This article is written by Meenal Sharma, from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies. In this article, the author has discussed why there is a need to increase the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21.
In Rajasthan, 16-year-old Komal was a regular student at her school and never missed a single day. However, she was forced to become a bride as her parents bartered her in exchange for a bride for her elder brother. This form of marriage is called the ‘Atta-Satta’ in a community of Rajasthan. She had dreams of completing her education and getting a good job, however, her dreams were crushed when she got pregnant at the age of 17 years. In the 21st century when the legal age of marriage is 18 in India, there are still regions where such forms of marriages are prevalent. This calls for a new stricter law with better implementation than the existing one. In this article, we will discuss the increase in the age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 and why there is a need for the same.
Age of marriage to be increased from 18 to 21 for girls
Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister in February 2020 during the budget session announced that a committee would be set up which will think about the age of marriage for women. Recently on 4th June 2020, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has constituted a high-level committee which is likely to revise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years. It is set to bring parity between the legal age of marriage for men and women. The task force will go into the matter and submit the recommendations by 31st July 2020. The task force would be assisted by the NITI Ayog.
According to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, women should have opportunities to pursue higher education and their careers as India progresses further. The minimum age of marriage for women was increased in 1978 by an amendment in the Sarda Act. The age of marriage needs to be increased so that there can be imperatives for maternal mortality rate and nutrition levels can be increased. The entire issue of a woman entering motherhood would be analysed by the task force that will give its recommendations after 6 months.
The task force will determine various other matters relating to motherhood and marriage at an early age and give its recommendations. They include:
- Encouraging higher education for women;
- The age of motherhood;
- The mental health of the mother;
- Impact of age of marriage on total fertility rate, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate;
- How can nutritional levels be improved in mother and the child; and
- Other issues related to motherhood.
Composition of the task force: The task force consists of 10 members which include Secretaries of Health, Women and Child Development, Law and School Education. It will be headed by the former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly. V.K. Paul Member, Health, NITI Ayog will be a member of this task force. The independent members of the task force are Najma Akhtar, Vasudha Kamath and Dipti Shah.
What are the existing laws regulating the age of marriage
In ancient India, young men and women were free to choose their partners. However, with the advent of the Middle Ages, a different form of the political system came into existence that changed the society and the opinions of people became complex. The rights of women became limited and their liberty was curtailed. Young women were considered to be irresponsible and irrational in love so their parents got them married at a young age. With time, marriage of girls at the age of 6 to 8 years became more common, though the daughter remained with her parents till puberty. The parents made sure that there was compatibility amongst the two families and it was believed that if children knew each other from a young age, their compatibility would enhance. Therefore, child marriages became prevalent in India.
Since the British Empire, there have been laws regulating the age of marriage. When the Indian Penal Code was first enacted in 1860, it prohibited sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 10 years. Women rights activists pressured the British government to bring about the Age of Consent Bill, 1927 that made marriage with a girl under 12 years illegal.
What is the Sarda Act
Various bills addressing the age of consent of marriage were introduced before the legislature without being passed. Members of the All India Women’s Conference, Women’s Indian Association and National Council of Women in India presented their argument to raise the minimum age of marriage for women before the Joshi committee. The Committee presented its report to the Imperial Legislative Council on 20 June 1929. Finally, on 28 September 1929, the Imperial Legislative Council passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act and it became a law on 1st April 1930 after it was approved by Lord Irwin. It set a minimum age of marriage as 14 years for women and 18 years for men. This Act is popularly known as Sarda Act as it was sponsored by Rao Sahib Harbilas Sarda who was a retired judge and a member of Arya Samaj.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was enacted as a result of the first social reform that was taken up by an organised women’s group in India. They pressured politicians to support the Act by protesting in many forms by picketing delegations, shouting slogans etc.
However, this Act remained a dead letter as it was hardly implemented. The British colonial government did not want to displease the communal elements of Hindus and Muslims so they did nothing to implement the law. Moreover, princely states were given exemption under this law which constituted a major portion of India. Thus, it was left unimplemented before independence.
In 1978, an Amendment was made in the Sarda Act which changed the minimum age of marriage for women to 18 years and for men 21 years.
