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Reports make inaccurate claims of the benefits of raising the legal age for women’s marriage

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The purpose of this article is to assess the arguments made in favour of raising the legal age of marriage as presented by the report of SBI Ecowrap that has also been used in several news reports [1][2]. This is following the announcement made by the Prime Minister that the central government would consider making the aforementioned changes. The government had previously constituted a committee to reconsider the minimum age for marriage and would make a decision once the committee submits its report.

In its essence, the above-mentioned SBI’s Ecowrap report places several arguments before the reader on the potential benefits of raising the legal age of marriage to 21. The aim of bringing about this change, as per the report, is to increase the mean age of marriage in order to realize these benefits.

The claim of social benefits

The report claims that “Early marriage has an adverse effect on health of mother as well as child” and points out that the lower age bracket has the highest proportion of maternal deaths. Along with this it also displayed the below table and highlights the age group 20-24, possibly to indicate that the highest proportion of deaths occur within this age bracket. This in effect implies that the proportion of maternal deaths is highest among young mothers and that occurs within the age group of 20-24.

Table displaying proportion of estimated maternal deaths as shown in the SBI Ecowrap report

The age of 20-24 is definitely a healthy age to bear a child. The mere occurrence of the largest proportion of maternal deaths within this age bracket is in no way a reflection on the negative impacts of bearing a child at this age. This could merely be a result of the mean age of marriage, which the report correctly says, is 22.3 years. This means that this particular information offers no information of value as it is merely a representation of the state of affairs.

Followed by this piece of information the report paints a picture of the dismal state of nutrition for mothers and their children in India. Among the tactics mentioned to tackle this problem is education. While the report, on the whole, does make a claim that increasing the legal age of marriage will increase the number of graduates, it is well known that a graduate level of education is not necessary to ensure good maternal health.

Then a claim was made that India could significantly reduce it’s MMR (Maternal Mortality Ratio) by simply increasing the legal age of marriage to 21. To substantiate their argument, the average MMR of countries with a legal age of marriage of both 18 (129 deaths per 100000 live births) and 21 (124 deaths per 100000 live births) were compared. The argument made was that since the mean MMR of countries with a legal age of marriage of 21 is lower, India would benefit from have the same legal age. This is an inaccurate comparison as the MMR of these countries would depend on a multitude of factors beyond just the legal age of marriage. As a result, this comparison again offers no valuable information for India.

This means that report fails to prove any social benefit that could occur from merely raising the legal age. The argument for social benefit is based on only the hope that it could improve the MMR. But that itself is based on a trend that does not giving any meaningful information.

The claim of economic benefits

The report claims that increasing the mean age of marriage in India (mentioned to be currently at 22.3 years) would lead to positive economic outcomes as a result of the increased number of graduates. For this, a comparison was made between the graduation percentage of women of the various states. It was found that states with a mean marriage age higher than the national average, had a higher percentage of women undergoing graduation.

The inference made was that increasing the mean age of marriage led to an increased percentage of graduation among women. However, this is not how society works. It is only in families where there is a culture of ensuring the women do graduate where they tend to marry at a later age. Hence the higher mean age of marriage in some states is merely a representation of their socio-economic status that enables them to graduate rather than an independent decision to marry late.

This means that there is absolutely no proof that by merely increasing the mean marriage the percentage of graduation would increase. On the contrary, it is common knowledge that the reverse relation is definitely true and that’s why we see the trend in the table displayed above. The report gives the impression that the graduation percentage is the effect when in fact it is the cause for later marriage. Hence here as well the report fails to show any financial benefit.

Incentivizing a higher marriage age for women

The report argues “We believe Government has also a role in incentivizing people to get married above legal age enhancing social and economic benefits to the country”. While I do not disagree with their claim on the need for the government to do this, as it seemingly does have better economics outcomes for the women, I believe that changing the legal age of marriage is not an incentivizing move rather it is coercive in nature. A coercive action is to be taken only when there is an absolute dire need to make a change. Does the report argue the need for this change in such a manner? It doesn’t. In fact, both their claims of social and economic benefits are inaccurately represented as I had argued above.

Is there a need to make equal laws for men and women?

The legal age of marriage for women is 18 and that of men is 21. The laws were made as per the social conventions that were being and is still largely followed in this country. The report cites a consultation paper where the Law Commission argued that this unequal law promoted a “stereotype that wives must be younger than their husbands”. The problem here is that the Law Commission makes a moral judgement on the Indian society and its customs. While it is ok to argue that there is nothing wrong in having an equal law here it is a matter of concern when the paper merely wants an equal law as a result of the societal practice prevailing in the country. The law should be kept as it is as there is no need to correct the societal mindset as such a move fundamentally reeks of a colonial mindset the State still dearly holds on to. Or the State could make the legal age of marriage of both genders to be 18 and let the society decide what’s best for them.

Conclusion

Ever since the Prime Minister’s announcement regarding the change of legal age of marriage of women, several voices have argued in favour of the move using poorly argued benefits of both social and economical in nature. Besides this, there are people who make a moral argument as well. It is true that for the average reader of this article, a good age of marriage would be at a point when a woman has completed their graduation. However, it is unfair to use coercive measures to make others, especially of lower-income levels, to adhere to our standards of morality. They should be allowed to continue their practice if no one is harmed as a result of their practice.

Another reason why people would want to raise the age of marriage is to prevent cases where women run away from their homes and get married due to their poor choice of judgement. In such cases, it is smarter to demand a change in the law wherein the women must have the consent of their parents if they were to marry between the age of 18 and 21. This prevents young women from making poor decisions as well as freedom for the family to practice their customs.

The SBI Ecowrap report in my opinion makes several inaccurate claims as I have demonstrated above. The most important thing required for a coercive measure, such as raising the legal age of marriage, is a good reason as to why it is absolutely necessary. If the State is unable to solve issues using other means, only then could one justify a coercive measure. If it is necessary based on what evidence or logic can one claim that by merely raising the legal age of marriage, the required objectives would be met? Unfortunately, the report did not meet such standards and also didn’t consider the potential infringement on the society’s right to make decisions for itself.

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