The prohibition of child marriage (amendment) bill, 2021, was proposed in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2021. The objective of this bill is to increase the legal age of marriage from 18 to 21 as it argues that the detrimental practice of child marriage is still continuing to take place even after the implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) in 2006. The primary arguments made by the government while presenting this bill were “protection to women against early and child marriages, bringing in gender parity as the legal age for marriage for women is 18 currently and for men it is 21 and the bill also seeks to facilitate women empowerment in the country.’’
WHY DID WE NEED THIS BILL?
The National Family Health Survey found that 23.3% of women in the age group of 20 to 24 years, were married before they turned 18, about 6.8% of women in the age group of 15 to 19 years, were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey; just 41 % of them have had more than 10 years of schooling as against 51% of men. Even in terms of economic empowerment such as owning a mobile phone- just 54% of women own a mobile phone, the lower participation of women in the work force is also partly attributable to lack of education, marriage and domestic responsibilities. The bill says it is imperative to tackle gender inequality and gender discrimination in order to ensure status and opportunity for women, at power with men.
Talking about gender parity, it is essential to note that the present difference in the legal age of marriage between men and women is doing more harm than good. By allowing such a difference in legal age of marriage between the two genders, the stereotype, deep rooted in patriarchy – that wives must be younger than their husbands, is in fact being supported. In the present legislation, on one side, by keeping the legal age for women as 18, we are making it more difficult for the girls who want to study further to fulfil their aspirations, as their families are allowed by law to get them married once they hit the age of 18, while on the other side, by keeping the legal age for men to be 21, we as a society, are in a way supporting the notion that it is essential for men to become capable enough to be financially independent as they are the ones who are responsible for the maintaining their families and looking after them.
HOW DISPARITY IN AGE IS A GREATER EVIL?
The disparity in age between the girl and boy in a marriage, causes the girl to be in a more vulnerable position as compared to the boy, her ability to understand her rights and to distinguish between right and wrong is not completely developed, in such a situation, the risk of girls being subject to domestic abuse, marital rape, and violence, is increasing day by day.
WHICH IS A BETTER COMMON GROUND?
Now that we have established that whatever the legal age of marriage maybe, it should definitely be consistent for both men and women in any case, let us discuss whether 18 or 21, which one will be the better common ground. When it comes to empowerment of women or resolving issues like gender inequality or discrimination, there are a lot of social and cultural barriers involved and a mere legislation which aims to increase the legal age of marriage, would not suffice our cause. The social and educational reforms need to be put into place for any of this to happen, but that does not mean that we should wait for these reforms to be activated in order to provide a level playing ground for women, in a marriage. India is a signatory in the convention on ‘the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women’; this convention refers to the elimination of child marriages and also talks about the uniformity in marriageable age for men and women alike.
The effort to increase the legal age of women from 18 and bringing it on par with men at 21 is a step on the lines of this convention and will help in improving issues with underage marriages such as maternal mortality rate (MMR), infant mortality rate (IMR) and malnutrition in young mothers as well as their infants, to a greater extent. However, the true potential of this change in law will only be gauged once we get enough data-centric evidence after the implementation of this law, until that time, we can just remain optimistic and trust the system.
Author’s Name- Harshita Tiwary (Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Hyderabad)