women in Union budget 2023
Irani also proposed that the BPR&D and the Women and Child Development Ministry can have a special crèche facility for women personnel in every district

Govt needs to strongly rethink law on raising women's marriage age, say experts

Parliamentary panel told to travel across the country to meet adolescent girls, young women, parents, activists, gender issues researchers and religious leaders before the law is passed

The Narendra Modi government  has been actively pushing to raise the legal age for girls to marry to 21 years, ostensibly to empower the desh ki betis  to pursue their education and career without any roadblocks. However, the reality on the ground seems to be entirely different.

Most of the arguments put forward by the proponents of the recently introduced Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to change the legally permissible age of girls to marry from 18 years to 21 years, do not hold water, say experts. The arguments in favour range from that it will foster gender parity to an effective way to improve the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants but there is enough opposition building up against the Bill as well.

One of the key arguments in favour that is constantly doled out by the 10-member task force, first set up in June 2020 to give its recommendations, is that it will bring about gender parity. Jaya Jaitly, the head of the task force, once told the media that if we talk about gender equity and gender empowerment in every field, then we can’t leave marriage out. It’s a very odd message that a girl is fit to be married at 18 years that cuts away her opportunity to go to college and that a man has the opportunity to prepare himself for life and earning up to 21, she said.

Law vs implementation

But data shows that creating laws fail to usher in change. For example, though child marriages are prohibited in India, a recently published National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) says that over 23 per cent of women aged 20–24 got married before age 18. And the problem is more severe in rural areas, where the underage marriage rate is 27 per cent.

Hence, gender parity is a practice and not a mere legal acknowledgement of women rights. Civil organisations question whether the rise in marriage age can really lead to gender equality, allow more women to participate in the labour market, and be more healthy.

It takes time for society to change, and nobody truly believes that a law in India works on its own, Jaitly had said in an interview. In a recent meeting on April 13 with the Parliamentary Standing Committee mandated to address the Opposition’s concerns around the new legislation, the task force suggested that the law be accompanied by measures that help delay underage marriages, such as access to education, and improving women’s safety.

Also read: ‘Enormous’ socio-economic benefits in raising women’s marriageable age: SBI

A healthier child and mother

There’s another reason that is often trotted out in favour of raising the age. It is generally believed that a rise in the age of marriage will increase the age of motherhood and this will translate into a healthier child and mother.

But this is most probably not true. Experts point out that health indicators do not vary for women from less privileged groups even if they marry at a higher age. Infant and mother mortality rates have to do more with factors like poverty and malnourishment rather than marriageable age. Data from NFHS-4 shows that the level of anaemia, a key factor in MMR, shows no change even at marriage age up to 25 years, keeping other factors controlled.

The women’s wing of the CPI(M), the All India Democratic Women’s Association, has termed the Bill “a diversionary tactic” from a government which refuses to allocate adequate resources towards nutritional programmes like the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme), education and healthcare. It pointed out that if the nutritional status of women remains low from birth onwards, getting married at 21 and subsequently giving birth to a child after that cannot improve the condition of maternal and child health or mortality.

Targeting elopement

Moreover, a key criticism of this legislation is that evidence suggests that when the law is used, it is mostly to penalise young adults who fall in love and elope. There are statistics to show that nearly 65 per cent of the cases under the existing child marriage law were in response to elopement (not necessarily involving marriage) and were filed by disapproving parents or families.

Recently, Congress MP TN Prathapan, a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, also cautioned against implementing “a hasty legislation” that may end up creating “social confusion” that “will harm many women in our society.”

Unable to attend the second meeting of the Committee, Prathapan wrote to BJP MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, who is heading the Parliamentary Committee, and suggested that they need to travel all over the country, irrespective of urban and rural diversities, to meet women, girls — both adolescent and young, parents, activists, researchers on gender issues and other stakeholders.

“We need to have a first person consultation with them to understand their concerns,” he said, as quoted by media reports. He added that even religious bodies which had objected to the legislation must be called in. He has further asked the Chairman to ensure that before the report is finalised the committee meets all fellow women Parliamentarians from both Houses, largely because the current committee has only two women members — Trinamool Congress’s Sushmita Dev and Congress’s Pratibha Singh. (Tamil Madu MP Kanimozhi too had raised the issue of the lack of women representation in a Committee to study a law so critical to women)

Also read: India’s ranking drops a notch in World Bank study on gender equality laws

Invest in girl’s education

According to experts, instead of raising the marriageable age for girl, if they are given a chance to complete their education and stand on their feet financially, they would automatically delay their marriage. There is evidence to prove this as the National Family Health Survey-4 has shown that the median age of marriage increases from 17.2 years for women with no schooling to 22.7 years for women with 12 or more years of schooling.

Other suggestions have been in the form of increased investments in skill-building for adolescent girls to help them to achieve their economic independence; address regressive patriarchal socio-economic systems, and to also invest in targeted social and behaviour change communication on the lines of Main kuch bhi kar sakti hoon campaign.

Finally, civil organisations, who have complained that the government have not invited them for consultations, let alone consider their submissions, have further pointed out that state governments have not bothered to implement the verdict given by the Supreme Court on compulsory registration of marriages, which needs to be done. Neither has there been a crackdown on child marriages in rural areas. If the government is truly concerned about empowering girls, they should stop to consider these suggestions before rushing to pass a law.

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