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Committee Set Up To Rethink Minimum Age Of Marriage For Women

. 4 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Committee Set Up To Rethink Minimum Age Of Marriage For Women

The country’s PM, during a speech addressing the nation on the 74th Independence Day, said that a committee has been set up to rethink the minimum age of marriage for women.

“We have set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for girls. The Centre will take a decision after the committee submits its report,” he said.

The issue surrounding minimum age of marriage, especially for women, has been a historically contentious one. In 1860 the Indian Penal Code criminalised sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 10. This age of consent was hiked up to 12 years in 1891, and was met with large-scale demonstrations and protests by the Indians who viewed the British intervention as an undermining of Indian customs.

Evolving despite social and religious push back, the law currently prescribes a minimum age of marriage of 21 years for men and 18 years for women.

Committee Was Set Up To Examine The Implications Of Age Of Marriage On Women

Back in 2018 as well, the National Human Rights Commission had said that the marriageable age for both men and women should be uniform in the country.

In June, 2020, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development set up a high-level committee to review the legal age of marriage for women. The task force was set up to examine the correlation of age of marriage with motherhood, and impact on health of mothers and infants. It would also look at the impact of the age of marriage on key parameters like maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, total fertility rate, sex ratio at birth and child sex ratio. Based on its findings, it will consider the possibility of increasing the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years.

Why Is The Law Being Re-Examined?

In addition to addressing medical and nutritional concerns of others and infants, the amendment is also to address greater gender parity in the age of marriage.

A Law Commission consultation paper has stated that having differing legal standards of age of marriage for men and women “contributes to the stereotype that wives must be younger than their husbands”. The law is also seen by activists as perpetuating the stereotype that women mature faster than men, and therefore can marry sooner.

The international treaty Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also calls for the amendment of laws that imply that women and men have a different physical or intellectual rate of growth. “The difference in age for husband and wife has no basis in law as spouses entering into a marriage are by all means equals and their partnership must also be of that between equals,” it stated.

Will Increasing Minimum Age Of Marriage Really Empower Women?

The arguments in favour of increasing the minimum age of marriage include gender neutrality and prevention of early pregnancy among women. Early pregnancy is increased with increased maternal and child mortality rates.

Child marriages continue to be present and prevalent in India’s rural areas and some cities. Advances in law have helped decline the rate of child marriages in India, but not eradicate it.

According to the UN Population Fund, as of June 2nd, 2020, an estimate of 650 million girls and women alive at present, were married during childhood. They predict that by 2030, another 150 million girls below 18 years of age will be married.

The solution then, cannot be to only increase the minimum age of marriage to resolve the social pressures and gendered issues that surround marriage.

Lalitha Kumaramangalam, former NCW Chairperson and BJP member, says, “Increase in age, if that is what [the committee] will recommend, is not the only thing. What is needed is information, education and communication. We have to ensure that girls are sent to school. Due to lack of money, and the amount of unpaid work women do, the girls are the first to be pulled out of school. The committee has to look at facilitating the whole process, to ensure that girls are not forced into marriage..” she said, adding that, “What we need to do is make sure the laws are not flouted and customs change.”

Child marriage is both a cause and consequence of girls dropping out of school.

Activists and NGOs have argued that increasing the minimum age of marriage beyond 18 years will do far lesser for women’s health, safety, and equality than better access to education and economic independence will.

“Change in age of marriage is merely changing the goalposts,” says Madhu Mehra of Partners for Law in Development.

Child marriage and the issues of lack of consent, safety, and health implication it brings with it need to be eradicated. What women need is a more forceful implementation of the laws that protect them from these evils. Increasing the minimum age of marriage might surely do more good than harm for women, but might also do very little for their actual empowerment, legal and social protection.

Do you think increasing the minimum age of marriage for women is a beneficial or necessary step?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments below! 

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