The Indian government has tabled the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in the Lok Sabha, a bill aimed at increasing the minimum legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. This bill will amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which prohibits child marriages in India. The 2006 act provides a different minimum legal age for boys and girls, for the purpose of child marriage. The act in clause (a) of section 2 defines a male child as an individual below 21 years, and a female child as someone who is below the age of 18 years. One of the various reasons mentioned by the government in the ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ of the bill is to bring women at par with men in terms of marriageable age.
Why is the Centre Pushing for This Reform?
In June 2020, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development had set up a committee of 10 members headed by Jaya Jaitly, primarily to examine matters pertaining to age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR, improvement of nutritional levels, and other related issues. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 2020 Independence Day speech, spoke about his government’s plan to raise the minimum legal age of marriage for girls. In December 2020, the Jaitly Committee submitted its recommendation, wherein it suggested increasing the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. In the year 1978, the government had last increased the permissible marriage age for girls from 15 to 18 years. This was achieved by amending the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, also known as the ‘Sharda Act’. Pursuant to the recommendations of the Jaitly Committee, the Union Government has presently decided to further increase the age of marriage for women.
The purpose of this bill is to deter child marriages, which usually put women at a disadvantage. Girls are unable to complete their education and are consequently unable to take up any vocation. In the statement of objects and reasons of the bill, the government has also stated that this amendment would help women achieve psychological maturity before marriage. It is also reasoned by the government that this reform is introduced to deter and reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancy, which causes diseases such as anaemia, among others. The government also claimed that the bill would address the issue of maternal mortality and malnutrition among girls. Furthermore, the government has indicated that there would be subsequent changes in the marriage laws of India.
What Is the Stand of Various Marriage Laws of India?
There are various personal laws in India that specifically govern different religions. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 specifies the minimum legal age of marriage as 21 years for the groom and 18 years for the bride. Similarly, the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 stipulates the age of 18 years for the bride and 21 years for the groom. The Foreign Marriage Act of 1969 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954 also have a similar minimum legal age of marriage. The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, on the other hand, provides that a boy and a girl who have attained puberty can marry each other.
Will This Reform Fulfill Its Objective?
The main objectives, as highlighted above, are to better the social, financial and health conditions of women. The motivation and intelligence behind introducing this bill are being questioned by critics, given the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5 Survey, which found that around 23 percent of marriages in India are child marriages, despite having a law prohibiting child marriages for decades. Although there is a decline in the number of child marriages in India as compared to the data from 2005-06, the disturbingly high percentage of child marriages is still a problem. Thus, it is argued that the government has failed to address the elephant in the room: the implementational aspects of this law and the issues surrounding the education of women, health infrastructure and regressive societal norms. It is also argued that the decrease in the number of child marriages is not due to the law prohibiting the same, but due to better education and healthcare facilities.
This is also evident from the NFHS 5 report which mentioned that 14.7 percent of the total marriages in urban areas are child marriages, much better than that of rural areas at 27 percent. Also, the same report mentions that the the percentage of women falling in the category of early pregnancy in urban areas was much lower at 3.8 percent, as opposed to 7.9 percent in rural areas. This displays a clear chasm between urban and rural settings, one that can be attributed to the better education and healthcare conditions in urban areas.
The task force led by Jaya Jaitly also recommended that the government enhance access to schools and universities for women, including transportation from remote locations, skill and vocational training, and sex education in schools. The law will be ineffective unless these recommendations are also executed, which according to the task force’s report should be prerequisites to raising the age of marriage for girls. The Law Commission of India in 2018 suggested that the marriage age must be made uniform to 18 years. It stated that there should be no distinction between spouses in terms of age of marriage, as they are equals.
Does Achieving Parity in Legal Age of Marriage Help in Fulfilling the Aspirations of Women and Society?
An article published in the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, which dealt with the legislations related to marriage around the globe, showed that in Mozambique the age at which bride and groom can marry is same at 18 years. Ironically, Mozambique has around 56% child marriages (below 18 years), which is much higher than India. This suggests that merely imposing a law that brings parity in minimum legal age to marry does not necessarily show an increase in the betterment of women and the fulfilment of the objectives enumerated by the government while bringing this bill. It is imperative that the government supplement this law with various other frameworks and schemes. This, however, is not to suggest that bringing parity in the minimum age to marry is futile and will yield no results. It is crucial to not implement this law in isolation, but with other policies to realize the goals mentioned by the government.
The bill has been sent to the Parliamentary Committee for further deliberation and discussion. Merely implementing a law that brings parity in legal age to marry would not curb the menace of child marriage and will not sufficiently address the issues that are sought to be remedied. It is suggested that the government should simultaneously educate the public about the benefits of marrying their child only after they have achieved the legally permissible age. Also, it is important that the Government implement a policy which will help girl children study till higher classes. Educating women would consequently equip them with relevant knowledge and skills to take up any vocation. This would deter the practice of marrying off girls early to sustain the family during financial distress. The government must accommodate the suggestions given by various critics and members of opposition, and implement them in its policy making.
Aarya Parihar is a student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow
Suggested citation: Aarya Parihar, Achieving Parity in Legal Age of Marriage Without Addressing the Elephant in the Room , JURIST – Student Commentary, January 14, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/01/Aarya-Parihar-Marriage-Legal-Age-India/.
This article was prepared for publication by Sukrut Khandekar, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com