When Meera, a domestic worker working in New Delhi, was just a teenager in her Rajasthan village, her family decided to pull her out of school and marry her off to a man who had a menial job in the city. Less than a decade later, she is now a mother to three children, struggling to make a living by washing utensils and mopping floors, while still suckling her newborn baby.
In an anachronism to a global era, a majority of Indian women are condemned to a life like Meera’s. They are raised as per the custom that daughters should be married off at the earliest because they are paraya dhan, which means they belong to someone else.
Only a confident government like ours can correct this historical wrong. In his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government plans on introducing a law that will raise women’s eligible age for marriage from 18 to 21 years.
This is bound to be beneficial for a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and lowest proportion of females in the workforce. However, much more is needed than just a law to bring about a fundamental reset.
This is because millions of women are still married off even before they turn 18, primarily due to economic pressure, apart from ignorance of the law and lack of effective policing. Around 27 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and 7 per cent before the age of 15. According to UNICEF, India has the highest absolute number of child brides.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, popularly called the Sarda Act when it was first introduced in British India on 1 April 1930, defined a child as a person who was under the age of 18 years (if male) and under 14 years (if female). This position improved on 1 October 1978 when the age limit was raised to 21 and 18 years for males and females, respectively. This was hailed as a great move then, because it was brought on par with the majority age in India. But much has changed since then, while the law has remained stagnant.
Considering that child marriages are prevalent despite our existing laws, some argue that the government should focus on the implementation of the existing provision before raising the eligible age of marriage. But the argument that a much-needed law should only be introduced if it is backed by sufficient resources is weak. The fact that, in many states, the government and police have not been able to, or have not desired to control marriages below 18 years of age, cannot be used as an argument against raising the age of marriage. Such an argument betrays society’s apathy towards women, who are pushed into marriage even before they can finish college.
What happens when women are forced into marriage before they turn 18? According to the well known Eric Erikson theory of psychosocial development, a healthy individual should pass through a series of developmental stages, from infancy to childhood. The significance of adolescence (between 13 and 19 years), and the transition to adulthood is a particularly crucial stage of development, when a growing child encounters a range of confusing and changing ideas about how they can fit into society.
If society forces a teenager into a completely new, and potentially hostile, external environment even before their adult self has properly developed, it is denying them a period of growth and self-discovery. It’s like nipping the growth of a potential artist, scientist or a computer professional, and pushing them into a life of virtual enslavement, saying that society does not have the means to nurture the adolescent.
A national loss
It’s not just women and their families who suffer from early marriages, but also the entire nation. The contribution of women to India’s workforce currently stands at no more than 18 per cent, with a majority of women confined to back-breaking menial jobs despite the fact that we are in the digital era.
But the Skill India Mission has taken strides in increasing women’s participation in entrepreneurship. The Ministry of Skill development and Entrepreneurship reports a 97 per cent increase in admissions in the last couple of years as compared to 5 years earlier.
This scheme can have its utility for training and skill development only if women are left free to make their choices and not be compelled to take on the roles of wives, mothers and homemakers.
Increasing women’s labour force participation by just ten percentage points could add $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. Empowered women who become entrepreneurs alone are capable of adding 150 million to 170 million jobs over the next decade.
India’s youthful demographics show that it is already set to add 234 million workers into its labour force by 2027, which will make it the largest in the world. Bringing on board a significant number of educated and trained women workers could, therefore, be a game changer for the entire nation.
In China, the world’s second largest economy, women account for nearly half of the workforce — from manning shop floors to executive positions of companies. By allowing women to complete higher education, India’s young workforce will become an attractive option for global players looking to invest in the country.
Beyond economic wealth, empowering women will contribute to India’s happiness index and would lead to unimaginable prosperity.
Unfortunately, India also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Many young women forced into motherhood are more susceptible to health conditions like anaemia, or HIV/AIDS infection. Such women are more likely to experience domestic violence, and are likely to give birth while they are still children themselves, which can lead to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
The issue of changing India’s marriage eligibility age has been on the table for a couple of decades. But the strong political will required to push this through gets diluted when elected representatives worry about facing the masses over ending early age marriages. Hence, the Modi government’s announcement brings in fresh hope that a new law will be introduced sooner than later.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted livelihoods and forced closure of schools and colleges, has set off a chain of early marriages because families still view daughters as a burden. Therefore, the need for introduction of the new law has acquired a new urgency.
The author is a partner at The Law Point (TLP). She was formerly the chairperson of the National Commission for Women. Views are personal.
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