Child Marriage was a norm in old India where girls the age of 14 and above were married at the discretion of their families. This practice was interrupted by the enactment of The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 introduced by an Indian Judge and politician, Har Bilas Sarda in the British India legislature. This act set the minimum marriage age of the girl at 18 and the boy at the age of 21, thus restraining the practice of child marriage at that time. The next change in the laws regarding child marriage was observed with the enactment of The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 which criminalized child marriages in India but did not change the age requirement of either sex. On December 20, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, was introduced in the Lok Sabha and sent to a Standing Committee, where the decision on it stands to be pending. This action was accompanied by a heap of varying opinions, speaking in favor of and against this bill.
WHAT THE BILL AIMS TO DO
- It seeks to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and override all other existing laws related to marriage.
- To bring the minimum age of marriage of women on par with that of men to set a uniform age for both genders.
- Prohibit all child marriages regardless of any existing law, custom or practice.
- Establish that the provision of this act is to override any existing law, custom or practice related to marriage.
- Make amendments to other existing laws such as the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872; the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937; the Special Marriage Act, 1954; the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969, or any other custom or usage or practice about marriage.
ARGUMENTS OPPOSING THE BILL
After the introduction of this bill, the opinions in opposition argued that the rate of child marriages is already decreasing in India, attributed to the rise in the number of educated women who opt to marry at a later age after completing their education and stabilizing their career. They seek independence and stability over settling down. Furthermore, according to the data collected by the National Family Health Survey (NHFS), the percentage of child marriages declined from 26.8% to 23.3% in the last few years. But this data fails to throw light on the fact that women who get married earlier are usually from poor households and hold poor educational qualifications. It doesn’t take into account that a large part of India is still living in poverty.
Discrimination against the female sex is still prevalent and parents of the female child don’t invest much in their education, they are often looked to as commodities or burdens to be rid of or the cause of damage to reputation if questions on her virtues were to be raised. This mindset or way of thinking is so deeply rooted in our country’s culture that the women themselves start to see themselves as a burden to the family and seek to marry at an early age. Although there exists a law dictating the minimum age of marriage, it is not wholly implemented in the much need sections of the rural society. In most cases, marriage is equated to freedom for women marrying early, as the conditions at home are perceived to be so bad that marriage remains the only hope to some desperate women.
Further, the Government of India set up a task force on 4th June 2020 to examine the correlation of age of marriage with motherhood, the Taskforce concluded that the minimum age for motherhood should be 21, on which it was argued that the Taskforce used the parameters of health, medical well-being and nutritional status to conclude their report but these scales falling are a direct result of poverty and poor living conditions, not age.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF THE BILL
The arguments in favor of increasing the age of marriage for women in India mainly circles around three points. Achieving equality in terms of gender has been an ongoing motion for a while now. It is also encoded in our constitution as a fundamental right. Many instances have also been made in past to change the minimum age of marriage, beginning with the Law Commission, which proposed that the age of marriage should be set at 18 for both boys and girls in 2008, followed by the National Human Rights Commission proposing the same in 2018 and the WCD ministry which in 2019 again looking to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006 to set a uniform age of marriage. This was all done to establish equality in gender by setting the same minimum age of marriage for both sexes. This change is seen as a measure to empower women. Self-empowerment and independence are critical requirements today and obtaining sufficient education and entering the working sphere guarantee those attributes. Women married earlier show a sense of dependence on their spouses and are often rendered incapable of defending themselves if a case of domestic violence arises. Hundreds of girls from the State of Haryana wrote a letter to the PM asking him to raise the minimum age for marriage of girls to 21, they want to raise the legal age for marriage as they view this as a step towards progress in the country, and believe that it will encourage more women to pursue higher studies and become independent. Most of the young adults, the educated population, agreed that the age for marriage should be above 21.
Other issues like mental and physical health were also mentioned in correlation to an appropriate age for marriage and motherhood. It was also found that children born of mothers younger than 21 often were stumped. Teenage pregnancies are dangerous to the mother and responsibilities are well realized at an older age. Most women married at the age of 18 are kids in themselves and not yet ready for a child.
The most concerning aspect that the introduction of this bill has unveiled is that, despite the existing laws, child marriages do take place in the country. The implementation of the PCMA is incomplete and has not reached all parts of India. The most common victims of these marriages are the Dalit and OBC. Most women with educated backgrounds already marry past the age of 24, the victims of child marriages and teenage pregnancies are usually the women that are often on the dark side of the law. The idea to seek equality of gender through uniform minimum marriage ages is ideal except for the fact that inequality doesn’t only exist in gender but also in income, class and societal evaluation. The uneducated and poor will still seek early marriages in seek of less dowry and mouths to feed, the backward classes will continue to marry early in secret and the number of girls eloping may drastically increase, all owing to inequities in our society. This bill, if passed needs to be implemented in such a way that it is inclusive of all those parts of the country, that are often unreached and also mostly in need of this legislation. This bill might address equality but it does not do so in all aspects.
Author’s Name: Prachi Agarwal (Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Hyderabad)
- The Prohibition Of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 | Bill No. 163 of 2021
- Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006