The debate for the right age.
Recently when the Government announced a bill to change the legal age of females for marriage from 18 to 21, we are seeing two different sides; one applauding the move and the other questioning it. When PM Narendra Modi announced in his Red Fort speech to increase the legal marriage age of females, the debate started already. But with the introduction of the bill in the parliamentary house, the debate intensified. Many people are supporting this move and calling it in the favour of ‘Women Empowerment’, while the others are calling it irrational, unnecessary and some religious people are taking this a bit further by saying it against their religion. So why is there a debate on changing the marriage age of a girl to 21 when the marriage age of a boy is already 21?
As of now the legal age of a girl for marriage in India is 18 while that of a boy is 21 according to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. Though the act was brought in 2006, the current legal age of boys and girls for marriage was fixed in 1978. The PCMA in 2006 replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 which was the first legal action that provided the minimum age of marriage for males and females in the British Raj. The Child Marriage Restraint act which was also called as Sarda Act as it was Rai Sahib Harbilas Sarda who pushed for the bill in the Central legislative assembly. The marriageable age was 14 for girls and 18 for boys according to that law. The act was amended two times; one after independence when the age of a girl was raised to 15 and second in 1978 when the ages were fixed as 18 and 21 for girls and boys respectively.
But why does the state need to legalise the age? Why not it’s up to the people? Well, the answer to these questions lies in biology, psychology, and history. Child marriages were prevalent in India along with other wrong traditions. Educating girls was never an option. So now imagine a scenario of a 5-7 age boy-girl getting married with no knowledge, no education, no understanding. Now imagine another case where the girl is still a child or in her early teens getting married to a person much older than her. She will get pregnant at a much early age which will increase complexity in her body as her age is not appropriate for the pregnancy. These were some normal parts of Indian history. Many socio-cultural reformers fought against it. Even science bats against those marriages. Child marriages have the worst consequences on females and this includes; Early Maternal Deaths, Domestic violence.
A study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women in India states that girls married before 18 are twice likely to be beaten, slapped and threatened by their husbands and three times more likely to suffer sexual abuse and violence. These teen brides suffer from pregnancy-related issues too as they are less likely to be informed on reproductive issues. And due to this, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death among married girls of 15-19 age. The infants born to mothers who are under 18 are 60% more likely to die in their first year. And if they survive, they suffer from malnutrition, low birth weight, late physical and cognitive development. The body of these girls suffers a lot. They suffer from post-traumatic stress, their physical and mental health deteriorates. Even if they want to come out of it, they cannot as they are not educated, they cannot earn as they are dependent. And this is the reason they suffer in silence. How can society progress if half of the population suffers from inequality of some kind?
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution gives every citizen of this country the‘ Right to Life’. This is where the government steps in to protect that fundamental right. The age of females was raised from 14 to 18 to give effect equality, equal opportunity to the female citizens of our country. However, we soon realised that even in this provision, there exists some kind of inequality. The legal marriage age of a boy is 21; the average age of graduation in India. This means a state gives an opportunity to a male to first complete his graduation and then marry someone. It’s different whether they want to complete their graduation or not, but the state gives them ‘an opportunity’, right? But that’s not in the case of females as their legal marriage age is 18 which means there is no equal opportunity of completing their graduation. The state is providing an opportunity to males but not providing the same to females. We cannot create an equal society by providing a certain opportunity to some citizens and the same is not provided to others.
Raising the legal marriage age to 21 provides girls with an opportunity to first complete their studies. This will help them to better understand themselves, the world and also provide them with an opportunity to work, become independent and live a dignified life. This will also help females to make better decisions for their health as they will have a better understanding of health-related issues. Increasing the age of marriage for girls will boost their confidence, help them grow. And healthy, growing, confident females are not just good for society, they can be of great help in nation-building. An increase in women participation in the nation’s workforce can have a positive impact on the nation’s GDP.
Many religions are trying to haul down this new move of the government. However, we are seeing people from different areas of the country coming out in support of the govt’s decision. Some of the people have warned those parties who are against the bill. They have clearly said that anyone opposing the move will suffer backlash in the coming elections. Though the government sent the bill to the standing committee, the bill has raised hopes for girls. To make our country better, we must not see decisions from a religion’s point of view or from a political angle. As a citizen, we must fight for equality, equal opportunities and progress forward to provide the ‘right to life’ to everyone living in this country.
Authored by Ajay Swadesh Sharma (L4Light)