On 17 Dec, 2021, Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, Smriti Irani introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 in Lok Sabha.
Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 seeks to increase the legal minimum age for women to marry to 21 years, bringing it at par with that of men.
While introducing the bill, she said: “In a democracy, we are 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony. Through this amendment, for the first time men and women will be able to make a decision on marriage at the age of 21, keeping in mind the right to equality.”
This bill precedes all earlier laws, such as the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, Special Marriage Act, and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
Survey conducted before passing the bill had over 70% of students (whose are the primary stakeholders and whose decision matters the most) favoured raising the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years and about 67% thought the ideal age to get married was between 26 and 30 years. The survey had students from across socio-economic classes, with 37% belonging to the lower middle-class (income ₹70,000 to ₹2,70,000 per annum), 35% to upper middle-class (₹2,70,001 to ₹8,45,000 per annum) and remaining above the income limit.
The expert panel believe this bill will bring about women welfare and empowerment. Besides, it’s a religion neutral issue and looked at from the prism of welfare of girls, as individuals of the society.
Previous Acts & Amendments on child marriage
1929 – The first Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed on September 28, 1929, in the Imperial Legislative Council of India, that fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years.
1949 – First amendment after India’s independence. The 1929 Act was amended to 15 years as the age of marriage for girls.
1978 – Second amendment was made to increase the marriageable age to 18 for girls and 21 for boys.
However, this differentiation in the marriageable age of girls and boys, and keeping the legal age for marriage of girls at 18 years have never helped solve many of the problems faced by the present generation of young girls. Most interventions made till date had smaller scopes and bringing in amendments by the government are a must now.
In this 21st century, girls have become aware of their rights and freedom, however, many times the law enables parents and guardians of girls to marry them off at the age of 18 to 20 while the girl is still undergoing her education. Nearly 15-16% of girls in the age group of 18-20 are currently married. Estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total.
According to a UNICEF study, due to the present legal marriageable age being 18 years, the prevalence of girls getting married before age 18 has declined to 27 per cent from 47 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 which is a good indication that legalising the marriageable age to 21 will further bring it down.
On the girl child education front, before the pandemic, there was a welcome trend in the gradual increase in the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for women in higher education — from 19.8 per cent in 2012-13 to 27.3 per cent in 2019-20. However, it is seen that as girls progress from primary to secondary to tertiary school levels, their numbers decrease by the year. There is a gradual descent and resultant paucity of women, who are even eligible to go to college.
One law- Multiple solutions
Making the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 a law will solve multiple exiting challenges, such as gender inequality, underage marriage, incomplete education of girl child, high drop –out of girl child from high school education, early pregnancies, malnutrition and malnourished babies, birth of premature unhealthy babies to young mothers, multiple pregnancies at young age and health issues of young girls, child widows and their related social and economic issues, negative social norms, economic poverty, financial deprivation, etc.
There will be a direct correlation between increasing the marriageable age of girls to 21 and related benefits, such as: Increased rates of girls’ education; Increased literacy of mothers; Better employment and engaging opportunity; Equal contributor to the family; and Socially, economically and financially empowered women.
The bill once it becomes a law will help to bring education equality amongst both girls and boys, equalise the age of marriage for both sexes (as per existing law, the marriageable age is 21 for males and 18 for females.), will increase the number of women completing their education up to graduation.
It is universally accepted that a child is someone who’s under the age of 18, meaning that till the age of 18 a female is not matured and considered a girl child, so raising the marriage age to 21 helps a girl to have enough time, of a 3 years period, to be mentally strong and wise to constitute a frame of mind to decide on her future course of life.
It will also help a 21 year old girl to independently take decisions on their future education, career, financial independence/dependence, marriage and also on choice of partner. Besides, will directly help to bring down the cases of forceful marriage, child marriage, reduce the count of uneducated women in India.
Child Marriage & Poverty
Child marriage negatively affects the Indian economy and can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty.
As a result of norms assigning lower value to girls, as compared to boys, girls are perceived to have no alternative role other than to get married. And are expected to help with domestic chores and undertake household responsibilities in preparation for their marriage. But girls and boys married as children most often lack the skills, knowledge and job prospects needed to lift their families out of poverty and contribute to their country’s social and economic growth. Early marriage leads girls to have children earlier and more children over their lifetime, increasing economic burden on the household.
Evidence shows that critical game changers for adolescent girls’ empowerment include postponing marriage beyond the legal age, improving their health and nutritional status, supporting girls to transition to secondary school, and helping them develop marketable skills so that they can realise their economic potential and transition into healthy, productive and empowered adults.
Social Transformation & Private Rate of Return
As a society, women can be the pivot to bring about critical and lasting social transformation.
According to NITI Aayog’s study ‘the global average for the private rate of return (the increase in an individual’s earnings) with just one extra year of schooling is about 9 per cent, while the social returns of an extra year of school are even higher – above 10 per cent at the secondary and higher education levels as per a decennial World Bank review. Interestingly, the private returns for women in higher education are much higher than for men – 11 to 17 per cent as per different estimates. For their own empowerment, as well as for society at large, we must bring more and more women within the ambit of higher education.’
In conclusion, what needs an empathetic viewpoint is to see marriageable age of girls from a wider perspective, through the eyes of young girls themselves and their choices, of their entire lifecycle, she as an independent individual, her role post marriage as a matured companion/partner, socially confident wife, an emotionally strong mother to her children, as a change maker to her family.
(Mita Bora is a Researcher and Writer. She is a Sr Research Analyst with RMP, Maharashtra and Convener, Nation First Writers Forum)
[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]