Legal Age of Marriage for women: An analysis

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Introduction

Efforts to raise the legal age of marriage for females from 18 to 21 have been made by the Indian government through the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which now outlaws child marriage in India, would be amended as a result of this legislation. Boys and girls must meet distinct minimum legal ages for child marriage under the 2006 statute. If you are a man, you must be younger than 21, and a female, you must be younger than 18, according to the law’s definition in section 2, clause (a). The ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ of the law states that one of the government’s objectives is to equalize the marriageable age between men and women.

Meaning of Bill

Any legislative initiative that is intended to become law must be presented to Parliament in the form of Bills. A Bill is a statute in the draught of any legislative proposal that cannot become an Act of Parliament, making it a law, unless and until it is adopted by both Houses of Parliament and has the President of India’s ascent.

The Minister or any other individual who is not a Minister can introduce the Bill. In the first situation, it will be referred to as a government bill, whereas in the second case, it will be referred to as a private member’s bill.

Details of the Bill

There were six sections to the bill, which was introduced by Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Development. It also recommends amendments to seven personal laws, including 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. It strives to create a standard age of marriage for all religions, regardless of any legislation, custom, or practice.

Once approved, it will override all the parts of current marriage and personal laws which deal with the age of marriage in the country.

After Jaya Jaitly was appointed as the committee’s chairperson in June 2020, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development convened an 11-member panel to look at topics such as maternal age, the necessity of decreasing MMR levels, and nutritional improvements, among other things. In his Independence Day address in 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed his government’s proposal to raise the legal marriage age for females. According to the Jaitly Committee’s recommendations, which were submitted in December 2020, the legal marriage age for girls should be raised from 18 to 21 years.

This bill’s goal is to prevent child marriages, which often prove to be a disadvantage for women. Because girls are not able to complete their education, they cannot pursue any career path. The government has also said that this modification will aid women in achieving psychological maturity prior to marriage under the bill’s stated objectives and grounds. This change is also intended to discourage adolescent pregnancy, which is linked to health problems including anemia and other blood disorders. Aside from addressing maternal mortality and undernutrition in girls, the administration stated that the bill will also address other pressing social issues. Additional revisions in India’s marriage rules have been predicted by the government.

Some members objected to Bill’s presentation, claiming that it infringed on various personal laws and violated fundamental rights, and urged that it be referred to a parliamentary panel for further review.

Only one woman MP is among the 31 members of the parliamentary group tasked with reviewing the bill. The chairman, on the other hand, has the authority to summon anyone before the panel. He can therefore ask other female MPs to participate in more inclusive and broad conversations.

History of Legal Age of Marriage

In 1891, the Age of Consent Act was enacted. The age of consent for sexual intercourse was raised from 10 to 12 years under this legislation. As a result, it did not address how old a person must be to marry. Thus, the Sarda Act of 1929, also known as the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, was passed, which set the minimum age of marriage for females at 14 and boys at 18 years. After the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was passed, the minimum marriageable age requirements for females and boys were amended to 18 and 21 years, respectively.

Present Stand of Personal and Marriage Laws in India

According to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, a man must be at least 21 years old before he may marry a woman who must be at least 18 years old. Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 sets an age limit of 18 years for the bride and a 21-year-old groom for the ceremony as well. Similarly, the age at which a couple may marry is stipulated in both the Foreign Marriage Act of 1969 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954. According to Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act (1937), both a boy and a girl who has reached puberty are eligible to marry.

Age of Marriage for women in other nations

It was common practice before the industrial revolution for young girls to be married off to older men. Traditionally, families would arrange for their daughters to be married as soon as they reached puberty.

Even though they have shifted, many countries throughout the world have varied marriage ages.

Women in Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean island nation, are permitted to marry at the age of 16. Women in the island republic can marry at the age of 18, however, the marriage laws of the Muslim and Hindu faiths differ. For Muslim females, marriage is permissible at 12 years of age, but Hindu girls must wait until 14 to marry. Iran has the second-lowest legal marriage age for women, which is 13 years.

In China, the legal marriage age for women is 20 years old, which is the highest in the world.

Child Marriage and Child Pregnancy Trends

Approximately one-third of the world’s child brides come from India, according to a UNICEF research titled “Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects”. It is unlawful to marry a kid under the age of 18, according to The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which was passed in 2006. Under this law, it is illegal to marry a girl under the age of 18 or a man under the age of 21, for example. In an effort to slow the country’s rapid population growth, this regulation was put into effect in 1978.  6.8 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they were 18 years old, according to the National Family and Health Survey Round 4.

It is especially bad in rural places, where girls are considered financial responsibility and boys are still preferred. Lack of education and career possibilities for girls and women, in addition to cultural expectations, are key contributors to gender disparity in India.

Adolescent moms are more likely to give birth to malnourished infants, according to research published in the medical journal The Lancet. Poor maternal nutritional status, lesser education, less amount of health care access, poor supplementary feeding habits, and poor housing conditions all contribute to child under-nutrition in adolescent pregnancies.

As a result, early pregnancies put both the mother and the child in danger, making child marriage one of the most serious consequences.

According to a recent survey, women in regions like Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are the most likely to marry and have children before the age of 18.

As a result, attitudes toward the female child must be modified in order to eliminate child marriages and child pregnancies. As stated, the Indian government’s primary objective is to minimize maternal mortality and improve nutrition levels by extending the legal marital age for women. NFHS-5 results are alarming, and the Indian government must look into the many ways in which women’s and girls’ health in India is being harmed.

