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The age of Graduation and the age of marriage: 21 years is the new face

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An IIT alumnus. An atheist Hindu. A concerned citizen.

Twenty-one. The first two-digit non-prime ending in 1. That’s what Sanhita thought. The young girl who was constantly reminded of the grim marriage prospects awaiting her, given her appearance and the state her father’s finances. She tried to escape the abrasive words by playing with numbers in her head. Those lovely numbers which, in the end, helped her to define life on her own terms escaping an early and, in all probability, an unsuitable marriage.

Twenty-one. Years later she realised that it’s also the magic age when one (usually) graduates with a bachelor’s degree (BA/BCom/BSc). And now, as the new millennium itself races to complete its twenty-first year, twenty-one is about to become the legal marriageable age for women in India. There is no way not to see the connection and the implications.

Enforcing a minimum age of marriage has been humankind’s effort, since antiquity, to prevent exploitation and abuse of minors. In ancient Rome, the age of marriage was 12 years for girls and 14 years for boys. This was adopted, in toto, by the Roman Catholic Church making it a Canon law and later even by the English Civil law. With time the minimum marriageable age has steadily risen all around the globe, 18 years now being the bar for most countries.

[The first ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act’ (better known as Sarda Act) was enacted in India in 1930, defining marriageable ages for women and men to be 14 and 18 years respectively. For women it was raised to 15 years in 1949 and only in 1978 the current system of 18 and 21 years as legal marriageable ages came into effect. The ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006’ is simply an improvement upon the Sarda act, making it more effective in preventing and prohibiting of child marriages.

But the legality of marriages is far from a simple definition of marriageable age. Each and every community have their own personal laws, adding confusion to complexity. The Hindu Marriage Act (1955), the Indian Christian Marriage Act (1872) and the Special Marriage Act (1954) – all have 18 and 21 years as the minimum marriageable age for women and men. In Islam, however, the marriage of a minor who has attained puberty is considered valid.

For the proposed law to be effective, it must have the power to supersede these existing Acts. There already exist instances of High courts upholding personal laws over and above the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

It is common knowledge that early marriages, and consequent early pregnancies, have serious negative implications for the overall physical and mental well-being of the mother and the child. Not surprisingly, these have been conclusively established many times by surveys conducted by various national and international organisations over the years.

But there is more. With great significance to our times. Jaya Jaitley, chairperson of the task force, set up by the Ministry for Women and Child Development (GoI) in 2020, observed that – “If we talk about gender equity and gender empowerment in every field, we cannot leave marriage out because this is a very odd message that a girl can be fit to be married at 18, that cuts away her opportunity to go to college, and the man has the opportunity to prepare himself for life and earning up to 21 years.” (Hindustan Times).

Indeed. Education and employability. That’s what matters.

Sanhita remembers the final days of her primary school. Her dear friend Ranu (in the same class, but a little older) was totally caught up in the whirlwind activities of her upcoming wedding! Ranu was excited, Sanhita was scared. As Ranu left for her ससुराल, Sanhita left for boarding school. After that, they met only once. Sanhita had come down to meet her grandmother before leaving for University. Ranu was visiting her parents – looking tired, world-weary and middle-aged with two almost-teenage children in tow. Ranu was only in her mid-twenties. They had nothing to say to each other.

Sanhita also remembers Ranajita-didi from her school. The quiet bespectacled girl who excelled in her studies and was always ready to help younger girls. The teachers of her school pleaded with Ranajita-didi’s family. It was her final year in school. But to no avail. Ranajita-didi was married off before she could call herself a matriculate!

She remembers someone else too. Someone belonging to an earlier generation. The woman who, through sheer grit, managed to get herself admitted to Medical school. But she was pulled out and was hastily married off because her cousin brothers found the idea preposterous! She would have been closer to finishing her degree and perhaps would have managed it somehow if she were allowed to study till the age of 21!

And what about Sanhita herself? Even though her marriage prospects were nothing to write home about, बढिया रिश्ता started pouring in the day she cleared the admission test for the most prestigious college in the state. She lived under the constant threat of being married off at a moment’s notice, her nights haunted by nightmares, till the day she secured admission in a far-away University and escaped from the clutches of assorted ‘well-meaning’ relatives!

