse, she cannot marry until the age of 21.
Experts have also pointed out that in a country where inter-caste and inter-religious marriages can lead to deaths, such laws are often used by parents against rebellious sons and daughters. This new age of marriage might cast the net of criminality wider – drawing more distressed women and families into the downward spiral of cops and courtrooms.
It remains to be seen, therefore, whether this new legal age of marriage for women brings about any of the ambitious changes it has set out to achieve, or whether 21 would end up being just another number, incapable of solving the knot that India has found itself in for centuries now.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)