According to a 2020 UNICEF poll, 8 percent of women ages 20 to 24 in South Asia marry before the age of 15, and 29 percent marry before the age of 18. This demonstrates that despite the PCMA’s success in reducing child marriage, it remains a social issue that is far from being the exception.

Education and Employment Trends

In addition to socioeconomic concerns like child marriage and child pregnancies, women also confront inequities in their access to school and work. There has been a steady decline in female labor force participation and school attendance in India over the past few decades. According to a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights data from 2017, 39.4 percent of 15-18-year-old Indian girls drop out of high school and college altogether.   According to a recent study, 64.8 percent of the females who leave school are forced to perform housework or beg.   By comparison to the global average of 82.65%, India’s female literacy rate was at 66% in 2018. India’s female literacy rate is lower than that of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, which are both lower-income nations.  Dropout rates among females in secondary school are equally high in India, contributing to the country’s poor female literacy rates. The Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017 shows that 32% of girls and 28% of boys are not enrolled in secondary education. 

In addition to poor female literacy rates and low female secondary school enrollment, women’s engagement in the workforce in India is also extremely low. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) released, India’s female labor force participation rate in 2017-18 was 23.3%. Only thirteen nations in the world have lower percentages of female labor force participation than India’s percent. 

Gender gaps in the education and job sectors of India are clearly seen in these data.

Gender norms, patriarchal systems, and logistical issues combine to make it difficult for girls and women to get into the schools and organizations where they may learn and work.

Criticisms of the Bill

There is no denying that marrying later is better for women’s health and independence. However, an only genuine societal change will empower women and push back the marriage age. The truth is that the average age of women marrying has been steadily increasing over time. This was a natural process, not a forced one. It has more to do with more progressive mindsets, better access to education, and a woman having a greater influence in family decision-making than it has with regulations.

This law is unlikely to have the desired effect, and it may even work against women’s empowerment. To begin with, it serves to infantilize women. Why are women considered too immature to marry while they are mature enough to vote at the age of 18, be prosecuted, and be punished as adults under the law?

There is a legitimate concern that this rule will provide parents with a tool to restrict daughters from marrying a man of their preference. Families who disapprove of women’s choices will hinder them from marrying. This will be done under the guise of the girl being underage, but the law could be utilized as a coercive instrument in actuality.

Another issue, according to experts, could arise here. While women will continue to be married off at the age determined by their families, they may not be protected by some other regulations. Let us say a girl marries before she reaches the age of 21, and she seeks legal recourse. The husband’s family could readily claim that the marriage is unlawful due to the woman’s age and that she is not entitled to restitution.

The solution is not to pass legislation. The government must spend in improving access to education, transportation, and the skilling of females, as well as providing women with improved birth control options. Importantly, public attitudes against early weddings must shift; if this occurs, regulations such as raising the marriage age will no longer be necessary.

Suggestions for better Implementation

In the 2019-2020 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, India placed 112th overall and 150th out of 153 nations in the ‘health and survival’ category. According to the study, women in India have very few economic options. There are many nations in South Asia that did better than India in the Global Gender Gap Index.

Further complicating matters, the recent lockdown imposed due to the pandemic increased sexism and discrimination against women in India. This is based on findings from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), following the mandated shutdown, Female labor force involvement decreased as a result of the COVID-19 by a whopping 13%.

Gender differences in India need to be better understood by the country’s leaders. First and foremost, societal constructions surrounding gender roles and attitudes have been established in many data versions and research. We must alter our attitudes regarding women and the job they do. It is worth noting, too, that infrastructure is an issue that should be addressed because it is one of the barriers that prohibit girls from obtaining education, make it clear to females that they may continue their studies. For example, increasing the number of female students in elementary and secondary schools might be achieved by increasing the number of school restrooms. Kerala, Bihar, and Rajasthan are examples of states that have taken action to improve the lives of their citizens to boost the number of female students enrolling.

The Indian government should focus on changing the mentality of household heads towards gender equality and encouraging more women to pursue an education and a career in the workforce.

Finally, the Indian government should strive to establish a more secure environment and working arrangements that allow working moms to have flexible schedules in order to encourage a greater number of working moms in the workforce.

The government of India hopes to lower maternal mortality rates and increase nutrition among women by raising the marriageable age of women in India to 21. It would be impossible for India to achieve gender equality unless there is a shift in the way people think about women’s health, education, and work. As a result, the Indian government should focus on creating a culture that encourages more women to pursue higher education, enter the workforce, and put their health first, rather than relying solely on legislative answers.

Conclusion

Simply enacting a law that equalizes the minimum legal age to marry does not guarantee an improvement in women’s well-being or the achievement of the government’s goals in introducing this bill. The government must augment this statute with a variety of different structures and plans. This is not to say that bringing parity to the minimum age to marry is fruitless or ineffective. It is critical that this law be implemented in conjunction with other measures in order to achieve the government’s stated goals.

It is proposed that the government educate the people about the advantages of marrying their child only after they have reached the legal age of consent. It is also critical that the government implements a program that encourages girls to continue their education into higher grades. As a result, educating women will provide them with the necessary information and abilities to pursue any career. This would discourage the practice of marrying off young girls in order to keep the family afloat during times of financial hardship. The government must consider the suggestions of diverse critics and opposition members and incorporate them into its policymaking.

References

Author: Harshita Vaashite, Hidayatullah National Law University

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India

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