In 2006, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was enacted which made child marriage, i.e. marriage below the prescribed minimum age of marriage for men and women, a cognizable and non-bailable offence. As per this Act also, the minimum age of marriage was 18 years for women and 21 years for men. This Act punished the parents of the children as well as priests who solemnised such marriage.
India is a diverse country and various religions have their laws that regulate the age of marriage. Post-independence, the Special Marriage Act, 1954 was enacted. According to this Act, people could get married to each other irrespective of their religion and faith.
The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 under Section 5(iii) sets the age of marriage as 18 years for women and 21 years for men. However, in Islam, the age of marriage is determined when the women attain puberty, i.e. at 15 years. The marriage of a minor who has attained the age of puberty is considered valid as per the Muslim personal law.
Why is there a need to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls
Underage marriage of a woman increases vulnerability and reflects the low status of women in society as compared to men. Moreover, it leads to a number of problems that a woman might have to face in her life due to early marriage. These include:
- Education: Women have societal pressure to get married early and have children. Domestic responsibilities often take over the lives of women and they are unable to pursue higher education as they are either forced out of it or they are unable to manage their responsibilities and education in cases such as pregnancy.
- Economic Independence: Early marriage of women deprives them of proper education and job prospects and thus economic independence. It is very important for a woman to have economic independence as it allows her to make conscious choices about her life taking her own needs into account. It promotes gender equality by ensuring equal participation in all spheres of life. Limiting economic independence for women pushes them into a cycle of poverty and limits educational opportunities for her children as well.
- Health issues: Study shows that women who get married before 18 years of age are likely to deal with unwanted pregnancies and are a greater risk of having complications during her pregnancy such as premature babies, retarded growth, prolonged labour and also miscarriage. They are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as they are unable to ensure safer sex practices. All this because they lack proper education as they are married at a young age. This deprives them of proper health care and antenatal care which is why the rate of infant mortality is higher in young mothers.
- Domestic violence: Getting married early increases the risk of domestic violence. According to the International Council of Research on Women (ICRW), women who are less educated and married between 15 to 19 years of age are more likely to be victims of domestic violence compared to more educated women. A possible explanation for this could be that there exists an imbalance of power between couples consisting of younger women and older men.
- Mental health: Early marriages have a significant impact on the mental health of women. They are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The institution of marriage and the accompanying responsibilities can have an overwhelming impact on the mental health of an underage woman.
- Poverty: Girls belonging to poor families are more likely to get married at an early age. It may be because her family cannot afford her expenses such as education and other basic commodities so they prefer to get her married so that she can have a better quality of life. However, women who get married at an early age are likely to spend their lives in poverty. They lack economic independence and their prospects of gaining reduce drastically after their marriage. On the contrary, women who are educated and economically independent can provide for their family and add to the family income.
According to a survey in 2005-2006, 44.5% of women that were surveyed reported being married before 18 years of age. As per UNICEF, the percentage of women getting married before the age of 18 years has changed to 27%. In 2017, the number of girls who were married between the ages of 15-19 who died due to pregnancy and childbirth issues was 35,000.
Marriage is based on cultural norms and practice. The first law regulating the minimum age of marriage was the Sarda Act or the Child Marriage Restraint enacted in 1929 which was a dead letter and never implemented to protect the sentiments of various communities. However, post-independence an amendment was made under the Act in 1978 increasing the age of marriage to 18 years for women and 21 for men. Till the present day, this law has been in force, although it is weak in its implementation as child marriages are still prevalent in India.
Child marriage is a human right violation but early marriages should also be considered a public health issue as they have an impact on the physical and mental health of a woman. It is important to break the cycle of early marriages in families as even in urban areas, women are married off as soon as they turn 18 and their dream to pursue further education and build their career is often crushed. As India is making progress, there is a need for parity in the legal age of marriage of men and women which can further be a step towards equality. The decision of the Central government is commendable, however, there must be stricter enforcement of the law.
- https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/government-set-to-revise-womens-legal-age-for-marriage-95664#:~:text=Photo%20for%20representational%20purpose%20 o nly.&text=Union%20Finance%20Minister%20Nirmala%20Sitharaman,erstwhile%20Sharda%20Act%20of%201929.
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