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While increasing the legal age of marriage for women to 21 appears to be a great move, let's look into the practical issues more closely.
While increasing the legal age of marriage for women to 21 appears to be a great move, let’s look into the practical issues more closely.
The Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, and will be introducing a Bill seeking the Amendment soon.
On the face of it, it seems like a great move, but if you look at the ground reality, is it really such a good idea to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21?
As per current statistics, upto 30% of women in India were married before the age of 18*, despite the fact that the legal age for marriage was set at 18 years in 1978.
This conclusively proves that the law alone is not a deterrent against child marriage.
Many of us believe that child marriage is due to lack of awareness about the minimum legal age of marriage. However, the causes are actually much deeper. It is for convenience, out of concern for the safety of the child, or because of societal pressures.
In families or communities where women are not encouraged to go out to work, there is little to be gained by educating a girl beyond a certain level. Such girls are married off as soon as a suitable groom is found. Typically in these families the search for a groom begins after the girl attains puberty, and she is often married soon after completing her class 10 board exams.
In households where both parents engage in labour, even if the girl is sent to high school, she is forced to stay alone at home for a few hours every day after school. Parents perceive this as a risk, so unless there are safe after school activities, they get the girl married off as soon as possible. Typically, such marriages take place after the girl graduates from the local school, and needs to travel to another village for further studies.
In many communities, traditional livelihoods require a woman to assist her husband in a part of the livelihood process (to give a few examples – toddy tappers need wives to make jaggery, weavers are assisted by their wives in the preparatory process, sugarcane harvesting requires a couple to work in tandem). In such communities, girls are necessarily married off early since their economic value is unlocked only after marriage (in some communities which rely on entertainment as a source of income, even girls as young as 14 are married off).
Once a girl attains puberty, her “safety” becomes of prime concern to the family. If the family suspects she may be in a relationship, or that someone “unsuitable” is interested in her, she is typically married off to the first man the family can find. The legal age of marriage then works against her, because she needs to wait to attain that age for fear her parents will have the marriage annulled otherwise, but the family has no such fear.
Though we often think that child marriage is a product of poverty, it is not. Even in “well to do” and “well placed” families if a suitable match is found, the girl is engaged to be married, and the wedding solemnised as soon as she turns 18. If the match is extremely “good”, and if the groom’s family is unwilling to wait, the wedding takes place even before the bride turns 18.
All these factors ensure that the rate of “child marriage” in India is between 27% (UNICEF) to 47% (ICRW), despite the fact that the legal age of marriage was set at 18 more than 2 generations ago.
It will not necessarily delay marriages. All that will happen is that the percentage of women being married before legal age will shoot up, making the woman far more vulnerable than she now is.
Assuming a family allows the girl to study upto Class XII, she will graduate high school at the age of 17/ 18. What after that? Most families do not want their girls to travel long distances either to work or to go to college, so unless there is a college that is perceived as “safe” in the neighbourhood, she will be kept at home for 3 years.
OR, she will be married off. Regardless of what the law says.
If the law refuses to recognise a union conducted before legal age, then the “child-bride” will not have any legal rights in her marital home. She will be far more vulnerable to emotional, physical and sexual abuse than she is now where the law is on her side. In case of pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies, she will be subject to unnecessary harassment, and this could even lead to unsafe abortions.
The law will also work against women who want to marry partners who are deemed “unsuitable” by their families. They will necessarily have to wait till she turns 21 for fear of the family using the law to pull them apart. But if the family suspects such a union, they will get her married before legal age since they do not have any such fear.
What is needed is to work at the community level to create awareness on why child marriage is not desirable both from the health perspective and from a social perspective.
What is needed is for the community to recognise that a woman is as capable as a man in creating economic value, she will no longer be seen as a burden which is to be set down at the earliest possible.
Once this happens, the age of marriage will go up organically.
I have personally witnessed this in two communities where we worked over a sustained period.
In one rural community, the average age of marriage for girls was 14, which coincided with the end of schooling in the local government school. Once the community realised the value of continuing the education, and began sending them to high school in the nearest town, the number of child marriages dwindled. After graduating from high school, many of the girls who would otherwise have been married at 14 enrolled in technical/ vocational courses, and the community was determined to not get them married till they were economically independent.
The experience in an urban slum community was equally dramatic. Girls were earliest married at the age of 15 or 16, but after a few years of intervention, the average age of marriage shot up to above 20. In that community it is common to see families where the first born girl(s) were child brides, but their younger siblings are in college, and where the mother proudly declare, “we will get our daughter married only when she wants it.”
History has shown that enacting a law alone has not been enough to deter child marriage. What is needed is sustained behaviour change communication at the community level to ensure that the community recognises the value of educating and empowering the girl child.
Lokmanya Tilak exemplifies this contradiction between the legal and the personal. At a time when girls were married before puberty and many died at childbirth when the marriage was consummated, he opposed raising the legal age of marriage to 14. It was his belief that the law should not “meddle” in the personal life of people, and that we should, instead, focus on changing behaviour. He followed up by ensured that his own daughters were not married before the age of 16.
One can challenge Tilak’s position on the grounds that a law was needed to save the lives of the child brides whose bodies were ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth before they were ready for it. However, that is no longer the case today. While it is desirable for a woman to get married at 21 rather than at 18, the lower age of marriage is not a health risk. Hence, it is better to lead the change from the social perspective.
Before talking of raising the legal age of marriage for girls, let us first ensure that the existing law is implemented.
*This is an approximation. Studies from reputed agencies show the figure as anything between 27% to 47%.
Image credits Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash
Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...
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