No, these are not stories of girls from economically backward, marginalised communities. Their families sat bang in the middle of ‘middle class’. These girls would have been able to finish college secure in the knowledge that their sensible, law-abiding families would leave them alone till the legal marriageable age.

Because, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) the median age at first marriage for urban women is 19.8 years, and 18.1 years for their rural counterparts. This simply means that a large fraction of women are never attending or finishing college. Of course, all of them would not have the opportunity to go to college even if the law is passed. But some would now have a fair chance to. They and their daughters would help break the chain.

This then makes the real difference, particularly for the middle class women. Those who do not want to be ‘married off’ by their elders, graduation is the leverage they must have on their side. Because graduation opens the door to employment options that allows a woman to stay within her own middle-class economic strata even without family support. It is very difficult to be self-reliant on the strength of a high school certificate and continue to be middle-class. The scary prospect of moving out of the security of her familiar social strata make most middle class women acquiesce to ‘unwanted’ marriages and give up on a chance to have a say on their destiny.

In the end, these women also tend to be the most vulnerable in case of an unexpected change in the family circumstances (death of, divorce from or abandonment by the spouse). Tied down by dependent children, on the wrong side of employable age – they find it the most difficult to find a livelihood without adequate educational qualification. Even when families do not go through such serious life-changing events, middle/lower-middle class women often need to look for employment opportunities to supplement the family income. Given their background they preferentially opt for jobs as housekeepers, cooks, nannies – menial in essence but come with some semblance of social security and respectability.

These also happen to be the exact tasks that elite women want performed by women from poor but respectable families – those living in genteel poverty that is. There is nothing genteel about poverty, it has always been about exploitation. When women of middle/lower-middle class become unavailable for these tasks, when they either join the workforce outside or have enough understanding to keep the number of children low, have education enough to push their children out and above their own socio-economic strata – it indeed is a problem for the elites.

And this is exactly the reason the fancy feminists and the upper economic strata elites are out shrilly opposing the raising of women’s marriageable age. Why can I not unsee their ulterior motive behind this opposition? Because I know quite a few who are card-carrying members of this brigade. None of the women in their family get married a day before they acquire a full complement of professional degrees and a secure job at a highly paying profession. And how do these highly accomplished women step out in the world to have a fulfilling career or a high-profile social life? They do it by employing a bevy of half literate women – weighed down by a string of malnourished children, a tight family budget, and a small window of employability – who take care of the ladies’ mundane household chores. Where would such women come from if now a large fraction manage to finish college, become graduates and begin to shape life on their own terms? God forbid if they then aspire for higher studies putting up tough competitions to their own लाडली बिटिया? They see it as a threat to their ‘liberal privilege’ (as well-known blogger Abhishek Banerjee would say).

True, initially many families would continue to have their usual way and break the law. But a significant number would also be apprehensive about any brush with the law and would defer the marriage of a ‘legally’ underage daughter. And these women would be saved. We really can’t afford the luxury of educating the society first and legislate later. We must save as many young women from early marriage as we can. The process should begin as soon as possible. It should have happened yesterday. It should have happened the day before. We should be thankful that it is perhaps about to begin.

And we should ponder as to why our nation had to wait for a right-wing (which some read as ‘regressive’) government headed by an almost-monk elderly man to think about the plight of women? To ensure that women had the security and privacy to take care of their personal hygiene. To ensure that they didn’t spend their entire youth blowing into the चुल्हा and inhaling wood-smoke. And finally to ensure that they could at least have a chance to graduate before they could be ‘married off’.

Because we had given up on our tradition. The tradition which made a young monk say that human society flies on one wing if it does not work for the upliftment of women. The tradition which made an elderly scholar take upon the wrath and ridicule of the society to find corroboration of widow-remarriage in our ancient texts. We must be thankful that the nation is being led by a man who carries that tradition forward. We must count ourselves privileged to be alive in his time, to witness the social changes his work is bringing about.

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An IIT alumnus. An atheist Hindu. A concerned citizen.
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